Civil Service Pay: Three things the union must do to make this our third time lucky

After a lengthy and at times heated debate, PCS Conference passed motion A292 in support of the National Executive Committee’s strategy of a third national, aggregated strike ballot.

It was fair to say that opinion was split on whether this is the right way forward. On a card vote, the motion passed by a narrow margin of 62,676 to 60,991, and many branches argued for an alternative strategy with two rival motions suggesting different approaches. PCS Independent Left were amongst those who felt something different might be needed, and that committing so rigidly to a third aggregate ballot would be unnecessarily limiting.

Nonetheless, now that the debate is done this is the agreed strategy of the union. It is important that we discuss our strategy openly and robustly, but it is equally important that we win. Theresa May is going, but unless there’s a General Election around the corner she isn’t about to take pay restraint in the civil service (or any of the other horrendous policies the government is implement) with her.

To beat the pay cap, we need to beat the Trade Union Act ballot turnout threshold. If we’re going to do that, then there are a number of things that need to happen.

The campaign must begin now

One thing PCS desperately needs to improve on is its ability to build and maintain momentum. The NEC agreed a second ballot almost straight away after the first failed to pass the 50% threshold, and yet in the intervening months the delay before the campaign began was interminable.

Some might say this was due to what became a protracted and entrenched debate over whether we should have an aggregate ballot or coordinated but disaggregated ballots, the latter option allowing individual groups who got over the line to take action whilst those who didn’t regrouped to try again. We would disagree; regardless of which form the ballot took, there was plenty of organising, agitating and campaigning activity which could have begun in earnest following the decision being initially taken in July. Instead, the campaign proper began in the new year with just a few weeks before the launch of the new ballot.

That cannot happen again. With the debate on aggregation or disaggregation settled by conference, there’s now no excuse to delay. We need to be in campaign mode from this very second, laying the ground for what must be a decisive win if we are to stave off the very real threat of demoralisation.

Deep, systematic organising

Knowing that there will be another ballot coming, there’s a lot that branches with experienced organisers and organising teams can do. Many branches will be able to build upon their hard work from the last two ballots; mapping out their workplaces, identifying the areas and individuals who need to be engaged with to bring them on board with the campaign, increasing the number of activists involved in the work, and so on.

The ERS turnout data from the most recent ballot and the detail recorded in the app can help immeasurably with this and needs to be made available as soon as possible. We also look forward to the app re-emerging as a general-purpose organising tool, facilitating the one on one conversations and mapping that branches need to be engaged in.

The union centrally does need to take a more proactive coordinating role, however. Not just providing useful data to branches already well equipped to deliver high ballot turnouts, but giving branches not in that position the resources, skills and tools to get into a similar position. This means training, for those who may not be as familiar or as confident in deep organising methods. It means engagement, working with branches so they feel supported and listened to rather than put upon. Fundamentally, it means working to identify and raise up lay leaders, building the structure needed to win in the workplace rather than providing full time officials as a substitute for that.

Doing all of this and doing it well requires being systematic. The PCS Organising Department has done incredible work in identifying what needs to be done and providing the tools to enable that, but all too often in the last ballot it felt like other parts of the union cut across that. The last-minute kick off to the campaign left full time officials running around frantically, trying to deliver the vote, rather than taking their time to identify and support the workers on the ground who would deliver the vote. Targets dictated deployment; PCS staff parachuted in when the app showed a branch wasn’t doing too well, and dragged straight back out once the magic 50% was achieved.

None of this was the fault of those staff, who like lay reps should be commended for their efforts. But panic isn’t the driver of a systematic approach, and panic was the clear driver of management decisions in the regional offices. That cannot be the way we take things forward this time.

We need to win members over to our strategy

Since before the consultative ballot in 2018, the union has had a clear strategy to win on pay. National strike action to be supplemented by longer term, targeted action in strategic areas, with the wages of those taking that action paid for by the Fighting Fund.

The problem is, even now, many members still don’t know that. After the first statutory ballot involved lots of reps having conversations with members who weren’t supporting action because they didn’t think sporadic, one day strikes had any effect, the NEC agreed that the second ballot should involve clearly fleshing out and communicating the paid, selective action strategy to members. However, as you may have noticed, that didn’t happen.

Towards the end of the first ballot, there was a consultation with groups about what areas should be engaged in such action. The National Disputes Committee was tasked with drawing up a detailed strategy on the back of this. No such strategy has yet come to the NEC, and communications to members haven’t gotten this across.

This has to change. Upping our organising efforts and making them more systematic may well improve turnout to the extent that we get across the line. But to do so decisively, and then once we’ve won the ballot to win the dispute, we need a strategy that can win – and that members believe can win.

Fighting to win

PCS Independent Left members will be arguing these points on the NEC, as we believe they are vital to actually deliver victory in this campaign. At the same time, there is a lot that branches can do, and in many places they are.

Branches using town committees to link up with one another directly and share resources and best practice, the development of local leaflets, bulletins and other propaganda to agitate amongst the membership, holding public meetings, rallies, social events and so on to engage with members. All of these things will be crucial to building up real rank and file strength across PCS.

The national union cannot, and should not, seek to dictate such activity from above or substitute itself for the workers in the offices. But if central activity is more systematic, hitting the ground running now and seeking to communicate an effective strategy to win, then it can be the accelerant that turn a thousand sparks into a fire this government cannot extinguish.

PCS ADC 2019 bulletin (Tuesday): On pay

On Tuesday we discuss ‘what next’ on pay. The NEC’s position is that there should be another ballot. We agree – but that should only happen after there has been a serious debate as to why we lost the ballot (indeed why we have lost two ballots) and we put in place the necessary corrective actions to ensure victory in the third ballot.

Of course using the word ‘lost’ is misleading. We only ‘lost’ because we did not get above an arbitrary threshold set by a Conservative government; we didn’t lose the ballot in true democratic sense that a majority of members voted against action. The irony of course is that the Tory’s can only fantasise of having a similar majority vote in the upcoming EU elections or indeed in any future general election.

Nevertheless we have to face the fact that despite the sheer hard work of many reps and Full Time Officials we didn’t get over the 50% limit. Before trying for a third vote we have to know why this was the case.  Why couldn’t we persuade over 50% of members to take a piece of paper out of an envelope, mark it with a pen and post it off?

It seems to us, though the open debate we are looking for may point in other directions, that there are five main reasons why we did not get over the 50%.

  • Firstly members didn’t believe we could win our pay demand. We heard comments that a 10% pay increase would be ‘nice’ but many were sceptical that it could be delivered. A reason for that is that the union didn’t spell out in any real detail what industrial action would be triggered if we voted ‘Yes’.
  • Secondly members were not energised by the demand; it was just a number. It had no emotional grip on them.
  • Third, the level of organisation across the union is variable. Some branches got over the threshold easily, many struggled and some got nowhere near.
  • The level of preparation for the ballot was not as good as it should have been (the app was produced late in the day, volunteers for phone banking  were only called for close to start of the vote, no final leaflet reminding members of the cut off date for posting their ballot was produced etc).
  • Lastly during the balloting period, the state, in the guise of the Civil Service effectively banned freedom of speech and freedom of association for the union in the work place e.g. you were not allowed to hold strike meetings on the premises.

A secondary factor was that a minority of members who didn’t want a strike had worked out that not voting was a better way of scuppering action than actually voting ‘no’.

So what to do?

We should confirm that there must be a further ballot. Without strike action, it is inconceivable that we can get better than a 1% pay increase. But just to go for one more push using the same methods as the last vote would be a mistake. We have a wealth of data to show us where branches did well and where they did not. That data should be freely available so that Groups, branches regions etc can direct help to where it is needed.

As said, there must be an honest debate amongst members and activists as to why we didn’t get over the line. In some parts of the union e.g. DWP that will be difficult as leading reps tend to respond along ‘party lines’, repeat formulas and heavily criticise those who don’t do the same. Without an honest debate though, we won’t learn anything. Also nothing should be off limits in the discussion. Therefore the debate must include examining the pay claim. It must also look at what action we would take if we win a fresh ballot.

Armed with the results of the debates we can carry out the necessary corrective actions and work up a detailed plan – a plan that had been discussed and agreed by activists in advance.

Then there has to be a serious campaign of preparing members in advance of the third vote. The CWU spent seven months preparing for its strike ballot in Royal Mail. Their hard work was rewarded with a huge yes vote. They didn’t hope to win, they planned to win. Now we are not advocating a seven month run up to the third ballot but we are saying that we should take the necessary time.

Although there will be a top down plan, we want the members to be the active ingredient, for them to show local initiative. The union’s task is therefore to persuade members/activists into self activity; for there to be local campaigns as well as the national one; for local messages in parallel to the national ones. Everything possible must be done to encourage this local activity.

In our view the objective conditions (e.g. real living standards continue to fall) exist for a successful ballot and for there to be a real fight over pay. So it is YES to a ballot.  The subjective factor, how we win members over to fight for pay is the difficult part. That can be done but requires real democratic debate and working up a plan; a plan with prior buy in of members and activists.


PCS after the elections

There has been something of a political earthquake within the PCS Union. What happens next?

Last Thursday, with the close of the union’s Assistant General Secretary (AGS) and National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, it was announced that John Moloney had won the AGS race. The incumbent, Chris Baugh, ran a close second and PCS’s Scottish Secretary Lynn Henderson came in last.

The rift in Left Unity

The reason this was a huge shake up is that John is a member of the PCS Independent Left (IL) grouping, effectively the official opposition to the leadership of the union in PCS Left Unity (LU). Chris was the official LU candidate, but only after a re-run election within the faction.

Originally, outgoing President Janice Godrich won the race after being backed by General Secretary Mark Serwotka. Serwotka wanted rid of Chris, and caused a significant rift in LU in his efforts to achieve that aim. When Janice had to step back due to ill health, and a full time official called Stella Dennis failed to beat Chris in her stead, Serwotka tagged in Lynn as the second unelected full time official to enter the fray. Not a member of LU, Lynn stood as a candidate supposedly “without factional backing,” as though having Serwotka behind her plus half of LU (some openly, others covertly) didn’t count.

Much of what happened in the year that this all played out, between Janice announcing she would oppose Chris and John ultimately winning the election, is at best embarrassing and at worst utterly damning. It laid bare for the world the utterly toxic culture that exists within LU. It’s a culture that has long been an open secret, both those within LU who ask questions and those who dare oppose LU facing a torrent of smears, hostility and bullying. But now it was laid bare, like a flasher moving from a dark back alley to a bustling motorway.

All of this also opened the space for John to secure victory, on a platform of rank and file control and workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage. It also, hopefully, opens up the space to discuss what we need to reinvigorate the union and reorient it towards its members.

What the turnouts tell us

Those at the top of PCS like to say that it is a “member-led” union. It would be truer to call it “activist-led,” but even that’s not strictly accurate. PCS is a typical, top-down, TUC union which has a fairly lively activist culture and a degree of autonomy at lower levels for lay reps but is still ultimately controlled by unelected, paid officials.

This election marked a substantial increase in membership participation, but the turnout was still a measly 10.5%. Immediately preceding it, the civil service pay ballot achieved an impressive 47.7% turnout; yet even with well-organised branches achieving upwards of 60 or 70%, overall the union didn’t reach 52.3% of members to convince them to vote, thus once again falling foul of the turnout threshold of 50% imposed by the Trade Union Act.

The strike ballot turnout speaks of a significant improvement in the union’s organising efforts, with face to face conversations recognised as fundamental and new technology allowing reps to map the vote in real time. But still, some branches struggled for resources and support. Union staff efforts weren’t coordinated with branches, priorities were dictated by a combination of abstract targets and occasional panic, and still the union’s organising efforts are anything but systematic.

This could be improved. With more focus and effort, and learning some of the lessons, we could drag the turnout over the line with another go. But this would still be a top-down organising model, the staff substituting themselves for the membership, and how well observed the action would be after we scraped over 50% is the elephant in the room. From previously, we know the answer: resolutely strong in some areas, but undermined by appaling turnout in others. Pumping up the turnout doesn’t plug the leaks in our picket lines.

Meanwhile, the election turnout shows that the vast majority of members have no interest in who runs the union. There won’t be a singular reason for this, but we can extrapolate that whilst some members want more choice (as suggested by this year’s bump in turnout) many more simply view PCS as a service. They’re union members, but they’re not organised.

The death of the broad left model

Our decline to this point has happened under the stewardship of LU. They’re not to blame for all of it; the public sector and in particular the civil service has been under unrelenting attack from the government for a decade, whilst the trade union movement in the UK has been in decline for nearly four decades following the retreat from the successive defeats that began under Thatcher.

However, LU took power by ousting the old, corrupt right wing that used to run the union. They supplanted the kind of people who viewed certain fellow trade unionists as “enemies,” worked with the state against left wingers, sabotaged industrial action by members and made secret deals with the bosses to feather their own nests. We’re well rid of that sort of thing, but the problem is that whilst LU replaced corrupt, right-wing post holders with ones who called themselves socialists and left wing, they did nothing to tear down the bureaucracy and barriers that exist within any union affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.

In two decades, the closest we’ve come to electing more full time officials that those required by the law is to pass a motion about reviewing the situation and do nothing with it. Whilst the National Disputes Committee may be authorising more action than ever, getting to that point is neither transparent for anyone who hasn’t done it before nor particularly easy when so many steps have to be done by PCS staff and lay reps simply aren’t allowed to step in and do it for themselves. These are but two examples.

This underlines the limitations of the ‘broad left’ model of trade unionism. Simply getting nominal left wingers into elected positions may be enough to force out the right wing, but it’s not enough to fundamentally challenge the bureaucratic nature of trade unions. That’s a structural issue, no matter who is in power.

Everybody wants a rank and file now

IL, and the PCS HMRC Rank & File Network (R&F) in Revenue & Customs Group, stood on a platform of building a rank and file movement to transform the union. How we do this is a debate that all activists in PCS have a stake in, because it’s an absolute necessity if we want the union to engage with its members and to build from the ground up a version of PCS capable of seriously taking on the bosses and the government.

This discussion has to open with us clearly defining what a rank and file movement actually is, because it is clear that LU members in particular misunderstand the concept. (How much of that misunderstanding is a cynical ploy does have to be questioned, since the emergence of R&F within HMRC provoked a hostility, hysteria and panic, in Liverpool in particular, that was at least as embarrassing and damning as the LU rift over the AGS election.)

In their response to the AGS election result, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) don’t say much at all. But one thing they do say is, that “re-engaging members in the union means having to build rank and file organisation in PCS branches.” They don’t expand much on this. However, they do say immediately after that “the pay campaign saw the growth of activist networks that can be built on,” suggesting that what they’re talking about isn’t that far removed from the status quo and that by “rank and file” they simply mean the activist layer of the union.

The Socialist Party (SP), of which Chris is a member, are somewhat more coherent when they speak of “an open, campaigning, socialist rank-and-file body that is supportive but genuinely independent of the PCS leadership.” However, that they are talking about “reinvigorat[ing] Left Unity” into this form, suggests that their version of a rank and file is one which excludes most of us who argue for such a movement, since we sit outside of LU!

Some of those who allied with the SP are no less confused than the SWP on what rank and file organisation truly means. In an election leaflet, HMRC LU members from Liverpool suggest that reps collectively deciding the line they will put to management in negotiations is “rank and file trade unionism in action,” when in fact it is nothing more than bog-standard trade unionism that should already be the norm in every branch and trade union side committee.

Lynn, by contrast, makes no mention of the rank and file. Instead, she argues against “the tired accusation of “bureaucrats” from my opponents’ supporters” as PCS staff “have been recruited from among strike leaders and radical campaigners.” This again ignores that bureaucracy is structural, and that it doesn’t matter where you get your full time officials from if lay members aren’t sufficiently well organised to take the lead and act independently of them.

With them where they will, without them where they won’t

This isn’t an abstract intellectual point, arguing over definitions. It matters because it defines the substance of our organising. Do we truly want a union where the members are in the driving seat? Do we want to build real power in the workplace? Do we want a union made of participants rather than service users? If so, we have to talk seriously about these ideas.

A rank and file movement isn’t just a bigger activist layer, as the SWP seem to suggest. It’s not just normal trade union structures functioning as they should, and nor is it the SP’s reinvigorated version of LU.

What it is, is a movement that is firmly rooted in the workplace. One where members aren’t merely consulted on the direction the union takes but get a direct vote at mass meetings. Where rather than looking to reps for individual representation or to solve things through a quiet word behind closed doors, workers tackle issues collectively and use direct action. Where the membership is not simply a stage army to be mobilised when the leadership at their convenience, but the driving force behind action. Where members aren’t “independent but supportive” or the vehicle to put leaders in power, but the fire under their backsides and the force to hold them accountable should they err.

None of this will emerge overnight, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If we want to be able to elect all our officials and hold them accountable, and to win real victories over the bosses, then we need to start somewhere.

The time for broad lefts is done. Let’s build the rank and file!



John Moloney elected Assistant General Secretary of PCS

Thank you to everyone who voted for and campaigned to help elect PCS Independent Left candidates to the National Executive Committee. We are now very happy to say that we have John Moloney as Assistant General Secretary and Bev Laidlaw, Phil Dickens and Chris Marks on the NEC.

Whilst the turnout in the elections remains far lower than anybody should be content with, it has increased from last year along with the share of votes for IL. This shows that, at least amongst those who voted, there is an appetite for change in the union.

Bringing that change is the real work. Simply having more IL people on the NEC, whether three or thirty, isn’t enough. We need to rebuild the strength of the union from the ground up whilst addressing the barriers imposed from the top and re-orienting towards the rank and file.

This isn’t the task for a few of us, but for everyone who wants an effective, fighting union. Get in touch, and get involved!


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PCS elections open: Vote John for AGS, PCS IL candidates for NEC

This year, PCS will re-elect its Assistant General Secretary. John Moloney is standing for the position.

John is a member of PCS Independent Left and a well-respected activist in the DfT. If elected, John has pledged to take the salary of an EO in the DWP rather than the £90k+ the post currently pays, as he believes workers’ representatives should be on a worker’s wage.

If elected, John will fight for:

• National pay: that those on the same grade should have the same pay, instead of the current cross-departmental inequality.
• Rank-and-file control: the union should support all groups of workers willing to take action, not offer barriers to them doing so.
• Accountable full time officials: all full time officials for the union should be elected by and answer to the members, not to any internal staff hierarchy.
• Organising all government workers: PCS should take the lead from unions like United Voices of the World and our own activists in BEIS, the Culture Sector and HMRC Bootle to fight privatisation by helping outsourced workers fight for a living wage and conditions in line with civil servants.

If you agree with the above, vote John Moloney for Assistant General Secretary and PCS Independent Left candidates for the National Executive Committee.

Support our candidates by asking your workmates to do the same.

Leaflets/posters for downloading: IL slate A4 leaflet, John4AGS A4 leaflet, John4AGS A5 leaflet