Don’t mourn, Learn!

PCS’s national ballot for strike action over pay failed to meet the 50% turnout threshold imposed by the Trade Union Act. This despite the most intensive period of activity in the union’s recent history. What do we learn from this? And what comes next?

The first thing to say is that despite the tangible sense of disappointment felt by all of us as activists, we can be proud. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but the commitment and effort of everyone who leafleted, who canvassed members in the workplace and who gave up their own time is not in doubt. But that commitment is also why this will be scant comfort, and many will want to know where we went wrong, and what we can do better.

Let’s focus on the positives first.

The activist training schools that ran ahead of the launch of the ballot, the first of their kind in PCS, were an extremely welcome development. They showed that at least parts of the union were beginning to re-orient towards the kind of organising we need, and a recognition that building from the ground up is vital. We need more of this, and a wider effort to teach all reps how to organise and build campaigns in the workplace.

Obviously, having an NEC that learns the lessons as well is vital.

Likewise, it was heartening to see not just the level of activity in terms of leafleting and so on, but also the amount of support given to branches by the union apparatus. The cooperation between branches, through town committees and similar, as well as the deployment of full time staff to enable local organising efforts both represent developments that PCS needs to maintain now that we have left the ballot period.

These efforts paid off in the level of engagement of members with the campaign, in the recruitment of new members (some 2,000 according to the General Secretary’s recent YouTube message) and activists, and in helping many branches improve their density and organisation levels. We need to ensure that the improved organisation is maintained, and the new activists are encouraged and supported in getting more involved.

In terms of lessons to be learned, the most vital one will be identifying where we are weak as a union and addressing that.

The consultative ballot last year gave PCS a breakdown of the turnout by office and branch which showed where our areas of strength and our shortfalls were. This was referenced in the efforts this time around, with more full-time staff and senior lay reps encouraged to leaflet in those areas. But there needs to be more than this now, that is a forensic examination of where the union is coming up short and a concerted effort not just to mobilise the next time a campaign requires it but to actively rebuild the union from the ground up. That must start now, as a matter of urgency, to lay down a foundation we need that can pay off in the future.

Which also highlights the lull in activity between the close of the consultative ballot and the decision at Conference to run a statutory ballot. The monthly pay protests continued, but little else from a national perspective.

There can have been no doubt that the consultative ballot turnout would lead to a statutory ballot. In the intervening seven months, we had ample time to lay the organisational groundwork for a decisive result. More activist schools, and earlier, covering not just what was needed during the ballot period but how we made the most of the lead up. Using the workplace mapping and organising skills those schools could teach to take a more deliberate and painstaking approach to getting ballot addresses, grade information and more that we needed absolutely correct. Building and maintaining the momentum of the campaign.

In some branches, these things were already being done as a matter of course. This is because amongst our lay activist base PCS has a number of skilled and experienced organisers who have been assets to the pay campaign. Co-opting such activists full time to the ballot effort would have undoubtedly made them even more effective, and it is something that PCS needs to seriously consider.

Where we are now is that we didn’t get the result we needed from the ballot. It is easy to take that as a defeat and call it quits, or (perhaps worse) to simply take it on the chin and try again in a few months and hope that it works out better then. Both approaches are wrong.

The union needs to be honest and transparent in its analysis of what happened. Where we did things right, we need to assess how we can make those things even more effective than last time – and, just as importantly, how in the meantime we can maintain and build upon the foundations they have given us. Where we got things wrong, we need to be willing to admit that, learn from it, and do things differently.

There are different challenges in this respect at different levels. The NEC will be discussing where we go from here, but similar conversations need to be happening in workplaces, branches, regions and groups as well. Learning from what we did wrong as well as what we did right, and addressing any hurdles or pitfalls we may face – even where ‘politics’ may dictate it is difficult or less than tactful to do so.

We can win this fight, and we can smash ballot thresholds in the future. Key to that is rebuilding the union and re-orienting it towards organising the workforce from the ground up.