By PCS activists
The civil service union PCS held its annual conference this year at a time of stagnant wages and declining strike action. Public sector pay in particular has suffered from the government’s pay freeze. Yet last year saw only 273,000 days of strike action, the sixth lowest number since records began in 1891.
The proportion of workers in trade unions is the lowest since 1995. New jobs are increasingly precarious: zero-hours, temporary and fixed-term contracts the norm. Underemployment and bogus self-employment blight the workforce.
These forms of employment make it harder for unions to recruit, and weaken their struggle. We are also fighting, one hand tied behind our backs. Britain’s draconian anti-union laws have made effective strike action illegal, and raised multiple barriers to legal strike action.
Real wages in the civil service have fallen by 10 per cent since 2010. The Pubic and Commercial Services union has twice balloted its members over the past year for industrial action aimed at recouping those lost earnings and twice “lost” – not because there was no majority (the Yes vote won by more than 4:1 both times), but because of the undemocratic anti-union laws which demand a 50 per cent turnout but don’t allow workplace or digital voting.
The civil service workforce was reduced by a fifth between 2010 and 2016, with only Brexit upsetting the government’s plans for further cuts. PCS recruited more members in 2018 than at any other time in the past decade. Yet membership still fell by a thousand. With every round of redundancies, the union has lost not only members, but experienced activists.
How to win strike ballots
The failure of two successive strike ballots must, therefore, be seen in this context. The 47 per cent turnout in the last ballot was an improvement on the first and a huge improvement on earlier campaigns. However, for the hundreds of PCS activists who met in Brighton, representing thousands of underpaid and overworked union members, the leadership seemed unclear how we could go forward with a programme of industrial action – except to try, try, try again.
There were three counterposed motions on pay, which were debated together: the NEC’s motion to call another aggregated ballot on pay this year; another motion to call for a disaggregated ballot so that departments that met the 50 per cent threshold could take strike action; and a third to go back to the branches and work out why the first two ballots had failed and how we could win a third.
The debate ended with conference passing the leadership’s motion by a very small margin: 62,676 votes to 60,991. The NEC’s argument for the motion was that we could get the 50 per cent turnout required in another aggregated ballot in the coming months.
However, this is pure guesswork. The disaggregated ballot option would at least have allowed the stronger sections to start the fight for pay, while work was undertaken to bring other groups into the strike.
Among those backing the third option against the leadership’s motion were Socialist Party members, previously the dominant part of the union’s ruling faction, Left Unity. Over the past year, Left Unity has been consumed by an internal struggle between supporters of PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka and supporters of key Socialist Party figures in the union.
With the Socialist Party and its Left Unity faction riven with divisions and standing rival candidates in the Assistant General Secretary election, a member of the Independent Left won the position. No doubt the candidate’s commitment to taking a workers’ wage rather than the £68,000-£93,000 per year bureaucrat’s salary helped tip the scales and is an important challenge to bureaucratic privilege.
The leadership’s internal crisis also allowed a censure motion to be passed overwhelmingly by conference. The Chair of PCS Proud, the union’s LGBT network, introduced the motion, criticising Mark Serwotka for signing an open letter in the Morning Star on behalf of PCS that painted trans activists as violent and attempted to “otherise” them in the trade union movement.
It took the PCS NEC a month to reaffirm the union’s commitment to transgender rights, in a statement that failed to mention the letter or acknowledge the concerns of the union’s LGBT members.
A motion criticising the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the slanders against Jeremy Corbyn passed with a large majority.
Another important step was a motion to produce a pamphlet critiquing the current benefits system and proposing alternative policy – an important commitment from the union representing DWP staff.
Jeremy Corbyn addressed the final day of the conference and reaffirmed his commitments to repealing the most recent anti-union legislation, equalising wages across the civil service, bringing back centralised collective bargaining, and undoing the cuts made to facility time.
In his speech introducing Jeremy Corbyn, Mark Serwotka questioned why last year’s decision to review how PCS could help bring a Corbyn government to power had gone unimplemented, and whether divisions over Labour may have soured relations between his supporters and the Socialist Party.
PCS support for Labour in the next general election would be an historic step forward for the union and one desperately needed when a government opposed to austerity and supportive of the unions is on offer.
Nobody is yet advocating a “wait for Labour” strategy but the danger is there for the fight for a Corbyn government to become an alternative to industrial action. There was certainly no acknowledgement from the top table that a Labour government, still dominated by the same MPs we fought over pensions and cuts, may not feel able to honour the promises made in opposition.
Rebuilding the PCS
The key task resulting from the conference is a renewed effort to overcome the ballot threshold and finally launch a pay strike. Even though many activists will be disappointed by the decision to undertake another aggregated ballot, there’s no doubt that enormous efforts will be made once again to breach 50 per cent.
If we are successful, the union will be in a far better position to rebuild its strength. It is likely that the union will undertake a combination of one-day national all-member strikes and longer, paid selective strikes by members best placed to disrupt the day-to-day running of the state. Strikes always mean recruitment, not just of members but activists, who will help to expand the mobilising and organising capacity of the union.
But if we are to rebuild the union, whether or not we win the pay ballot, failing twice to persuade enough members to vote in a ballot means we need to take a long hard look at how we organise and strengthen our grassroots. This year an organisation called PCS HMRC Rank and File was founded, with ambitions to spread and organise across the union.
HMRC Rank and File calls for the election and recallability of all officials, who will be paid the wage of an average worker, strike committees to control industrial disputes, and decisions made in mass meetings. Their website notes, “We won’t be able to do all, or even most of this overnight. The strength of branches within HMRC varies wildly, and both the office closures and a decade of defeats and mismanaged disputes have taken their toll. But we have to start somewhere.”
This rings as true for other departments as it does for the Tax Office. Rather than wait until we need strike committees, we must do what we can to lay the groundwork now: spread the idea, rally together the reps who are looking for a way to build our industrial strength, and build a rank and file organisation capable of making PCS a truly member-led union ready to take on this government or the next.
But it’s no use just re-running the ballot hoping to get a few more votes. We should be aiming for an 80 per cent plus turnout and Yes vote to really frighten the bosses. An action plan to win the new pay ballot should include:
Rank and file was a phrase on the lips of many conference delegates. With the election of Maloney on a workers wage, the chaos in Left Unity and the founding of a rank and file organisation in HMRC there is the opportunity to create a rank and file movement across the union. A conference supported by all factions and organisations in PCS who see the need for a rank and file movement and open to all union activists is clearly the next step if we are to rebuild PCS as a democratic, class-struggle union.