Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/672/12097
PCS conference: developing strategies for struggle
John McInally, national vice-president of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), personal capacity
PCS conference was genuinely historic. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to support the national executive's emergency motion calling for an industrial action ballot to oppose the government's attacks on jobs, pay, pensions and conditions. Only two out of a thousand voted 'no'!
A 'yes' vote will set the scene for a major strike on 30 June involving up to three quarters of a million public sector workers. This will be the first major shot in an unfolding campaign that can lead in the autumn to industrial action involving millions.
Conference also voted by a substantial majority to ballot members before next year's conference on whether or not they agree with the recommendation that PCS should, in certain limited circumstances, stand or support candidates in national elections.
Finally, conference was addressed by the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, prior to the signing of a major cooperation agreement between the two unions.
Significant in themselves, together these developments show PCS is developing the type of strategies based on industrial and political campaigning that can unite unions and our communities in defiance of the Tory-led coalition.
The Con-Dems are intent on destroying the welfare state and the public sector while crushing any opposition in a 'race to the bottom'. This onslaught represents the greatest transfer of wealth and power from the overwhelming majority to the tiny political and business elite who are already awash with money and privilege.
PCS national president Janice Godrich and general secretary Mark Serwotka opened conference with analytical, fighting speeches setting out the nature of the crisis, caused not by hard-working committed public sector workers, but by the greed of bankers and big business.
In the debate on the emergency motion delegates explained how the cuts were impacting in their own areas. It became apparent that absolutely nowhere was exempt from job cuts, privatisation and attacks on conditions. Speeches reflected the genuine anger that is building on a daily basis against the madness of the cuts programme.
Mark explained that the current 'talks' on pensions reveal a government intent on unleashing a truly shocking assault. They want us to work until we are 68 years old and will take an axe to the value of pensions by slashing accrual rates.
Pensions, reflecting the low pay of civil servants, are not 'gold-plated'. The average for full service, taking away the very tiny percentage of high earners, is only £4,200 a year - if the government succeeds in this attack then a working life of low pay will be followed by an impoverished old age.
Those union leaders, who believed it was possible to 'do a deal' with these Tory gangsters, are now in a real bind. Some even proposed a few concessions upfront to show willing. The scale of the attack is so brutal that they will have no option but to fight or accept complete, unconditional surrender.
Delegates knew the union couldn't hang on until the autumn because the cuts are already happening. There is now a real commitment to go back to workplaces and ensure the ballot is won. This vote is not just for a one-day strike, it represents the start of a campaign of industrial action capable of defeating the cuts.
PCS departmental groups are preparing for, or already have set out their own campaign strategies, including industrial action in their own areas to fight the cuts. The national union will coordinate such action wherever possible within the union itself or with other unions taking action.
Most of all PCS will be working tirelessly to build the widest possible unity in action throughout the movement and intends to make 30 June a day where all can participate, whether on strike or not. The attack is not just on our workplaces but on our communities. Delegates stressed how important the work to build the anti-cuts alliances was.
Len McCluskey addressed conference and criticised union leaders who made excuses for avoiding organising action to fight against the cuts. He commented that the sheer scale of the assault on workers was so extensive that we must at the very least try to respond. He paid tribute to the BA strikers and argued that there was no alternative but to stand up to attacks.
A major agreement on cooperation was signed between the two unions which can lead to unity in action, a point made in Len McCluskey's speech when he pledged cooperation between Ministry of Defence Unite members and those in PCS.
The yes vote to ballot members on whether or not to stand or support candidates in national elections in limited circumstances is genuinely ground breaking. The debate has been going on for the last four or more years in PCS and there have been two major consultations, a point reflected in the debate as there was no criticism of how the national union had carried out the process.
However, a number of issues that were answered during the second consultation were resurrected, ie would standing split the anti-BNP vote, or would it cost members more money to pursue this option, the answer being no in both cases.
Delegates know through hard experience that there is a consensus among the major parties that there is no alternative to the market, the basis of the cuts and privatisation programme.
Expressing opposition to the motion was in some respects difficult because their real argument, "we must stick with Labour" was the argument that dare not speak its name due to the unremitting contempt in which the overwhelming mass of delegates hold the Labour Party.
Debate must continue on this issue and a strong campaign run to win the argument amongst members, although experience shows that when the idea of adding this invaluable weapon to our campaign armoury is raised they show agreement and enthusiasm.
An alternative vision
A major pamphlet Welfare: An Alternative Vision was launched at a packed fringe meeting which sets out the scale of the government attack on the most vulnerable in society and sets out a coherent policy to answer the barbarism of the market's solution - profiteering and privatisation.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) fringe meeting drew over 80 people. Among the speakers was Chris Baugh, PCS assistant general secretary. Rob Williams, NSSN national chair, explained how the organisation is at the centre of the fight to build the maximum unity amongst trade unionists and community activists against the cuts.
Over 50 people heard Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party analyse the nature of the crisis and the necessity for a socialist alternative at the party's fringe meeting.
This conference sets the scene for a real fightback based on the only strategy that can succeed - wide-spread coordinated industrial action involving millions of workers.
In The Socialist 25 May 2011:
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