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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 June 2010

PCS conference Defend the public sector

United union action to defeat the cuts

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) conference on 19-21 May was the first trade union conference since the election of the new Tory/Liberal coalition. The mood was serious and businesslike. Delegates were buoyed by the recent court victory on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme that saw the government proposals to rip up contracts and reduce redundancy payments, in order to drive through cuts and privatisation, declared illegal.

John McInally, national vice-president PCS personal capacity

But this was tempered by the knowledge that Cameron and Clegg are determined to do the bidding of the markets - which, having worsened a recession due to their excessive greed and lack of regulation, now want massive public sector cuts. This is under the pretext of "tackling" the public spending deficit, which was actually caused in large part by the taxpayer bailing out the banks.

In her opening address to conference, union president Janice Godrich analysed the attacks that are being planned on the public sector. She stated that, unless challenged, they could mean the loss of between 500,000 and 750,000 jobs.

In praising the determination of PCS members to defend their jobs, conditions and services in recent years she went on to call for public sector unity in the face of these attacks.

Assistant general secretary Chris Baugh moved the main motion from the national executive committee (NEC) setting out the union's campaign response. The scale of the cuts will potentially be worse than under Thatcher and that needs a united response from the trade union movement.

This is reflected in the debate and the policy passed, which included a new national campaign in defence of civil and public services to link different elements of the campaign under one banner; pressing the TUC for closer coordination; formal approaches to other public sector unions to explore joint campaigning at local, regional and national level, including demonstrations, establishing town committees, bolstering trades councils and calling regional conferences of activists.

Solidarity

Fran Heathcote, moving a linked emergency motion, called for a TUC national demonstration in London in response to the 22 June budget, in order to build solidarity and unity but also to give a warning to the coalition government that workers will fight these cuts.

She said the demand of "No Cuts or Privatisation" must mean precisely that. We cannot allow the idea of "deserving and undeserving" public services to gain any credence. If we don't fight together we'll be beaten separately.

Since conference, the government has announced the first 6 billion of cuts in public services and a recruitment freeze in much of the civil service. This is intended to signal to the markets that Cameron is prepared to carry through their demands for swingeing attacks on the public sector generally.

There is a vagueness about the announcement in relation to the civil service and in fact a "reheated" nature to some of the targets like travel and advertising. Civil servants will actually welcome the savings on consultants.

These parasitic private sector companies have made rich pickings from the civil service, plundering billions in profit for no discernable return, other than demanding cuts and privatisation.

If all the detail is not there, it is nevertheless clear that cuts on this scale will impact on services. The government's plans appear to be allowing permanent secretaries to cut where they can.

Message

In the huge Department for Work and Pensions, initial cuts of 535 million have been announced. This not only sends a message to staff but to those on benefits that times are going to get very hard indeed and the most vulnerable in society can expected harsher regimes, including cuts in benefit levels.

Conference gave a standing ovation and its full support to Jane Brooke, Land Registry branch secretary from Weymouth who was victimised and sacked following being off sick with Repetitive Strain Injury. Management had employed a detective agency to put her and others under video surveillance for six months!

Land Registry Chair Michael Kavanagh and NEC member Emily Kelly restated the union's absolute determination to win this case, give Jane all the support she needs and challenge this disgraceful act of harassment.

The conference debates were inspiring but, more importantly, focused on developing the strategies and policies capable of facing up to the attacks being planned by the coalition government.

Political campaigning and representation

Last year a motion was passed that called for a consultation with branches on whether to support or stand candidates in elections. This stemmed, as it has in the rest of the labour and trade union movement, from the fact that all the main political parties are inextricably tied to a pro-market consensus that is the ideological underpinning for the cuts and privatisation agenda.

It has become increasingly clear that in order to defend jobs, conditions and services the union has to extend its campaign work into the political arena. This of course was already being done but the experience of activists, confirmed by hustings organised by branches around the Make Your Vote Count campaign, showed that we need to directly challenge the politicians who are attacking us.

In moving the NEC motion, I [vice-president John McInally] explained that the consultation produced clear support amongst the 135 branches that responded but that it was equally clear that a great many questions had arisen in the course of the consultation. For example, how would candidates be chosen, what democratic checks and balances would be required, how would we work with other unions and what review mechanisms would be required to monitor the process?

The NEC called for a further process of consultation, including group, regional and branch briefings and workshops on the question of detailed proposals with a report back to Conference 2011. And, if the decision is taken to support or stand candidates, then a full membership ballot.

Some activists will be understandably disappointed that standing candidates cannot be done now but if this initiative does not build the support of members and activists it will not succeed. The whole process was based on two important points, firstly, that this initiative was about the need to develop our political campaign work in order to protect jobs, conditions and services and that the whole process was, and had to be, underpinned by membership endorsement.

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