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Court victory for PCS and all trade unions
John McInally , PCS national executive committee (personal capacity)
Civil servants' union PCS has won a major victory in a High Court ruling that stated it was "unlawful" for the Tory government to exclude the union from negotiations.
Last year the government attempted to cut redundancy pay through changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS), the governing scheme for such payments. The Tories tried to intimidate unions representing civil servants to accept cuts and changes to the CSCS as a precondition for talks on the issue.
PCS, which represents the vast majority of civil servants, regarded talks on such a basis as a sham, refused to give the assurances demanded and was excluded from the talks. Other unions, representing small numbers of members, entered into negotiations, which resulted in significant cuts to the scheme.
Calculating they had no real political opposition and that they could isolate PCS, the Tories attacked the union for not bowing down to their threats. So did Prospect, a union led by right-wing general secretary Mike Clancy, who positions himself as the leading voice of business unionism, concession bargaining and the collaborationist idea that there can be no alternative to either the capitalist system or to cuts, privatisation and austerity.
This judgement is a serious blow to the Tories who are, since the tremendous showing of the Corbyn-led Labour general election campaign around a manifesto that posed an alternative to austerity, in a weak and chaotic state. It is also a real blow to the right wing in the trade union movement whose failure to fight back against such attacks has merely emboldened the Tories to deepen their attacks on terms and conditions.
A Cabinet Office official wrote to the civil service unions after the first round of talks on the changes last year and said: "I want to be clear that attendance at any further discussions will be taken as a clear commitment that those unions engaging in the talks have accepted that the proposals above will form the basis of a reformed, negotiated set of arrangements that their relevant executives can recommend acceptance to their members in any ballot".
This arrogant tone demonstrated the utter contempt in which the Tories and their senior Cabinet Office officials hold the trade unions and the workers they represent.
PCS, the POA union of prison staff, and general union Unite rejected this ultimatum. It was wrong for a free and independent trade union to enter into talks with an employer on the basis of surrendering the main points at issue before negotiations had even begun. It was a precedent that posed a serious threat to all trade unions and a blatant attempt to undermine the very basis of collective bargaining.
The judgement itself is a forensic and coruscating exposure of the Tories' attempt to impose detrimental conditions on their own workforce by circumventing the negotiating process.
The judges concluded: It was "not surprising [the three unions] were unable to give such a commitment." "It is an obligation to consult in good faith and in a spirit of willingness to consider counterproposals." "There was no basis on which the minister was entitled to exclude the PCSU from the consultation."
The court ruling
The judgement dealt with the Tories' cynical argument that the exclusion of PCS would not have affected the outcome of the negotiations, saying: "It cannot be said that it is highly likely that the outcome would not have been affected if the PCS had been allowed to participate in the second round of discussions, as it should have been."
"The safeguard for workers is that they will not have their rights to compensation benefits diminished or removed without a genuine attempt first having been made to secure agreement in that specific issue with their union representatives. These provisions are not concerned only with vague agreements in principle."
This is a major victory for the entire movement and a major blow against employers attempting to force unions into 'negotiations' on a basis in which, as PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "...the terms are rigged and the outcome fixed in advance".
PCS balloted its members, who rejected the government's proposals by a massive 96%.
John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service, issued a message to civil service workers that said the judgement against the government was only on the basis of 'process'. That is not true, the judgement was clear - the minister acted unlawfully.
Manzoni is an ex-board member of BP, which he left after the investigation into the Texas City refinery explosion concluded he "had paid insufficient attention to safety and failed to spot clear warning signs."
Stunned by the judgement, Manzoni and the Tories say they will appeal. Disgracefully, Manzoni says that if the judgement results in "additional cost", that will be loaded onto already stretched departmental budgets. PCS will expose and oppose any such move.
Rather than this type of corporate style thuggery, the Tories and the obscenely overpaid Manzoni should obey their class's own laws and stop attacking their hard-working and committed workforce who deliver valuable public services on a daily basis.
Prospect leader attacked PCS
The reaction of the Tories may be predictable but that of the union Prospect is astonishing. Its deputy general secretary Garry Graham has sent a letter to its members attacking PCS for taking the government to court.
Completely failing to see how important this judgement is for all trade unions, Graham's reaction is even more self-deluding than Manzoni's. He states the judgement is based on "technical points", that the pre-conditions for the second round of talks were only an "interim offer" which was not acceptable to Prospect, and that PCS was simply "not a party to the negotiations."
Graham goes on to say his union is "perplexed" by the judgement and that if it is not subject to a "stay" (effectively set aside) then the Cabinet Office will simply launch a new consultation on "terms that are significantly worse".
This union 'leader' then goes on to attack PCS for an earlier court challenge we made on the CSCS under Labour which was also successful in protecting workers' rights. Graham says it led to the "far greater challenge of negotiating with the coalition government."
Graham sinks even lower by saying: "The strategy of PCS in seeking to block an agreement reached by eight other unions is less than clear, as is their appetite and desire to engage in any relaunched consultation process. There is a real danger that those in government will see this as an opportunity to revisit the terms negotiated in 2016 with the object of seeking greater savings".
This is nothing less than encouraging the Tories to not only launch further attacks on PCS members but all civil servants, including Prospect members. Perhaps he should be more concerned about his own members considering whether they should take Prospect to court to seek compensation for its role in selling their conditions in an unlawful negotiation.
Right-wing union leaders are incapable of recognising a victory even when it is staring them in the face. Conditioned to concede to the employer at every stage they actually resent the fact that a fighting, campaigning union can achieve what they do not even try to do - stand up to attacks on union members' terms and conditions.
PCS will continue to use all methods to oppose attacks on our members' terms and conditions and to resist the destructive austerity cuts and privatisation agenda that is systematically destroying our public services.
The best way to defeat these attacks is unity among unions on the basis of a 'no cuts, no privatisation' policy. We hope all the unions involved in this battle will welcome the successful result of the PCS challenge as the POA and Unite have, but will reject completely the attempt by Prospect to denigrate this achievement to the detriment of its own members and all civil service workers.
We are awaiting the decision on what remedy will be put in place following the judgement. An update will be given as soon as the decision is known.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 25 July 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.