PCS on strike in 2023, Nottingham. Photo: Gary Freeman
PCS on strike in 2023, Nottingham. Photo: Gary Freeman

Dave Semple, PCS National Vice President-elect (personal capacity)

National elections in the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union closed on Thursday 9 May. Published the next day, the results make for stark reading for the outgoing leadership of the union. Previously holding 31 seats on the 35-seat National Executive Committee (NEC), ‘PCS Left Unity’ (LU) has been reduced to 16 seats.

A clear majority of 19 out of 35 seats, including the post of Deputy President and two of the three Vice President positions, have been won by the alliance of PCS Broad Left Network (BLN) and PCS Independent Left (IL), and other independent activists. Socialist Party members participate, alongside many socialist independents, in the Broad Left Network.

Members will now expect the incoming NEC, with its historic and unprecedented BLN/IL majority, to carry out the programme on which it has been elected – to rebuild PCS as a member-led union.

Left victory arrives at a pivotal moment

The newly elected BLN/IL majority takes up post from 23 May. This shift is happening at a critical juncture, as there is likely to be a general election in 2024 and it is highly likely that Labour will win. This is important to members in the UK civil service and related areas.

First, it is important because the outgoing Tory government seems intent that one of its final acts should be spitting in the face of civil servants by delaying the Treasury Pay Remit. The government must be forced by an industrial campaign to announce significant additional money to sort out years of public sector pay claim problems.

To cancel out pay austerity in the civil service, taking into account everything lost since 2010 as a result of 1% pay rises, pay freezes and the ever-rising cost of living, the average pay rise needed is 39%. Tens of thousands of civil servants earn barely above the minimum wage. Addressing this must be a priority.

This will have to be forced on the government by an industrial campaign.

Second, it is important because, whatever the Tory government does in its remaining time, an incoming Labour government under Keir Starmer is unlikely to make addressing civil service grievances a priority unless we are in a strong position to force it to, by continuing and ramping up an industrial campaign.

Starmer is already caving in to big-business pressure. On workers’ rights, pledges to ban fire-and-rehire (relevant to PCS members because it will halt efforts to reduce our contractual rights on sick leave, annual leave etc) and zero-hour contracts have been watered down.

PCS will need a powerful left voice to rally our sister civil service unions, and a determined campaigning strategy to force an incoming New Labour government to start off on the right foot.

The BLN/IL majority on the incoming NEC is better placed to do this. We are unafraid to criticise Starmer or Labour when they attack workers.

The change will also allow for a more consistent and serious approach to the Gaza crisis, including criticising Starmer’s tail-ending of the Tories. The union’s outgoing leadership has been claiming that it was the first to put out a statement calling for a ceasefire. Meanwhile they have withheld full-throated support from reps seeking to launch workplace campaigns.

The suspension of the civil service’s Muslim Network by the government is a serious matter, and is due to be followed by a sweeping attack on “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” (EDI) in the civil service, to cut the money and staff time invested by departments in making the civil service an inclusive employer.

On matters such as this, LU has been woefully ineffective. In this, as in so many things, it is time for a much more serious approach.

No going back – time for a serious national campaign!

Central to the charges levied by BLN and IL against the outgoing leadership is its failure to build a serious national campaign on pay, jobs, pensions and rights.

The union’s leadership and outgoing NEC totally squandered the massive mandate which members gave them in November 2022. Waiting six weeks to call any action and waiting three months before calling national action, President Martin Cavanagh and his ousted NEC allies wasted the best chance we had for pay justice in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

While a significant amount of targeted action was taken between late December 2022 and May 2023, paid for out of the union’s fighting fund, no analysis was undertaken to find out how well supported this was, how effective it was in exerting industrial pressure on the government, and how it might contribute to an overall settlement.

The outgoing NEC, led by Fran Heathcote and Martin Cavanagh, now General Secretary and President-elect respectively, simply called action and then postured on social media in the hope that this would convince members that they were running a serious campaign. Meanwhile they damaged the campaign by failing to escalate national strike action beyond three days at six-week intervals, supplemented by actions short of strike.

When the Tories actually did blink, in a letter sent to PCS on 2 June 2023, offering a one-off, non-consolidated (i.e. not pensionable) and pro-rata payment of £1,500, instead of redoubling action to force the government to cough up more, the LU leadership cancelled our strikes and ballots.

In essence, they accepted the government’s settlement. They then wasted the ten months between June 2023 and March 2024 with justifying that surrender. We will not make the same mistakes.

Strike ballot results

Our current strike ballot, affecting 171 employers including government departments, executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies, closed at noon on 13 May 2024. This ballot was launched by the outgoing leadership from a standing start, after ten months of inactivity, in March 2024.

The strike ballot timetable devised by the union’s leadership has meant that the results of the vote will not be available until Wednesday 15 May (after the Socialist goes to press), when the NEC meets. This means that dozens of branch mandating meetings will be missed, meaning opportunities for emergency motions and member involvement in debate are lost. This should have been avoided.

Socialist Party members across PCS, including in the Associate and Retired Members’ (ARMs) section of the union, have campaigned ferociously hard for a ‘yes’ vote in the strike ballot. Even while fighting in the union elections, every leaflet handed out asking people to vote for us also said “Vote Yes” in the strike ballot.

We earnestly hope that the result will be over the 50% threshold imposed by the 2016 anti-Trade Union Act, and that we will have a mandate for strike action across the Westminster-linked parts of the union.

Yet we must also recognise the impact of LU’s mishandling of the 2022-23 campaign; of the ten months of inactivity from June 2023 to March 2024; and of the utter disorganisation with which the current ballot was launched – including not a single leaflet being ready for the first week of the ballot

Members saw through all of this. A serious strategy is an industrial necessity – but it is also a tool to mobilise members. The blame for the absence of such a strategy lies squarely with the people who had their hands on every lever of power within the union. The General Secretary, the President, and the now-ousted NEC majority.

Annual Delegate Conference: springboard to action

Reps from across PCS will be meeting in Brighton, for the Group Delegate Conferences (20-21 May) and then for Annual Delegate Conference (21-23 May). We are organising to put through emergency motions that cover as many scenarios as feasible, to ensure a campaigning approach is adopted no matter the ballot result.

If we have a mandate for action that exceeds the 50% threshold set by the anti-union laws, there will be immediate mobilisation. If some areas have a mandate, detailed planning and analysis will be required to see if we can launch a serious campaign while reballoting in other areas. If nowhere is close to the 50% threshold, then we may need a period of preparation for the serious fight ahead.

Delegates to ADC in 2023 were angry with the undemocratic manipulation of the agenda by Fran Heathcote, abetted by Martin Cavanagh, as disclosed through leaked WhatsApp messages. Equally unacceptable was their attempt to attack and undermine a single trans PCS rep and the union’s position on trans rights.

Delegates to ADC in 2023

No doubt there will be more such shenanigans – but finally reps across the whole union, including some previously supportive of Left Unity are beginning to realise that a serious strategy is needed.

Those on the newly elected NEC majority were the first to put forward a serious strategy. The confidence of this new leadership, and its success in future elections, will grow in proportion to their transparency, accountability and the seriousness of its approach to the problems facing members. We send our solidarity greetings to them.

We call on all delegates to unite behind socialist policies at PCS conferences in Brighton, to participate avidly in the Broad Left Network and Socialist Party fringe meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday night, and to join the Broad Left Network, to start work now on rebuilding PCS as a member-led, fighting, democratic trade union fully accountable to members and their elected lay reps.

  • Socialist Party fringe meeting Tuesday 21 May and Broad Left Network Wednesday 22 May, both at 5.30pm in the Gresham Suite, Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

PCS conference – the key debates

JP Rosser, PCS member

The PCS National Executive Committee (NEC) election results have seen members reject Left Unity’s stranglehold on PCS. But just as important will be the PCS policies set at this year’s delegate conference. It is essential that PCS delegates carry motions that deliver the promise of change that the incoming NEC majority campaigned on.

The start of the conference will see delegates debating the national campaign on pay, pensions and jobs. After nearly 12 months of ‘pause’, the NEC figured they could just flick the activist base back to the ‘on’ position. It called a statutory strike ballot without preparation time, no materials or learning events in place, and an Easter break in the middle of the ballot period to break momentum. Our successes in this ballot will be in spite of the Left Unity leadership sabotaging our campaign. Conference should reject their tired and failing methods by opposing motion A1 and supporting motion A2.

Political strategy

A recurring theme in conference debates will be political strategy. We know a general election is coming, so a robust strategy is essential. It is even more vital as Keir Starmer shows that he is safe for big business – his tail-ending of the Tories over Gaza, his refusal to support strikes, and now his retreats from his commitments on workers’ rights. We need real workers’ political representation. Motion A13 should be opposed, it blocks PCS support for any candidates and is an abdication of leadership. We need political representation and support a reference back of motion X157 to deliver a political strategy that works for members. We also recommend support for an emergency motions where PCS calls for a vote for candidates that support PCS policy.

Technical services has been a heated area of debate in the union due to the failings of PCS Digital and the censorship of member information. We support motions A15 to A18 and a reference back of X170. These motions will help undo the centralisation of control from elected reps to full-time officers. PCS must reclaim its title as a fighting democratic union accountable to its members.

Rules changes

This year there is an entire section on rule changes – proposed mainly by the NEC. Motions A37 to A40 accommodate hybrid conference arrangements. While modernisation of our rules is needed, there has been no consultation with branches and these rules don’t provide protections for union democracy. We recommend opposing motions A37 to A40. That sends a clear message that we want meaningful consultation in 2024, leading to rule changes at ADC 2025 that enhance our democracy.

At one time, the organising strategy was passed with a simple nod, but not in recent years. The current PCS organising strategy is ‘building, growing, winning’. The figures show falling PCS membership, especially in the biggest groups. Falling membership density, fewer reps, and PCS isn’t ‘winning’ on the biggest issues facing our members today. Motion A55 calls for PCS to keep doing the same things but somehow expecting that this time it will deliver better results. Clearly a new organising approach is needed. We recommend support for motion A56 which shows much greater ambition and faith in members to deliver.

International motions

One of the most passionate and heartfelt sessions this year is likely to be International motions. The genocide in Gaza has rightly prompted many of our members to protest against the government’s complicity in arming the Israeli government to murder civilians. We recommend supporting motions A99 and A100. We also recommend support for an emergency motion calling on PCS in taking the lead in mobilising defence of those workers who take industrial action to halt arms exports to Israel.

Solidarity with PCS delegates.