PCS: Safeguarding its future in the face of vicious Tory attacks
Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser
As the Tories threaten to increase Britain’s draconian anti-trade union laws beyond the general election, thousands of trade union reps across the trade union movement are even now facing huge cuts in their facility time. At national level the PCS civil servants union is already suffering the biggest attack on a trade union since the miners’ strike with the abolition of check-off (deduction of subscriptions to the union by the employer from each union member’s pay) and the establishment of a scab union.
The PCS must be defended by the wider trade union movement. This is essential preparation for the battle to defend the movement from further attacks. Relying on Labour winning the election to solve the situation would be a huge mistake, as Labour has made no promises to repeal the anti-trade union laws or to reverse these latest attacks.
Faced with a temporary but very sharp drop in income as a result of check-off ending, the PCS NEC has had to make difficult decisions to cut expenditure, including suspending for one year the union’s annual elections. Some on the left have condemned this decision, clearly not understanding the urgent need for the PCS to take the necessary measures to safeguard its future in the face of this vicious attack, in order to retain its fighting strength for the next round of the struggle.
The PCS has a left leadership with a proud record of democratising the union. This record isn’t lessened by, on this occasion, being reluctantly forced into extremely difficult, pragmatic, tactical decisions. These are necessary in order to shore up the union for a hopefully short period while it embarks on the mammoth task of trying to recruit up to 60% of its members onto direct debit subs payments.
PCS’s NEC wants to throw all the union’s resources at the direct debit campaign in what would normally be the election period, at the same time that management are denying lay reps facility time.
The experience of the NUT showed that such a campaign can recoup lost subs but it took the NUT up to three years. PCS is equally confident of recovering the losses but it doesn’t have three years of leeway – it has no option but to implement emergency measures to ensure the ongoing viability of the union. The suspension of the annual elections for one year is one of a raft of options that were explored, including selling the union’s HQ.
Not just financial
The financial attack is only part of the Con-Dem assault on the democratic rights of PCS and its members. If PCS’s union density falls in some departments, the government could be emboldened to attempt to de-recognise the union. Facility time, from local reps to the national leadership, has been slashed and in the second biggest group, HMRC, a new staff association, in reality a scab union, has been launched.
Worryingly, Unison has been granted negotiating rights in the civil service in a move that raises the spectre of another new front against PCS, something that the left in Unison should question and oppose. In a very welcome development, some Unison branches have sent messages of support and solidarity to PCS.
Of course, PCS is not alone in facing attacks on its hard-won rights. Many reps from a whole number of unions have had facility time removed. This has been part of an offensive (built on the platform of Thatcher’s anti-union laws and maintained by Blair and Brown) by big business and their representatives in parliament and increasingly in local councils controlled by any of the main parties, including Labour. They want to weaken, if not smash the unions and render them powerless in the face of the austerity offensive against the historic gains of the working class.
In the months before Christmas, the Tory Fire Authority in Buckinghamshire outrageously sacked FBU executive member Ricky Matthews and Haringey Labour council is presently victimising NUT branch secretary Julie Davies.
It is clear however, that the government-led attack on PCS is of a qualitatively different scale and is comparable in some respects to that faced by the NUM 30 years ago when Thatcher had it in her sights. It is also for the same reason. Since the left won a majority in the PCS union’s leadership over a decade ago, with Socialist Party members playing a leading role alongside Mark Serwotka, PCS has played a key role in resisting the attacks on jobs, pay and pensions from successive Labour and Con-Dem governments.
In particular, during the tenure of the present Tory-led coalition, PCS has acted as a left lever on the other far bigger unions in the public sector to build mass co-ordinated strike action which peaked in the N30 2011 pensions dispute walkout of two million workers. PCS was central to building this joint action and in attempting to retrieve it after union leaders like Unison’s Prentis stalled the strikes.
The government’s present assault on the PCS is only possible because of the failure of the TUC leadership to build on the 2011 public sector general strike in order to create a movement that could have defeated the Con-Dems. At every stage the PCS has fought to escalate the co-ordinated strike action against austerity, but it has unfortunately been isolated in doing so.
The left PCS leadership has impeccable democratic credentials. It was instrumental in introducing and maintaining annual elections and conferences – both were two-yearly when PCS was created by the merger of the CPSA and PTC. Janice Godrich, PCS president and Socialist Party Scotland member, has won 13 consecutive annual elections, unheard of in almost every other union.
Elections every two years, or even three, are the norm in most unions. In 2002 Mark Serwotka and Janice along with left PCS activists and rank and file members had to fight to uphold the democratic decision of members when the right wing was defeated in the union’s elections, opening the door to PCS being transformed into a fighting union.
As we near the general election, there will be those union leaders who have a vested interest in playing down the potential that the union movement has had to force back the Con-Dems and their austerity offensive.
Despite the legacy of the last decades on workers’ confidence, on a number of occasions and particularly around N30, the unions had the opportunity to win significant and even fundamental victories. PCS, a fifth to a quarter the size of Unison and Unite, played a pivotal role in this resistance and is now being targeted by the government, the author of brutal cuts.
It has no option but to marshal its troops in this extremely challenging situation to ensure defence of its members in this period and the next. The alternative would be a huge defeat both for PCS and the whole working-class movement, opening the door to further offensives on the unions. PCS is up for the fight and the rest of the trade union movement should show them all the support that they need.
All union left activists need to call on their respective leaderships to approach PCS (and other unions under attack) and to discuss individually and collectively on the TUC General Council what solidarity measures are needed.