Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/20080
Defend the PCS
Solidarity to defeat union-busting
The Public and Commercial Services union is under sustained attack by the government, which is trying to bankrupt the union and destroy its capacity to defend its members against cuts and privatisation. John McInally, PCS national vice-president, in a personal capacity explains the very serious nature of the battle the PCS has been forced to engage in and takes up those in the trade union movement who are failing to offer the necessary solidarity.
Ian Lavery MP, former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, has described the Tories' attack on the PCS union as the most serious on the British trade union movement since their attempt to smash the miners in the 1980s.
Personally coordinated by Tory Cabinet Office secretary Francis Maude, they aim to bankrupt our union through withdrawal of the internationally recognised check-off facility whereby union subscriptions are deducted at source from members' wages. They plan to render PCS incapable of defending and representing its members and to silence its opposition to the government's cuts and privatisation programme.
The Tories are conducting unremitting class war in a determined effort to take back all the gains won by the working class through generations of struggle, including the National Health Service and other parts of the welfare state. They want to remove trade union and human rights and institutionalise inequality.
They are attacking PCS for concrete reasons. Our union has been at the forefront of the resistance to austerity. We have consistently argued that as the attacks on public sector jobs, conditions and services stem from the same source, the coalition government, then the trade union movement must build effective, joint, coordinated industrial action across the public sector - and private sector when possible - to defeat it. PCS has also consistently advocated its alternative to austerity - based on investment, tax justice and public ownership - which has challenged the political consensus shared by all the establishment parties that there is no alternative to austerity.
With its strong rank and file activist base and under its socialist leadership, PCS is seen by many trade unionists and workers as a beacon of resistance to austerity and an alternative to the type of collaborative trade unionism that allowed the corporate elite to cut and privatise without a serious coordinated fightback.
Attack on trade unionism
PCS may be the main target at present but this attack is part of a wider anti-democratic strategy aimed at eliminating effective, campaigning trade unionism from the public sector and to extirpate any force in society that dares oppose, or even articulates, the heretical notion that there is an alternative to austerity.
The Tories want free rein to plunder and destroy the public sector. They want to deal only with what Maude calls "responsible" union leaders or, in other words, compliant 'pragmatists' who would rather concession-bargain on the employers' terms and police and even witch-hunt their own activists if they dare become too vocal, than fight cuts and privatisation.
PCS is under attack over a wide front. The government refuses to negotiate at national level while implementing a clear national cuts strategy throughout all departmental groups. They won't negotiate national agreements but try to diminish or rip up those that already exist by driving through disadvantageous conditions wherever they can and remove bargaining rights on a piecemeal basis. Facility time is under severe attack in an attempt to weaken the union's ability to defend and represent members, with the national leadership being specifically targeted on an individual basis.
Other unions who faced withdrawal of check-off have taken upwards of three years to recover subs-paying membership levels. Although PCS is a very efficiently organised and administered union it will still take a tremendous effort to sign up all current members to direct debit. The Tories' intention is to exploit potential lower membership density levels in the short term as a pretext to denying union recognition altogether. Alongside their threats to further tighten anti-union laws, particularly in the public sector, this attack is part of a plan to effectively outlaw industrial action.
HM Revenue and Customs
The attacks are clearly political as demonstrated by a document from HMRC Human Resources (HR). The lame excuse from HMRC that the vicious union-busting proposals contained in the paper were only one of a number of policy considerations is a lie exposed by the simple fact that the strategy it outlines is clearly being implemented, including "proactive measures targeted at key union activists" and "degradation of PCS's organising capability by permanently reducing the influence of union leaders".
HMRC has refused to negotiate on legitimate industrial grievances and has attempted to marginalise and isolate the union. It has summarily removed all facilities from union negotiators and has targeted representatives.
HMRC HR is working with an embittered ex-PCS activist who has been involved in setting up a staff association (RCTU), a scab outfit designed to undermine effective trade unionism in the department.
HMRC chief executive Lyn Homer is a controversial figure who has been slated by both the Election Commission when chief executive of Birmingham City Council in respect of a vote-rigging scandal that would "disgrace a banana republic" and by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which claimed it had been repeatedly misled by the UK Border Agency during her tenure as Director-General, criticising a "catastrophic failure of leadership".
She presides over a government agency treated as a standing joke by the tax-dodging corporate elite. But rather than concentrate on tackling tax evasion and avoidance she presses ahead with cuts that further compromise tax collecting efficiency, while giving top priority to smashing PCS. While chief executives in other departments, albeit lamely, cite pressure by ministers to carry out Maude's union-busting edicts to end check-off, the decision to withdraw it in HMRC was entirely hers.
She neatly epitomises the new breed of highly politicised civil service executives, slavishly loyal to the cuts and privatisation agenda in the sure knowledge that a grateful corporate elite will never forget their services.
HMRC HR director and would-be union-buster Jonathan Donovan has been chosen by Maude to oversee a Cabinet Office project on "Responsible Trade Unionism" to root out campaigning trade unionism in the public sector. The very fact that civil servants are being instructed to engage in this politically contentious activity is a scandal but not one the compliant media and mainstream political class seem so far to have any interest in.
And in a bizarre and sinister over-reaction to a PCS survey on staffing, the Home Office secured a secret injunction against the union and ITV News on the grounds of endangering national security. It claimed that identifying staff shortages would be useful for terrorist organisations like ISIS and Al Qaeda!
Right-wing led unions
There is worse though. While recognising debate between unions, sometimes sharp, is a vital part of the democratic life of our movement, reflective of the serious nature of the struggle in which we are involved and which arises from differing perspectives, PCS is nevertheless entitled to demand solidarity and unity from the rest of the trade union movement in the face of this attack. Sadly however, disturbing evidence is emerging that Maude has the tacit support of some union leaders in his attempts to isolate our union.
Unison represents a layer of local government and PCS civil service workers and, as elsewhere in the movement, issues of membership overlap arise. PCS is scrupulous in passing over members when such situations occur but some Unison leaders are not. Last year Maude summarily granted Unison bargaining rights in the civil service without the consent of PCS and other unions in the National Trade Union Council.
To gain bargaining rights through a backdoor deal with a Tory minister who is coordinating an all-out union-busting assault on another union is a matter of considerable concern. Unison's leadership is now pressing for similar bargaining rights in the huge DWP department.
PCS had no option but to complain to the TUC. The response of the current Unison leadership was shocking. They tried to justify their behaviour by untruthfully claiming that PCS had organised a demonstration outside their offices. They also objected to us talking to Unite the Union and, much more worrying, clearly implied that as the world of work was changing, the rules that bind unions to respect bargaining rights are to be put aside. This opens up the prospect of a series of divisive 'turf wars' at a time when maximum unity is required to face the government's onslaught against the public sector.
Through national strike action PCS won a jobs protocol agreement that offered considerable protection to workers facing redundancy. In recent weeks the Unison leaders have endorsed Maude's proposals to dilute this agreement despite the fact that they took no part in securing it and that the majority of members affected are in the PCS, with barely any in Unison.
Rather than throw their weight behind PCS in its hour of need it seems that some in the Unison leadership are willing to see our union broken because they calculate it will present easy pickings to boost their membership levels and increase their influence in the public sector, thereby consolidating their brand of "responsible" trade unionism.
It is highly unlikely that Unison members, the majority of its activists or even of its NEC members are aware of the role being played by the ruling clique. In fact messages of support have been sent to PCS by Unison branches, activists and members as well as from many other parts of the trade union movement.
The attack on PCS sank to new depths with a calculated propaganda onslaught in the Civil Service World magazine which particularly targeted PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka. Absurd and cynical spin was uncritically repeated, the most ridiculous being the lie that Maude would have kept to national arrangements on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme, despite having set out major detrimental changes he intended to introduce, had not PCS taken and actually won legal action to defend it. Following his defeat in court, Maude then introduced legislation to push the changes through. His tired old slander that Mark Serwotka refuses to meet him to negotiate is rolled out too.
More worryingly, union leaders from Prospect and the FDA lined up with one of the 'leaders' of the state-supported HMRC staff association RCTU, scandalously portrayed as a legitimate union, to repeat the lies that PCS does not negotiate, is purely politically motivated and that by fighting to defend its members against cuts and privatisation has brought the attacks upon itself.
The attack in the CSW magazine appeared to be coordinated, and was clearly intended to inflict real damage on our union by justifying union-busting. Its political motivation was blatant: repetition of the demoralising falsehood whereby some union leaders seek to justify their failure to fight back by claiming there is no alternative to austerity and that cuts and privatisation are an irreversible fact of life.
PCS will always work in solidarity and unity with other unions. But we will not remain silent when our union comes under this type of cowardly attack from within our own movement. Whatever differences exist between us it is disgraceful that any union leaders would acquiesce with, or seek to gain advantage from, a Tory union-busting operation. It is unacceptable on every level and must stop. If not, PCS will expose it and fight back in the most uncompromising fashion.
Financial campaign and savings
PCS prepared for the attack on check-off over the past few years and we are signing members up to direct debit at an unprecedented rate. Check-off was ended in the Home Office last November and hard campaigning has secured a sign-up rate so far of 73%. This is excellent work but much more must be done. The coming months will see a sharp fall in income and is the period of greatest danger for us.
PCS will emerge from this attack a stronger, harder organisation but faced with this threat the national executive committee (NEC) has had to take some very hard financial decisions. Our budget must be reduced by £6.5 million this year to ensure the union's survival. As part of these savings the NEC has had to suspend national and group elections, which cost £600,000 each year, for a maximum of one year. As well as this crucial and significant saving, the election suspension helps to ensure that all the energy of activists and full time staff is focussed on optimising direct debit sign-up. This decision was taken to secure the future of PCS as it fights for its very survival. It would have represented a wholly unacceptable risk not to have done so.
Democracy is in PCS's DNA and the leadership's record on democracy, consultation and inclusiveness is exemplary. The current leadership fought to introduce annual elections in place of the previous two-yearly process, a decision that had to be defended in the High Court during an attempted right-wing coup, during which Mark Serwotka and president Janice Godrich actually risked the loss of their own homes to defend union democracy.
PCS's leadership has encouraged a culture of debate and criticism. It is right and indeed welcome that activists should closely question the leadership on all its decisions, particularly the one on this year's elections. While this decision is not one the NEC ever wanted to take we are confident that the majority of activists and members will understand that in such an emergency it was correct to take it.
Criticism from left groups
But even during the hardest battle, opportunism from some people is never far below the surface - the decision is under attack from the sectarian left within the union itself. The reaction of some in the so-called Independent Left, controlled by the Alliance for Workers Liberty, has been shameless.
Rather than unite to face this attack they have used the issue of suspending the elections as an opportunity to attack the leadership in an attempt to turn the union into a battleground for their own political advantage.
They make, for example, the breath-taking claim that the threat is "overstated". Conspiracy theories abound, apparently it is a devious plan to avoid elections, which is particularly unconvincing given that the leadership has been re-elected for twelve years in a row; for thirteen in the case of Janice Godrich. It is worth recalling that last year, when the Independent Left had the opportunity to stand against Mark Serwotka and assistant general secretary Chris Baugh in senior officer elections, they failed to do so.
They seem unable to appreciate that it would be an incredibly dumb tactic to cancel elections for any other reason than that of absolute necessity. They even absurdly claim the NEC tried to "sneak" the decision through, an accusation of almost heroic stupidity, as if the activists wouldn't notice!
Of course, in none of their attacks do they pose any serious alternative on how to save money or deal with the threat facing PCS and they avoid addressing the context in which the decision was made, by barely mentioning the Tory attack on their own union. This reaction is to be expected by the AWL, which plays the 'left card' in PCS while working with right-wingers in some other unions. Its history in PCS and our predecessor union CPSA is one of divisiveness, often splitting from the united left at times exactly when management are on the offensive.
The position taken by the Socialist Workers Party is more serious. Unlike the Independent Left, the SWP is part of the socialist group in PCS, Left Unity (LU), whose national committee endorsed the NEC decision, as has DWP LU. Two of the SWP's PCS NEC members signed a "statement" arguing that the union is not in an emergency situation, although apparently they do accept it is a "crisis" - a baffling semantic distinction that will be lost on most people. They use the cynical formulation that democracy is being "suspended" and argue that the elections should go ahead alongside a full branch consultation on the union's finances.
The Tories' attack is aimed at destroying PCS's democratic rank and file culture which is the foundation of its campaigning tradition. That the SWP seeks, in the midst of this onslaught, to elevate the tactical decision to suspend the elections for one year in order to secure the union's survival, to a matter of principle, demonstrates a shocking inability to recognise the material reality of the PCS's situation. To argue that attention and energy be diverted away from the task of maximising sign-up to direct debit is an act of gross irresponsibility.
A real choice faces the SWP in this matter. They know this measure was taken in order to secure the future of PCS, including its democratic structures. Given the circumstances in which the measure was taken, by a left leadership with exemplary democratic and campaigning credentials, it would be an unforgivable act of cynical opportunism to play a game of "our hands are clean" in the midst of a battle for the union's survival.
Secure PCS's future
It is a feature of left sectarians that when big class battles are in progress they are simply incapable of rising to the task. The role of some on the left during the great miners' strike of the 1980s is brought to mind, who echoed the ruling class and right-wing union demand for a ballot to be held in the midst of that battle.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of calling a ballot at the beginning of the dispute it was clear to most workers, let alone socialists, that at the height of that great struggle the choice was stark - support the union or attack and undermine it. Treating the demand for a ballot as an objective 'principle' elevated above the reality of the nature of the attack on the NUM, perfectly illustrated the distorted consciousness of the sectarian.
Neither the status quo 'pragmatism' of those who are attacking PCS from the right, nor the ersatz 'idealism' of those attacking from the 'left' will divert the PCS leadership from working with activists and members to save and secure the future of our union. We urge the SWP to stand with the overwhelming majority of activists and members in this battle. That doesn't mean agreeing with every decision or action. But continuing to attack the NEC decision to suspend the elections without proposing an alternative is not a serious approach.
The attacks being made on PCS reveal a confederacy of malice determined to silence a strong voice of resistance against austerity. We appeal to all trade unionists, workers and socialists to support us in this struggle. The real question in this battle is actually an old and simple one - which side are you on?