PCS National Gallery dispute, photo Paul Mattsson

PCS National Gallery dispute, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

CPSA to PCS: Fighting the ‘Moderates’ and building a fighting union

John McInally PCS national vice-president (personal capacity)

Revelations from recently released Cabinet papers in the Morning Star newspaper show the “Moderate” leaders of the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) collaborated with the Thatcher government in stopping Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) supporter John Macreadie from taking up post as CPSA general secretary following his election victory in 1986.

Collaboration between the Moderates and the Tories is no surprise. CPSA was a predecessor union of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS). PCS is widely regarded as a campaigning union prepared to fight for its members and the wider interests of the working class. Amongst the current leadership, including president Janice Godrich, general secretary Mark Serwotka, assistant general secretary Chris Baugh and deputy president Kevin McHugh, many spent decades fighting and campaigning against the corrupt right-wing leadership in CPSA.

The role of the right wing in the trade union movement is, in the final analysis, to represent the interests of the employer by policing union members, lowering expectations of potential gains and pouring cold water on the idea that conditions can be defended. They also play a vital role for the ruling class by opposing socialist ideas and policies. The CPSA Moderates had well-documented links to the state, perhaps not unsurprisingly as they operated in a civil service union.

As the post-war economic upswing faltered the ruling class set out to wrest back from the working class many of the gains won over generations of struggle. This meant cuts to, and privatisation of, public services and attacks on public sector workers’ terms and conditions.

Moderates’ ideology

Kate Losinska, President of CPSA, in 1975 summed up the Moderates’ ideology when she said:

With their massive and covert recruitment of public sector employees – nearly 10% of the active membership of my union now supports the militant-left. Marxists are following a blueprint that helped bring control in Eastern Europe … extremists could conceivably take over the whole country“.

She went on to say:

The biggest casualty of Marxist militancy has been the tradition that public servants would, whatever their grievances, carry on with their duties … Our hard-pressed security forces now face many new tasks. At one time they were mainly concerned in catching traitors passing state secrets to other countries. Today they must also check the subtler sabotage of Trotskyists prepared to do anything to discredit the state“.

Losinska made these comments at a time when the union’s activists were demanding a strike policy for the union. The Moderates fought tooth and nail to stop the union developing such a policy.

John Macreadie, deputy leader of CPSA, civil servants union, 1987

John Macreadie, deputy leader of CPSA, civil servants union, 1987

Her comments were also an open declaration that any methods were permissible in dealing with activists whom she had compared to “traitors”. She had in mind socialists like John Macreadie, Terry Adams and others, particularly in Militant, who worked to build a fighting campaigning union capable of meeting these attacks.

It was Militant supporters in CPSA who argued most strongly for the setting up of an effective, campaigning Broad Left based on defending members’ interests and advocating socialist policies which, in that period, included calls to affiliate to the Labour Party, something the Moderates bitterly opposed. They aimed to run the union as a personal fiefdom based on the collaborationist methods of business unionism and were prepared to employ the union bureaucracy, press, legal system and other apparatuses of the state in the fight against rising militancy.

Trotskyist infiltration narrative

The Moderates aimed to run the union in the interests of the establishment and tried to construct a narrative of ‘Trotskyist infiltration’ to discredit those activists and members who had taken a sharp turn to the left under the government’s attacks. Losinska and other right-wing union leaders actually helped ‘advise’ Norman Tebbit in drawing up the Thatcher anti-trade union laws and acquiesced in the banning of unions at GCHQ.

But attempts to stop industrial action were flying in the face of events. The Thatcher government was intent on taking on the civil service unions. In 1981 the first national civil service strike around the issue of pay, which involved CPSA and other civil service unions, took place. The Tories had suffered setbacks at the hands of the miners and other unions, and thought civil service workers would be an easy touch.

But the Tories miscalculated, the strike lasted 21 weeks and had a tremendous impact with airports and ports closed, driving tests cancelled, passports not issued and even the re-fitting of new nuclear submarines in dry dock “seriously impaired”.

The strategy put forward by Militant and the Broad Left was adopted by CPSA special conference and summarised as: “No section of the membership should be excluded: selective strike action in the most effective areas, eg customs, immigration and Civil Aviation Authority; one-day strikes of all members, consultations with other civil service unions to set up ‘all unions’ campaign committees; a strike levy, regular information bulletins; industrial action to be escalated as and when circumstances required.”

The strike had an enormous impact on government finances and may well have been won but for the number of opportunities squandered by the union leadership. Nevertheless, there was no going back to the days of no-strike polices. The strike set the conditions for CPSA, in spite of its right-wing leadership, to become a militant union and throughout the 1980s in particular there were a great many local and departmental group disputes that the Moderates had to authorise under membership pressure. But the right wing set their face against any repetition of national action, resulting in a ‘bonfire of agreements’ including the abolition of national pay bargaining, the break-up of the civil service into agencies, market testing and privatisation.

The Moderates waged a ruthless internal war against their opponents. The victory of John Macreadie in the 1986 general secretary election was their worst nightmare come true and they collaborated with the government and the press and, with the help of a compliant judiciary, overturned the result.

The press went into full rabid witch hunting mode; a Daily Mail editorial entitled “A threat to democracy” frothed:

It is to the credit of the union that it is undertaking an inquiry into the election which may lead to Mr Macreadie being ousted. Its members have little to be proud of in that their apathy … (as they) … allowed a member of a subversive organisation to grab the reigns (sic) of power. Mr Peter Brunvels MP, wants the Government to purge the civil service of supporters of Militant. He has a point. The Militants create mayhem wherever they land.”

The Moderate national executive committee refused to allow John to take up post, completely in breach of union rules, forcing a legal challenge in which a politically motivated judgement backed their actions. The re-run was conducted with the backdrop of an unprecedented hate campaign in the press and media against John and the left and John Ellis, the right-wing candidate, was elected. John Macreadie was eventually elected as deputy general secretary in a subsequent election.

Victimisations and sackings

The witch hunting of the left continued under Ellis and president Marion Chambers, with Militant supporters their key targets.

The Newcastle branch – under the leadership of Broad Left presidential candidate Doreen Purvis – represented everything the Moderates hated, a strong, well organised branch with high membership and with a determined workforce led by a militant, socialist leadership. The branch leaders were singled out for a particularly vicious smear campaign over “irregularities” leading to an “investigation” carried out by compliant right-wing bureaucrats.

Stripped of office and subjected to a vicious press campaign, the “Newcastle Eight”, with the full support of the Broad Left, launched a tremendous campaign that resulted in the CPSA conference, to the fury of the Moderates, overturning the penalties imposed on them by the right wing.

In a subsequent move the right wing collaborated with the Employment Service in the sacking of Amanda Lane who, like Doreen, was a leading Militant and Broad Left activist. Another CPSA member, Steve Goldfinch was also sacked.

Bedminster Jobcentre CPSA members had demonstrated tremendous solidarity when they walked out in protest at the advertisement, in direct breach of the ES’s own guidelines, of the jobs of sacked Arrowsmith company print workers in Bristol. For management and government ministers – the latter had been consulted about the sackings – and for the Moderate leadership under president Chambers and general secretary Barry Reamsbottom, the strikers’ real crime was that they had demonstrated solidarity with fellow workers. For the Moderates, the Tories and management this was unforgivable and the strikers had to be dealt with as harshly as possible to discourage other workers from behaving in a similar fashion.

Despite a tremendous campaign, including a well-supported two-day protest strike in Bristol, the campaign for reinstatement didn’t succeed due to the fact the Moderates treated the victimisations as “personal cases”. They tried to sabotage the campaign at each stage – even to the point where management used material produced by CPSA in tribunals against the victimised members.

These victimisations did not demoralise the Broad Left and Militant but drove them on to challenge the undemocratic leadership even more. Resistance to and exposure of these methods severely damaged the Moderates in the minds of activists and many members. This, and principally, their complete failure to defend members’ interests, saw their power wane in the face of a determined left activist base.

Ongoing battles

Soon after the formation of PCS , Mark Serwotka was elected general secretary and Janice Godrich president. Right-wing general secretary Barry Reamsbottom and the Moderates tried to bar them both from power on the basis of a constitutional coup; the resulting outrage from members and activists led to a humiliating defeat for the right wing.

The lessons of the overthrow of John Macreadie’s election as CPSA general secretary are every bit as relevant today as they were back in the 1980s. The Moderates are a distant memory but the collaborationist ideology they exemplified is alive and well. The sell-out of the pensions dispute, the refusal of the TUC and right-wing public sector union leaders to organise coordinated action against the pay freeze and austerity and, most recently, the disgraceful attempt by the TUC leadership to isolate the RMT in the Southern Rail dispute are all examples of a type of trade unionism that will never deliver for the working class.

In recent years the Tories tried to smash the PCS when the union was singled out for withdrawal of the check-off system of paying union subs with the intention of destroying the union’s finances; this was nothing less than a state-sponsored attempt to smash a trade union that opposed their cuts and privatisation programme. PCS defeated that attack and in the past year has seen recruitment increase by 30%.

The role of the state is evident not just in the drive for ever harsher anti-trade union laws but also in the systematic attempt to get rid of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The role of the right-wing press in particular is to ensure socialist ideas do not get a fair hearing.

None of this will stop workers struggling but if there is one lesson to learn it is that the left in the trade union move must be organised – because the right wing always have been.