PCS conference 2018: building on the union’s militant record
An interview with PCS assistant general secretary Chris Baugh
Socialist Party member Chris Baugh has been three times elected assistant general secretary (AGS) of the PCS civil servants’ union.
He will again be seeking the support of Left Unity later this year, to be its candidate in next year’s election for a fourth term.
Chris Baugh addressing a NSSN conference
Chris has a long and distinguished record fighting for CPSA (predecessor of PCS) and PCS members, both as a lay activist and as AGS.
Chris was a founder member of the CPSA Broad Left and has played a major role over the years in uniting the left into the largest, open, democratic, fighting, rank-and-file organisation in the trade union movement.
Here Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser, asks Chris, in a personal capacity, about his record and his thoughts on the major issues facing the union.
See also Chris’ Facebook page – facebook.com/ChrisBaugh AGS
What will be the major issues at this year’s PCS conference?
Firstly, I strongly welcome the National Executive Committee (NEC) election result which shows the strong support for Left Unity as part of the Democracy Alliance.
I look forward to continuing to work with national president and Socialist Party member Janice Godrich, general secretary Mark Serwotka, the elected left NEC and the network of activists and members across the union in my capacity as AGS in challenging the Tories’ unprecedented attack on members’ pay, jobs and conditions at work.
I think pay will undoubtedly dominate the conference and, consistent with our union’s democratic traditions, it will be conference that decides the next stage in our national campaign to secure government funding to break the pay cap and restore central pay bargaining.
Ten years of pay freezes and caps have cut wages in real terms. The consultative ballot last November shows there is a basis for a fight on pay this year.
We need to move to a statutory ballot to force the government to negotiate on our pay claim, Treasury remit and the right to bargain on behalf of all our members.
I am confident that like the Communication Workers Union and the University and College Union, our campaign can mobilise the whole union to defy the undemocratic voting thresholds in the new Tory anti-union law and win a decisive ballot result for the sustained industrial action that we will need.
Conference is the union’s parliament and we will also be discussing how PCS responds to a civil service left in crisis as a result of Tory cuts and office closures.
We’re fighting for members’ conditions, resources for Brexit, consolidating union finances, fighting for equality at work and in society, and protecting the environment.
We also need to discuss how a politically independent PCS works with the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party in challenging the Tory austerity agenda, in the interests of our members.
How can PCS work with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the interests of members?
The austerity measures have brought hardship and misery to PCS members and working class families generally.
PCS has an outstanding anti-austerity record, but there is only so much you can achieve industrially.
This is why, as a socialist, I see the need to engage politically. As well as tenaciously fighting for members’ interests, PCS has set out an alternative to austerity.
These include tax justice, a fair social security system, an alternative view of the Land Registry that helped us stop privatisation as well as alternatives in culture, transport, justice, prisons and Registers of Scotland.
Despite not being affiliated to Labour, PCS has been to the fore in supporting Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Their general election manifesto was an important step forward for our members in challenging Tory austerity.
Like many PCS members, I reject the attacks on Corbyn’s leadership by the capitalists, their press and the Blairites, which is a warning of the massive pressure that a Corbyn-led Labour government would be put under by big business not to implement radical measures to improve the lives of working class people.
Our culture of industrial militancy, mobilising our members to fight for their interests, is the best support that we can give to ensure that Jeremy’s polices are implemented.
I am opposed to the expulsion and exclusion of socialists and am in favour of opening up the Labour Party to socialist fighters.
I want to see the implementation of the union’s political strategy that allows us to support candidates who support our policies.
What do the NEC election results represent?
PCS is a great union and credit goes to Left Unity for this – democratising the union and equipping it with a fighting programme.
The re-election of the Democracy Alliance (Left Unity/PCS Democrats) will give encouragement to activists to continue their involvement in the union and to strengthen it.
We have survived a tough period with attacks on facility time and the removal of the check-off mechanism to collect membership fees, on top of massive job cuts.
I want to pay tribute to our members, activists and officers who faced down the Tories and defended this union.
As the union’s national treasurer, I understood that they wanted to bankrupt PCS. A leaked union-busting document in HMRC exposed the employers’ plans to achieve the “organisational degradation of PCS’s capacity to represent its members” by “limiting the influence of local reps” and “targeted elected leaders”.
We have defied this attempt to undermine our finances and despite all the pressures, we continue to protect our culture of lay democracy and to defend our members’ interests. It is vital we continue to do so.
What would you most look forward to in a further term as AGS?
Firstly, helping to continue our militant record.
Secondly, working as part of the left leadership to defend the union and its members at this critical moment.
Thirdly, winning new members and activists, as well as strengthening both union organisation and our bargaining power which I believe reinforce each other.
I believe that there are real opportunities to build PCS. Brexit could see new civil service jobs and we have to recruit them.
I also think that there are sectors such as culture – where our members have had a whole series of disputes over the last few years in which I’ve been heavily involved – where we could attract new and often young members.
We also need to continue winning gains in the devolved countries and in our delegated groups. And we need to maintain and develop our equalities agenda and how we increase the involvement of women, black and Asian, disabled and LGBT+ members in our union.
Of course, we need to strengthen the appeal and relevance of the union to younger workers and continue to build the Young Members’ Network.
I have also played a big role in raising the profile of the union on the environment, making the case that climate change is a trade union issue.
That’s why the PCS pamphlet I’ve been involved in, ‘Just Transition and Energy Democracy: a civil service trade union perspective,’ makes the case for public ownership and democratic control of energy to protect communities in terms of jobs as well as the environment.
At all levels of the union we are involved in negotiating improvements for members and in taking action necessary to defend ourselves.
An active union is an encouragement to recruitment – the UCU strike action on pay led to the recruitment of up to 20,000 new members.
I am confident and enthusiastic about the future of the union and look forward to continuing playing my part in the leadership of the union as AGS.
How and when did you become active?
I joined Lytham Land Registry when I was 16, I became active in the CPSA union and went to the union’s conference in 1976.
It was there that I met Militant [predecessor of the Socialist Party] supporters and was impressed with their enthusiasm and ideas, which led me to join Militant as I became more active in the union and building support for a broad left.
You were at the founding conference of the Broad Left in 1977…
Yes, I went to the conference which founded the Broad Left in CPSA. With others, we ensured it was an open and inclusive rank-and-file organisation.
Despite a split in 1984, the Broad Left went on to win a national executive committee (NEC) majority in CPSA in 1987.
I was first elected on to the NEC in 1981 and many times after, including being elected vice president in 1994.
Faced with Tory attacks, and the right-wing leadership of CPSA, I played a leading role in working to reunify the left as an open and democratic body, respecting different points of view within a common industrial and political programme.
Out of this, CPSA Left Unity was formed in 1995, where the same approach helped create PCS Left Unity after the merger of CPSA and PTC created the PCS.
PCS Left Unity is recognised as one of the largest and most influential rank-and-file left organisation in the British trade union movement.
It is a positive example of how left groups and activists can work together. This would never have been possible without getting the basic approach and principles right, nor the important role of Socialist Party members.
As a result, PCS was transformed into a fighting union by defeating the right-wing leadership, even defying an undemocratic coup attempt.
Left Unity is more than just an election machine, and this accounts for its success. This is measured both by the impact in PCS and the wider movement.
The left leadership of PCS was key in the 2011 pensions’ struggle that led to the two million-strong 30 November strike.
PCS Left Unity called an open conference of the left across the unions in January 2012 of over 500 union activists to try and retrieve the pensions’ dispute after the TUC and conservative union leaders signed up to the Tory deal.
It led directly to the strike in May of that year when 400,000 public sector workers went on strike.
What is your view on the released ‘Macreadie papers’ from Thatcher’s Tory cabinet in the 1980s?
We were all shocked by the revelations that exposed a conspiracy between the right-wing CPSA leaders and the Thatcher government, who worked together to overturn the democratic election of John Macreadie as general secretary in 1986.
John was a prominent supporter of Militant. The papers argued that “The principle needs to be established that subversives like John Macreadie cannot be tolerated in such jobs.”
John was later elected as the union’s deputy general secretary but the Tories and the union right-wing succeeded in subverting a democratic union election.
But John wasn’t the only Militant targeted by MI5 and the security services. Papers released in 2014 and reported in Civil Service World talk about “quietly purging civil servants” suspected of sympathies with “Militant Tendency”.
The then Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson argued that it must be kept secret lest it was “seized on by Militant elements” and “misrepresented as an attempt to victimise union members.”
Along with other comrades, I was attacked by the Murdoch and right-wing media at this time.
These revelations are in the context of judicial and police interference at Orgreave in 1984, decades-long blacklisting in the construction industry and elsewhere and undercover policing of left-wing, anti-racist and environmental groups.
PCS needs to work closely with sister unions to force a full inquiry into state and police interference into democratic and independent trade unions.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 15 May 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.