PCS: Change in leadership needed to secure union’s future

  (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Dave Semple, PCS national executive committee member (personal capacity)

According to Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, the union needs to restructure and cut staff or merge. This stark message has been put to the union’s executive committee and its staff.

The PCS union represents workers doing all sorts of jobs for the government.

The announcement comes barely six months after the union’s financial report for 2020 declared: “We have stabilised union finances and this will provide a foundation to grow again and achieve wins for our members.”

While other unions are growing, especially those which have been clear about protecting the safety of their members during the coronavirus crisis, PCS has lost 4,000 members between January 2018 and the present.

For Socialist Party members in PCS, this is not coincidental. Where determined campaigns have won on issues of real importance to members, membership has risen. The link between campaigning, bargaining, and how we recruit union members is key.

The PCS response on key issues like pay, redundancy rights, pensions and office closures has been to offer angry words but little else. The current union leadership organised around a faction known as Left Unity has in fact shown no leadership.


When the coronavirus crisis broke, they wrote to civil service bosses meekly asking for an “above inflation” pay rise. This replaced the 10% demand submitted just a few weeks earlier to address the 20% slashed from our members’ pay over the last decade.

Faced with the watered-down pay demand, and the union showing no intention to launch any sort of campaign, the government unsurprisingly ignored the ‘interim’ claim. Instead, they announced a 1.5% pay limit with the possibility of another 1.0% based on cuts.

In response, the union’s leadership reinstated the original 10% claim supported by publicity campaigns and petitions!

No one with an ounce of experience in fighting the Tory government’s austerity of the last ten years would for a moment have believed that such a strategy would work.

Exactly the same weak approach is what has damned the union’s response on the coronavirus.

Civil service bosses mouthed platitudes about keeping people safe but refused any kind of binding agreement with the union.

Instead of organising pressure through collective action to force the employer to concede, the union’s leaders hid behind the anti-union laws in order to avoid giving advice to members and reps that could trigger walkouts in defence of staff safety.

Walkouts have been sporadically happening, as members reject the approach of their employers, which is often arbitrary, secretive and far from enough to allay very real concerns, especially from those staff which have vulnerable people at home.

Yet when employers make far-reaching decisions to reopen or extend the opening of offices, as in the Ministry of Justice, the union has simply put the decision on to members to decide individually if they are facing an imminent risk.

The union will now be further put to the test over the plan to increase the numbers of people attending face-to-face appointments in Jobcentres.

Building the union

Meanwhile, the union’s leadership are trumpeting their newest campaign idea: getting 100,000 people to sign a petition demanding a pay rise for civil servants. Even they admit this won’t deliver a pay rise, but they hope it will contribute to union ‘organising’ efforts.

Organising is increasingly viewed by this group as a numbers-only game, where certain activities – especially those centrally run and professionally staffed, rather than based on the needs and views of reps and branches – will increase membership and union participation.

Against this backdrop, worries over the procedures being followed at the national executive committee may seem insignificant, but the current leadership has reduced the executive committee to a rubber stamp of officer’s decisions.

Despite a decision by the executive committee that it should meet every two weeks during the coronavirus emergency, President Fran Heathcote did not call a meeting for three weeks, and then scheduled a three-and-a-half hour meeting, thereby dodging important business raised by executive committee members.

Business not taken included a proposal that after weeks of prevarication the NEC should give full support to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations (amending the proposal from the union’s senior officers that the union should not support these demonstrations).

It also included an important motion following revelations in the Sunday Times that the government was dropping plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act to ease the many barriers facing transgender men and women trying to change their birth certificate.

The current leadership of PCS has been far behind its own members on the question of trans rights, leading to a motion of censure passed by annual delegate conference. Socialist Party members and the supporters of the Broad Left Network will continue to challenge these poor practices and to maximise discussion and debate on the key questions facing the members and the union.

At the union’s annual delegate conference in 2019, a new organisation, the Broad Left Network, was launched by socialists, including Socialist Party members, from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The purpose of this organisation was to rebuild the socialist campaigning ethos that once held sway in PCS: with elected lay reps fighting for the implementation of socialist policies, and active at all levels of the union in representing members and holding the union accountable.

The approach of the current leadership has done nothing but bring to a grinding halt the very campaigns that could help us recruit tens of thousands of civil servants and privatised workers into the ranks of the union. That has to change.

We encourage all union members and reps to join the Broad Left Network, and to join the Socialist Party as we build a fighting, democratic union.