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Civil service union PCS conference
On the public sector front line
THE PUBLIC and Commercial Services union (PCS) conference meeting last week in Brighton was notable in many ways. But what stood out for me was its vitality and youthfulness, compared to many other union conferences that I have attended over the years.
Bill Mullins, Socialist Party Industrial Organiser
One measure of its role and the effect that it had on those attending is that, unlike other conferences, most of the delegates were in their seats throughout.
Delegates from the rostrum and in conversation commented that before the left won control of the union three years ago, the conference was known for the hostility of the delegates to the platform. From time to time there were differences in emphasis but the delegates generally agreed with the policies being proposed by the platform.
The mood was not one of slavish adherence to the line but instead recognition that the battles the union has against the government require the most serious attention to strategy and tactics.
The right wing was silent throughout the conference. The anti-group group, The Socialist Caucus, completely failed to judge the mood of the conference and ploughed on regardless with their own agenda, getting trounced in the process.
On the pensions issue the PCS executive had played a leading role in mobilising their members to prepare to strike on 23 March, along with seven other public-sector unions.
UNISON local government workers were due to have major detrimental changes imposed upon their pension entitlements from April this year. Changes to civil servants' pensions were not due until April 2006. But the opportunity to unite with other public sector workers was seized and the PCS successfully balloted their members to take strike action alongside council workers.
It was this momentum and the threat of 1.5 million workers coming out, which forced the government to back down - mainly to stop the embarrassment of strikes during a general election.
When all other unions pronounced that there was no need for a strike now the government had retreated (albeit temporarily) then the PCS also called off their strike rather than be isolated.
Socialist Caucus delegates attempted to condemn the leadership for doing this, saying that it wasn't only pensions that were the issue but also jobs and pay. Therefore the strike should have gone ahead anyway even if it was just the PCS by itself. They were completely isolated and received no more than couple of dozen votes amongst the thousand or so delegates.
Mark Serwotka, in a faultless explanation of the tactics adopted by the leadership, explained that whilst all three issues of pensions, jobs and pay were inextricably linked, pensions was the issue the members had been balloted over.
The greatest difficulty was keeping together the public-sector unions in a united front against the attacks.
How difficult this is proving to be was shown when some of the other public-sector unions drew up a strategy paper on pensions.
The PCS in particular was astonished to find that there was no mention of the increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65 - the one issue that is supposed to unite all the unions!
TUC leadership then amended the document to include this vital question.
The PCS will continue to campaign for the maximum unity of the public-sector unions but may have no choice but to fight alone in defence of its own members.
Other issues that were discussed at the conference included the adoption of the principle that union officials should be elected and not just the senior officials as is the case now. And that full-time officers' salaries should reflect the wages of those they negotiate for.
This last point is obviously very controversial and the union leadership were at pains to explain that the practical application of this was some time away.
Meanwhile the voluntarist approach of union officials donating back to the union a part of their salary should continue. Both Mark Serwotka and Chris Baugh, the assistant general secretary, do this at the moment.
An important milestone was also passed by the conference in adopting the policy on abortion of: "a woman's right to choose." Julie Kelly moved the main motion, explaining that the adoption of a "pro-choice" policy would bring the union in line with most other unions. It would allow PCS delegates at other conferences to vote for these policies, rather than being hamstrung by having no policy at all.
This conference marked a coming of age of the union. An awareness that the union is now seen as a beacon of combativeness and determination to defend its members is widespread through the new layers of activists.
In The Socialist 16 June 2005: