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Posted on 11 July 2008 at 0:00 GMT

Reply to the SWP attacks on the PCS leadership

The Socialist Party replies to the SWP attacks on the leadership of the PCS in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)

The Socialist Workers' Party, through their weekly paper Socialist Worker, has attacked Socialist Party members in the PCS in the leadership of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) group executive. They condemn Socialist Party members in the DWP who voted "not to call strike action next week alongside union members in local government and other PCS members in other departments".

Also, as in previous disputes, they have once more tried to contrast the "exemplary role" of Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, to the implied 'sabotage' of solidarity action by Socialist Party DWP members, in relation to the local government strike on 16/17 July. There is nothing new in this charge from the SWP. On a number of issues, they have bent the truth where the actions or alleged actions of the Socialist Party are concerned. We answered their arguments but, of course, they never replied. There was, for instance, the controversy in 2005 over the pensions deal signed by the PCS. The SWP then criticised and condemned the alleged refusal of the PCS under the Socialist Party's 'malign' influence to take action in support of the postal workers' union, the CWU, in their dispute last year.

The truth is that the national executive of the PCS, with the full involvement of Mark Serwotka, managed to unite the whole union in defence of pensions, standing firm against the most defeatist cynicism from some of the other unions' leaders. The PCS secured the pension rights of all existing civil servants - something which was widely regarded as impossible to achieve and which was greeted with universal acclamation by PCS members and activists. The only exceptions to this were those around the so-called 'Socialist Caucus' - the 'independent left group in the union' - and the SWP, who, incredibly, described the significant achievement as a "shabby deal", a viewpoint that was rejected almost unanimously by PCS conference and by some 98% of members who voted in favour of accepting the deal in a membership ballot. Of course, Mark Serwotka, who supported this deal, was never singled out for one word of written criticism by the SWP. The Socialist Party was, however, roundly condemned. This is just one measure of the double bookkeeping, dishonesty and cynicism of this organisation.

Another example of their duplicity was over the CWU strikes. In an internal bulletin, they claimed: "The Socialist Party dominated executive of the PCS pressured Mark Serwotka to back away from such a move, and he felt he had to go along with them. We [the SWP] did not have enough influence in the PCS to force through united strikes." John McInally, Vice-President of the PCS, and a prominent Socialist Party member in the union, demolished this charge of the SWP in a forensic article in the March 2008 edition of Socialism Today. He wrote: "What then is the truth behind the assertion in the SWP's statement? In summer of 2007 - when the postal strikes were taking place - the PCS was conducting a mass consultation with members in which the leadership spoke directly to 25,000 members at around 3,000 meetings. The PCS NEC had unanimously agreed this strategy after two previous one-day strikes against compulsory redundancies, low pay and unfair pay systems, privatisation and in defence of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme... The PCS led the campaign to unite pay struggles in 2007, which it tried to base on the successful united campaign to defend pensions in 2005... Mark Serwotka, with the PCS NEC's full backing, wrote to various public sector unions - including the CWU - asking to meet with a view to link up plans for campaign work and joint action where possible. The CWU leadership did not take up this offer. In fact the first the PCS knew of the CWU plans for action was when the union announced a series of strike days for the postal workers. The CWU leadership, including the president - SWP member, Jane Loftus - missed a real opportunity to link up their campaign with that of the PCS."

He went on to write: "The truth is that during the course of the CWU dispute, all Mark's recommendations to the NEC were unanimously supported - including by the three SWP members on the NEC - and all the efforts to build links were supported and acted on. If any differences existed they were not raised at the time by those SWP comrades - because they did not exist." He concluded his article by stating: "The left has the duty to debate how we respond and, while there will be real differences on occasions, this can never be an excuse for adopting the type of cynical methods that have been used in the SWP's article to openly lie about a campaigning left union leadership for dubious factional advantage."

But that is precisely how the SWP and Socialist Worker have approached the issue of the DWP and proposed strike action in solidarity with local government workers. Most workers with experience of the SWP would be very cautious - not to say downright hostile - were they to recommend any course of action in an industrial dispute. They have a less than glorious history when it comes to industrial battles. Incapable of reading the mood of workers, they either fall into the trap of ultra-leftism or, has been the case recently, adapt themselves, tail-end 'left' trade union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison.

Genuine Marxism rejects the theory of the continual 'offensive'. A farsighted leadership, before engaging in such a serious issue as strike action, is compelled to take into account all the factors, not least the mood of the members who face such action. It would be completely wrong to see the PCS as a kind of 'cavalry' - and particularly the members of the DWP, given their actions in the last period - to be called upon to ride to the rescue of the rest of the labour movement, particularly when the national trade union leaders rejected or ignored the approaches of the PCS for co-ordinated industrial action. But this is precisely the attitude of sectarian organisations, the SWP included.

Moreover, in attacking Socialist Party members in the DWP, the SWP conveniently forget their cuddling up to the leadership of Unison, led by Dave Prentis, especially at the 2007 Unison conference. They opposed a ballot for immediate industrial action proposed by Socialist Party members, in favour of the leadership's proposals for a 'third consultative ballot'. Moreover, it was Socialist Party member Roger Bannister who recently moved the successful motion on the Industrial Action Committee of Unison in support of a two-day strike. The Socialist Party and all our members in the trade unions are in favour of the widest possible solidarity action with local government workers. This is despite the fact that union officials in some areas have not thoroughly prepared for successful action (some Unison members in London have not even received notice of strike action, only hearing about it through the press). In PCS, the successful motion at the union's conference for a civil service-wide ballot over Pay which the NEC is currently conducting a campaign over the summer to mobilise support for was proposed by Mark Serwotka on behalf of the NEC and was seconded by DWP Group President and Socialist Party member Jane Aitchison.

Initially members of the Socialist Party on the National Executive Committee of the PCS and the Group Executive Committee of the DWP, as well as General Secretary Mark Serwotka were in favour of strike action with Unison on 16/17 July. But it is totally wrong for any leadership of a party and particularly of a union not immediately involved to decide to take solidarity action from the top without full consultation of those close to the members on the ground. The PCS Group Executive Committee in the DWP, taking into account the number of strike days already taken by the DWP members, together with the added new factor of some concessions on pay but particularly on issues like flexible working and amendment to draconian sickness procedures, considered on this occasion that the members would not be prepared to lose two days' pay once more. There was the danger that management would seek to present the leadership of the GEC as 'irresponsible' in this situation. It was a fine balance as to whether or not to go ahead with ongoing solidarity action by DWP members.

But PCS DWP members have delivered a staggering 19 days of action in five years. This, by the way, was achieved not by a handful of SWP members in the DWP, but by the group executive, led by Socialist Party members who are now being condemned by the SWP for allegedly 'selling out'. These strikes in the past have not been merely 'protest' strikes or just 'strikes for strikes sake'. On the contrary, these campaigns and the action taken have produced settlements that went some way to protect members' interests in the face of government attacks. Moreover, DWP members, magnificently, took solidarity action in April with the teachers. It was therefore a judgemental issue on the part of the DWP workers on the ground together with the group executive to decide whether it was appropriate to go ahead with strike action on this occasion in the light of the movement from the employer.

In other areas of PCS the industrial issues in departments led to decisions to take some form of action next week in order to increase the pressure on their departmental managements. It is correct that if the judgment there is that this would force the sort of concessions the DWP management had given then it is right to link up when other workers are taking action. Next week will see members in Dept of Transport, Coastguards, the Home Office and the Passport Service will take action during the week in what the NEC described as a "week of disruption". All other PCS members have been urged by the NEC to take part in solidarity action and members in the DWP will be at the forefront of this. It is interesting that the NEC SWP members didn't object to the decisions of the DWP at the NEC.

The SWP cannot have it both ways - voting for strike action with loud proclamations of their 'militancy' in the DWP and then their members on the National Executive Committee meekly accepting the recommendations of the GEC of the DWP. Even National Executive Committee members of the PCS belonging to the SWP were not prepared to challenge the recommendation not to proceed with strike action in the DWP on 16/17 July.

Contrast the attack of Socialist Worker against the Socialist Party members on the GEC of the DWP with their virtual silence on the baleful role of 'lefts' on the National Union of Teachers' Executive Committee. These lefts opposed further action on teachers' pay - never mind co-ordinated public sector action - until the autumn. One of the lefts that took this stand was supported in the 2008 NEC elections by the SWP's 'leading light' Nick Grant who replaced Linda Taaffe from the Socialist Party. When Nick Grant was asked at the recent meeting of the National Shop Stewards' Network conference which 'lefts' had voted against further action, he refused to give their names. "Let's not be personal," he said.

This attack on the approach of the Socialist Party in the DWP has more to do with the feeble, unstable position of the SWP finds itself in the aftermath of the debacle of Respect, and the incredible defection of their councillors in Tower Hamlets to New Labour, than with a serious approach in how to achieve successful strike action on 16/17 July.

The Socialist Party will use all its strength to ensure the success of Unison's action - both our members in the union and in the wider trade union movement through solidarity action - in the hope that this can lay the basis soon for unified action amongst public sector workers as a whole. Strikes, and the tactics for ensuring victory, are always a laboratory test for the political methods of different organisations. As in the past, the SWP is found wanting on this issue and their cheap demagogy, masquerading as 'militancy', will not find a response, either in the PCS or the wider trade union movement.

John McInally, PCS National Vice-President (personal capacity) writes:

The article from Socialist Worker, which is the product of the armchair generals of the SWP Central Committee, no matter how it may be packaged for public consumption, is a cynical, divisive and unprincipled attack on the trade union militants of the DWP GEC who have organised more industrial action than any other group in the British trade union movement in recent years and who have been the backbone of the PCS struggle against the Government's attacks on jobs, services and pay.

The decision not to call action for the 16th and 17th of July after forcing movement and concrete progress, including upfront concessions followed five days of industrial action, including with the teachers on the 24th April. It was a difficult judgement but one that in the end result is absolutely clearly in line with the views of the overwhelming bulk of activists and members who have strained every muscle to deliver time and again over recent years, more often than not with DWP workers striking on their own.

The DWP GEC agreed to urge all activists and members to show solidarity with local government workers on strike, to visit picket lines and rallies and give whatever other support they could. It was also agreed that the union's focus, especially so in the DWP, must be on securing the biggest possible YES vote in the national pay ballot in the autumn - something that can only be furthered by proving to members that PCS can deliver gains and concessions, which it consistently has.

The real lesson of all this is that campaigning works and action gets results, not that every trade union leadership "sells out" - the demoralising mantra of every sectarian pundit who operates from the unassailable vantage point of ideological purity but without the wearisome burden of having to make decisions in the real world of industrial struggle.

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