PCS BEIS strike 19.7.21 - workers outsourced to ISS, credit: Paula Mitchell
PCS BEIS strike 19.7.21 - workers outsourced to ISS, credit: Paula Mitchell

J-P Rosser, Branch secretary HMRC West Mercia PCS (personal capacity)

The latest stage of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union’s national campaign was a consultative ballot, which ended on 21 March. Members were asked whether they supported the national pay claim of a 10% pay rise and a demand for the return of overpaid pension contributions.

The turnout was 45.2%, around 70,000 PCS members, with 97.3% supporting the pay claim, and 80.7% willing to take industrial action to achieve it. This is a strong result in the circumstances, and is similar to the last consultative ballot in 2017. This achieved a 49% turnout, with 79% willing to take industrial action to break the government-imposed pay cap. 

The 2017 indicative ballot lead to statutory ballots in 2018 and 2019, the latter achieving a 47.7% turnout. These statutory ballots failed to clear the Tory-imposed 50% turnout threshold; in part because, as  Broad Left Network (BLN) members argued at the time, the demands were too narrow and disaggregated ballots should have been considered.

It was a dereliction of leadership that the national executive committee (NEC) then halted the national campaign and made numerous fundamental errors.

 In 2020, against the background of the Covid outbreak, the NEC signed up to the concept of national unity by “parking” the PCS pay claim. Unsurprisingly, the government didn’t reward PCS for this gesture, and within weeks the NEC made a U-turn to reintroduce the full pay claim.

No leadership

The NEC then moved to petition the government, aiming for 100,000 signatures. This threshold was achieved five months after the petition was launched, and was celebrated as a significant victory for members. Yet with no central leadership, departmental groups were left to fend for themselves as best they could.

Then 2021 saw concession bargaining and multi-year pay deals being agreed in HMRC and the Ministry of Justice, with NEC support. The national campaign ground to a halt, with the union leadership informing the government that the union was prepared to sell conditions for pay rather than challenge their pay restrictions.

 Against this backdrop, the turnout of 45.2% is a success story for members and activists. However, the sombre mood of the Left Unity ruling group on the NEC tells a different story. They are imploring that members “don’t mourn” the result! 

Members will understandably question what happens next. The Left Unity top-down approach won’t work. It’s clear that a serious, concerted campaign is needed to shift the government. 

The next step must be to build for a statutory ballot for action. The PCS leadership needs to engage with groups and branches, not simply impose demands on them by diktat. It needs to inform members of the type of action needed to shift the government, and what that will look like. It must also contact other unions, outside of the Trades Union Congress’s formal structure where necessary, to create a coalition of the willing to fight on pay.

 These aren’t new demands. Yet five years after the first indicative ballot of members we’re still waiting for this to happen. A Left Unity-led NEC has consistently failed to take up these demands.

In April 2022, PCS members will have the opportunity to elect Broad Left Network members to lead a radical, fighting PCS campaign. The Broad Left Network is already gaining support, having increased the number of branch nominations. We ask that PCS members cast their vote for Marion Lloyd as president and for all Broad Left Network candidates.

For more information about the BLN see pcsbln.wordpress.com