PCS backdown was a mistake

Submitted by martin on 10 November, 2008 - 2:21 Author: A PCS activist

The PCS National Executive Committee's decision to "suspend" the national civil service one day strike planned for Monday 10 November is at best a dreadful mistake. Or it may be a prelude to abandoning the action, possibly on the pretext of some relatively minor concession.


This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper. See also:


The explanation was given somewhat indirectly as branch representatives had to read a letter from Gus O'Donnell, head off the civil service, to the General Secretary to actually get any sort of explanation. It was that the suspension "allows" PCS and central civil servants to "take forward" -talks" following "constructive discussions". In other words the Government has not made one single specific offer of improvement than the union can rely on - just "constructive talks" to go forward.

A GOOD OUTCOME FOR THE GOVERNMENT

The suspension was a good outcome from the Government's perspective: by-election victory in Scotland followed by the suspension of the PCS action for up to four weeks made it a good news week for New Labour.

Moreover the Ministers and their Mandarins are not stupid. They know full well that it will be a lot harder for PCS activists to gear up members up again if the talks fail.

And fail they will in terms of the PCS's demands for:

  • Each member to receive a consolidated basic pay increase at least equal to the retail price index (and this is supposed to be a demand for more than one year, opposed as it is to Brown's ongoing 2% public sector pay policy);
  • the removal of pay progression costs from budgets for increases;
  • Reduction in the number of separate pay negotiations;
  • An end to pressure for regional pay;
  • Additional funding to remedy equal pay problems;
  • An end to links between pay and performance appraisal.

In terms of Gordon Brown's public sector pay policy, to concede the PCS demands in the "talks" that will now go forward would be the equivalent of unconditional surrender without a shot being fired.

SUSPENSION OF THE STRIKE ALWAYS A STRONG POSSIBILITY

For the observant, and those not blinded by "left wing" loyalty to the NEC, the strong possibility of the action being suspended for "talks" was lodged in the messages being sent out by the NEC to members, in the past history of the NEC and its leading figures, and in the press of the Socialist Party, the dominant element on the NEC and the organisation whose members and fellow travellers make up an ever increasing part of the full time officialdom of PCS.

On the 29th October, John McInally, National Vice-President of PCS, wrote in The Socialist, "Our members understand that campaigning works and action gets results. A settlement in this dispute is achievable and if we stick together and build for effective action we are capable of applying the type of pressure that can secure meaningful talks aimed at securing a fair and reasonable agreement."

Note Brother McInally's tortuous language, the double use of "secure" and "aimed" rather than straight forwardly saying that action can win our demands (even if there are no guarantees). Workers go on strike to secure our demands, or at least something a whole lot better than is being offered. Obviously that involves the union talking to the other side - but no one (apart from this NEC) goes on strike to "secure meaningful talks-, talks that will not necessarily deliver but are instead "aimed" at securing our demands.

In the same article Brother McInally said, "This is the first stage of a national campaign to apply pressure to secure serious negotiations with the government to resolve the long-running dispute over pay." Again, to reach a resolution the Union obviously needs to talk to the other side, but a campaign of industrial action should never be seen as a way of "applying pressure" to "secure serious negotiations" but instead as a way of securing serious real and important concessions - the only way of judging whether the negotiations are serious.

Serious negotiations in this sense can take place whilst industrial action is happening and indeed are much more likely to happen in that situation. If action is to be suspended because of "serious negotiations" then at least the offer of some real concessions should already have been obtained and reported to members. The alternative is to allow the other side to divert our campaign with a "good attitude" in negotiations, with hints of the possibility of concessions, without actually promising anything and without them having any real intention of moving away from a pay policy that cuts the pay of members.

WHAT DID THE GOVERNMENT OFFER TO PERSUADE THE NEC TO SUSPEND THE ACTION?

The fact is the NEC suspended the action on Friday 7th November without having gained a single firm commitment about anything. If they had we can be sure they would have been shouting about it from the rooftops.

According to the Socialist Workers Party, clearly reporting from the NEC meeting (there are three SWP members on the NEC as part of the Left Unity slate), "There are no concrete improvements on the table, and no more than hints about what will result from the talks" (see related article on the SWP in PCS).

In a press statement all the General Secretary was able to say was, "Our national industrial action has been suspended for 28 days. I welcome the dialogue and hope an agreement is possible.-

THE RECORD OF PCS AND PAST PAY TALKS

Both Mr McInally and the NEC, in its outrageously vague email to members, left unstated how they are able to tell that the current talks will be so "constructive" and so "meaningful-, compared to all the other talks they have sold to us as break" throughs.

It is not a snide point - on the NEC's past record members can have no confidence on this score. They have spun a line on national negotiations on more than one occasion and the only difficulty is spotting when they are deluding themselves and when they are just spinning their lack of success to the members (see article "PCS leadership and Pay Negotiations-).

WILL NEW LABOUR NOW FOLD?

So what are the prospects of New Labour now saying, without the pressure of actual industrial action, "Fair deal. We bailed out the banks. And compared to that tidy sum, you guys aren't asking for much at all so here you are?" The answer is in the question. Brown is not about to exclude the civil service from his year on year pay cutting policy because of the threat of action alone.

SO WHY THE SUSPENSION?

In truth the PCS leadership has been extremely nervous about launching a national pay strike for years [see separate article] and the Socialist Party leadership clearly doubts that the union can win a proper settlement on its own. Frankly it is desperate for an offer of some sort from the Government.

The poor NUT ballot result and the subsequent NUT NEC decision not to proceed with industrial action, coupled with the absence of action to date by UNISON and the wider TUC, would have fed into the PCS leadership's lack of confidence.

The PCS ballot result, 54% in favour of strike action on a 34% turnout, was clearly affected by the credit crunch. But it is also reasonable to believe that the stop/start/we need action, let us have a one day strike/negotiations are now going really well approach of the NEC over recent years would also have affected membership confidence that we can actually win sufficiently to justify the level of action needed. In any event, the sense of nervousness is now plain to see.

SO WHAT NOW?

The ballot result was by no means great but it was good enough, with effective leadership, to launch a strong campaign. Activists need to campaign amongst the branches to get the dispute relaunched.

We need to fight for a PCS industrial and political strategy that will genuinely shake Brown. Although the suspended NEC strategy was an improvement on its previous strategy of a one day strike with no clear idea as to what it would do next (a development that reflects the pressure and critique of the Independent Left), the fact is that two or three one day strikes, and an overtime ban, over the 5 month period November to March would not force Brown to guarantee our living standards now and the coming years and restore national pay.

We need:

  • A fighting fund levy to help place us on a war footing. The PCS leadership has resisted this call for years but in a union with many low paid members, and where the industrial muscle varies enormously, a levy can play a vital role in supporting members and action;
  • a campaign of national, sectoral, and selective action - to keep the Government on the hop and hit it hard;
  • a clear message as to what will happen after the first day's strike - PCS members and Brown alike need to know that the PCS leadership is serious about winning;
  • straight and prompt reporting of all national negotiations so that we are not suddenly presented with a fait accompli deal that does not deliver on our demands;
  • special pay conference - the CPSA Broad Left (the left grouping of a forerunner union) always argued for special pay conferences in an effort to prevent the old right wing leadership from just doing what it wanted - the need for democratic control does not disappear when would-be left-wingers control the union;
  • a campaign to force the TUC to implement its decision to call days of "action-, including a national demonstration against the government's pay policy.
  • a campaign to link with activists of other unions to develop a Labour Movement's political response to the present economic crisis, and the attempt to dump its effects onto workers" shoulders.

Calling for "fairness" is pitiful - as if ministers, the Tories, big business, and the press will not play divide and rule by dishonestly comparing often very low paid public sector workers to private sector workers. Private sector workers, including those working for contractors in the state sector, are also sharing the misery of job cuts, low pay, and below-inflation pay increases.

Activists must fight in the movement for a workers" alternative plan that will answer the most immediate concerns of workers - repossessions, mortgage costs, job losses, maintenance of living standards (see article, The Politics of the PCS Dispute).

PCS and other unions need to link these issues clearly in their publicity, emphasising that the fight for pay is the fight for decent services. And that means raising the demand for more funding through taxation of the wealthiest who have done so very well under New Labour. Whatever else might have previously been said, PCS's Make Your Vote Count is simply not adequate in the present crisis. The unions urgently need to consider a political response to the current crisis - a programme to be positively fought for, industrially and politically, on the governmental terrain. Our aim should be to defeat Brown industrially and to assert the labour movement on the governmental level as an alternative to both New Labour and Cameron.

The campaign starts now!

Comments

Submitted by patrick murphy on Fri, 11/21/2008 - 15:13

The most obvious contrast is that each union has decided not to proceed on the basis of entirely different rationales. The PCS decision is based on a claim that the employer has made a move or concession which should be examined before any further action is taken. The article here addresses and challenges that claim.
The NUT decision is not based on any such claim. Instead it is entirely to do with the ballot result which we judged did not provide a mandate for national action. I say 'we' because I am on the NEC and voted not to proceed. There is material elsewhere on this site and an article I wrote for the forthcoming issue of Solidarity which go through the detail. Any debate on whether the NUT Executive made the right decision has to be based on a different assessment of that result and what could have been delivered on the back of it. This is not the same discussion as that on the PCS decision though their recent ballot result wasn't too great either.

I discussed the result and whatever regional detail I had with comrades on the NUT left and within the AWL before coming to a decision. These were considered but not very long discussions because it wasn't really a difficult decision. Not the one we would have wanted to make, for sure, but given the facts not difficult to make. The SWP used the two people they now have on the NEC to propose that we proceed but they were very transparently not serious. They responded to none of the actual problems with the result, relied entirely on exhortation and moralism and have very noticably not wanted to make a big issue of it in the Union since. If I was in their position and believed that a left caucus which could have proceeded with a crucial pay strike (and almost certainly guaranteed that PCS did likewise)had pulled the plug unnecessarily I would want a bloody good row about it. The fact that they clearly don't speaks volumes for the lack of sincerity and seriousness in the posture they adopted.