PCS, the civil service union, held it′s national conference in Brighton 23-25 May.
Workers’ Liberty supporters, organised as part of the left-opposition faction, "Independent Left" within the union were delegates. Going into conference with victories in the NEC and Bargaining Group Executive elections.
The industrial landscape the union finds itself in is dire, and the leadership's response to it has been inadequate, but not surprising for a leadership infected with the broad left strategy of fusing with the bureaucracy we’ve had in PCS for the past 16 years. The union, despite those years of broad left leadership now has historically low density rates in its better organised workplaces, with some bargaining units such as the Ministry of Justice falling below 35%.
Increasingly hostile behaviour by a confident government, the most brazen being the sacking of reps at the EHRC by email has not been met with union-wide action largely out of despair and defeatism, but also down to the abandonment of strategy and bunker-mentality of the supposed Trotskyist-led leadership. Substandard deals involving a bonfire of terms and conditions for scraps of pay, selective support to workers who want to defend themselves and a top-down approach to local disputes and organising have left membership confidence at a low and this seems to have sept through to conference floor.
The industrial bargaining unit conferences took place at the start of the week, and are perhaps the most important parts of the conference and certainly more consequential in terms of building working-class power than, say, the unions position on the Labour Party.
There is no longer an active right-wing in the union. The two perspectives being set out in the Groups are the Broad Left leadership and those associated with the Independent Left. As an example, in the DWP this meant confronting the burning of our conditions in favour of scraps of pay and the acceptance of Management threats to dismiss activists if they broke the secrecy clause over office closures. In HMRC this meant opposing the union leaderships unilateral acceptance of some closures going into negotiations and lack of action over redundancies, closures in general and draconian Performance Management.
One of the key debates was the unions attitude going into the General Election. At the NEC preceding Conference, Independent Left members proposed that the union should follow its support for Jeremy Corbyn by arguing that the National conference should call for a Labour Vote.
Unfortunately, the Socialist Party dominated leadership and the General Secretary opposed that call and neither the NEC, nor any branches associated with the leadership faction Left Unity submitted any text to conference calling for support for Labour.
Independent Left activists passed three Emergency motions of varied commitment through branches. The first calling for the union “to offer as much support to Labour Party candidates as is allowable under current PCS policy” and another two explicitly calling for a Labour vote, one in England and Wales only and one for the entire UK.
Following shenanigans with the conference standing orders committee, the final debate was between the Bootle motion (the first one) and a bizzare felling, meaning the "vote labour" one fell if it passed. The debate was very lengthy and many speakers were called meaning the guillotine fell during the debate on the first motion. When the vote came it passed, meaning the one calling for a labour vote fell.
Otherwise the conference was remarkably flat.
It did however produce two more interesting decisions. Firstly, the composited motion on the union’s attitude post-Brexit committed it to “promoting the free movement of workers”, which marks it as almost singularly progressive on this question in the British labour movement. Certainly more so than the RMT and Unite who indulge the myth of migrants undermining wages and conditions – arguments which were used and defeated during the debate at PCS conference.
The second was the furore caused by the NEC’s opposition to a motion on Trans rights, a motion which called for the union to campaign for the implementation of the Transgender Report. The NEC majority’s opposition (IL comrades on the NEC argued for the motion at the NEC) was confusing, but centred around their lack of understanding of the report, mixed with a concern about how its implementation would result in “Opposition from some Women's interest groups”(!) Following an excellent speech by a trans-woman delegate the motion was overwhelmingly passed and the NEC opposition roundly overturned.
The union was also introduced to a report by the General Secretary, outlining the extent of state-collusion with the right-wing of the largest predecessor unions CPSA to undermine, victimise and in some cases, dismiss left-wing activists from their jobs and unilaterally over-rule elections won by leftwingers. These recently released reports outline in detail Thatcher’s relationship with the unions leadership at the time and Mark Serwotka concluded by demanding assurance that this kind of thing is no-longer occurring. A welcome demand considering the current climate, super-hostile employer and additional recent uncovering of state involvement in blacklisting, union-busting and police infiltration of activist groups.
For all the issues the union has currently, it’s a long-way from the witch-hunting, right-wing, Thatcher supporting organisation the CPSA was.
The task this year will be to articulate a positive organisational and political rank-and-file alternative to the bureaucratic malaise and defeatism of the union’s broad left leadership.