Turmoil in civil service union

Submitted by AWL on 4 October, 2011 - 9:10

The ruling Left Unity faction in the civil service union PCS is in turmoil, with the Socialist Party (the main force in LU) withdrawing support from Jane Aitchison, union president in the union’s most important sector, the Department for Work and Pensions.

Aitchison, a long-time member of the SP, has resigned from it.

The SP has said nothing publicly about this. First reports inside the union were that the SP had turned against Aitchison because she and her partner Rob Williams (also an SP member, and a PCS Exec member) send their daughter to a private school.

Later reports are that the SP blames Aitchison for the failure of the PCS’s DWP Contact Centre Campaign. She refused to accept the employers’ first offer despite advice to do so from senior SP people in PCS, and now the union has accepted a second offer worse than that first one.

An AWL member active in PCS DWP comments: “the main reason for the failure of the campaign was a complete lack of communication between negotiators and branches or members. We have gone months without a peep”.

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Submitted by martin on Sat, 11/19/2011 - 22:06

The Socialist Party has issued a long statement on the affair..

National LU Elections - For a Fighting Campaigning Union

The Tory/Lib coalition cuts programme is the biggest threat to working people for generations. A central feature of their plans affects the benefits system, largely delivered by PCS members in the DWP. This represents a massive attack upon members in the DWP and the millions who rely on the vital work we do. As the biggest group in PCS, DWP can play a vital role in the campaign of opposition to the governments programme by taking a clear and firm stance against the cuts. Crucial to our success is the relationship between the DWP and the national union leadership: working with, not against, the national leadership, who have built PCS into the influential campaigning union has made November 30th possible
Unfortunately the present DWP Group President Jane Aitchison and Rob Williams, NEC member and Assistant Secretary in DWP group, have come into conflict with the national union on industrial strategy. The DWP Group has a proud tradition of union organisation and fighting to defend members’ jobs and conditions. It is the biggest group with the highest levels of membership in PCS but unless there is a change of direction all of this will be put at risk, which will be a major setback to the working lives of our members in this area.
The fundamental difference is that both these comrades have blocked, obstructed and manoeuvred against the Group Wide Campaign in DWP. This is a vital part of the strategy, endorsed by national and DWP conference policy, which reinforces national industrial action, links up all areas of the union, and is agreed by all groups at the National Campaign Liaison group and endorsed by the NEC. Many other groups have developed their group plans, balloted their members and are acting on them to supplement the national campaign.
Jane and Rob are not only failing to give the lead needed to counter the massive attack we face in DWP but actively obstructing a serious fight back in the biggest group in PCS. Jane has delayed and obstructed attempts to draw up a group wide campaign in line with both group and national policy. Her refusal to accept the need to build an overall campaign of opposition to the attacks we face, rather than dealing with them on a piece meal basis, has left members isolated and vulnerable. When they were challenged within the Socialist Party on this position rather than argue their case they resigned.
On office closures Jane believes “each office is unique, making a single campaign difficult”. This leaves offices facing closure, to fight alone with no effort to develop common demands and link the offices in one campaign against closure, therefore preventing compulsory redundancy/relocation with members left at the mercy of a draconian selection policy based on performance and attendance.
DWP management, who are in breach of the national jobs protocol and the DWP/PCS agreement, have now targeted the first group of members for compulsory redundancy. Jane and Rob have tried but failed to bounce the GEC into accepting a policy that gave them authority to decide what information from management should be kept secret and what could be published to members. At the same time without consultation with PCS, DWP management told members in 13 offices facing closure that the clock was now ticking for compulsory redundancies. Reps and members in these offices are rightly angry about the lack of support they have received.
In the Corporate Centre Jane has refused to face up to the scale of the attacks posed by management, seeking to down play the risk of redundancy these members face. We must urgently demand DWP management comply with the national jobs protocol and DWP/PCS agreement on avoidance of redundancies whilst at the same time campaigning and preparing for action if the employer refuses. This is what our Corporate Centre members expect and deserve.
The potential for a DWP group campaign is enormous: office closures, redundancies, misuse of FTA’s, understaffing, increasing outsourcing and so on. For example only at the insistence of national officers did Jane act on positive legal advice that the DWP were acting unlawfully towards FTAs.. The government’s Welfare to Work Programme should be the cue, as laid out in conference policy, to build links with external groups who share our aims, building closer links with our commercial sector members. Jane has bitterly resisted consulting DWP members in support of the UK living wage and bargaining rights for the growing numbers of PCS members treated so abysmally in Welfare to Work contracts. Scandalously, in her own words “the commercial sector want us to fight their battles for them” The Group should be following the example of the national union and HMRC group on Tax Justice, develop our alternative and start to build links for that broader campaign to defeat government plans. Sadly, this is not a priority for Jane and Rob, it was left to the NEC to recommend and develop the Alternative Welfare pamphlet. Jane even resisted attempts to allow a presentation on this at the 2011 DWP conference.

Rather than put in place the means to develop these strategies, these comrades have resisted and portrayed encouragement from the national union as “interference”, an argument that is deeply divisive and very dangerous in the current climate. Jane and Rob fight bitterly against holding campaign group and officers meetings, standard practise both nationally and in most groups, they claim it is “undemocratic”. We believe the overwhelmingly majority of hard-working and committed DWP GEC and activists agree with the need for a serious united fight in DWP. The current method of leadership is an obstacle to this. There is a growing distance between the branches and regions and the Group. We need to be out there, amongst our reps and members building and convincing members, raising consciousness etc, And while most GEC activists get out far and wide connecting with members and activists Rob, but especially Jane, barely move from Leeds Group office. This is not what we rightly expect and demand from leading activists. It is not the way to build.

As always, the Socialist Party is willing to take part in an honest and constructive debate that takes the union forward. However, we totally refute dishonest accusations. For example, incredibly, Jane claims the SP, which gives the fullest support to the issue of equality, wants to abolish the equality committees. During the call centre dispute they claimed management had rejected ACAS talks but it was revealed that no request for ACAS talks has even been put to the employer. Jane then argued (on 24th May, 2011) that no written request was needed as DWP management would be aware of the union’s position from the emergency motion and the weekly bulletin! When the national union sorted this matter out they shamefully claimed AGS Chris Baugh had intervened with ACAS and advised them that no action would be agreed to before 30th November. A blatant untruth about an elected Senior National Officer.

The DWP group needs a group president prepared to work in an open and inclusive way. We need to re-engage with reps and activists who should be properly involved in shaping the revitalised group campaign we need. The Group should have a united leadership. That is why SP withdrew its support from Jane and why we cannot support Rob for the NEC, it cannot be right that any activist is happy to sign up to national strategy at the NEC but then do all he can to frustrate it at group level.

Regrettable as all this is it is at times of the sharpest struggle people reveal their weaknesses, in Jane and Rob’s case it is a fundamental lack of confidence in the ability of DWP members to struggle in this period. That is why they are not being supported. This is a political issue. We call on comrades to support this slate with the outstanding youth and DWP activist Helen Flanagan as the team to deliver for PCS. Helen is an independent in Left Unity.

National Executive Committee – please support

Mark Baker, Alan Brown, Clive Bryant, Alan Dennis, Helen Flanagan, Cheryl Gedling, Kevin Greenway, Sam Hall, Zita Holbourne, John Jamieson, Andy Jennings, Emily Kelly, Adam Khalif, Marion Lloyd, Dominic McFadden, Lorna Merry, Chris Morrison, Andy Reid, Dave Richards, Derek Thomson, Hector Wesley, Paul Williams