The 2019 conference of PCS, the main civil service union, from 21-23 May in Brighton was the most open and interesting one in years. The great majority of motions on the Conference agenda were not controversial and nor should they be: the bulk of equality and terms and conditions motions should command support. However, on a number of issues the NEC found itself struggling to win over delegates.
The NEC was censured – an unprecedented event at PCS conference — over its inadequate response to the General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, co-signing a letter last July to the Morning Star. This criticised violence by trans activists but said nothing about the much greater hostility and violence experienced by trans people, especially trans women. In reality the letter was a hostile intervention into the trans debate and was counter to the positive policies of PCS. Although the mover of the motion stressed that the motion was censoring the NEC over its belated and inadequate response, and not Mark Serwotka for putting his name and his PCS office to the letter in the first place, this seemed more like a manoeuvre to get the motion passed. Mark Serwotka was the subject of implicit and explicit criticism (extremely unusual) and the motion was rightly carried against NEC opposition.
The union leadership utterly failed to act on key equality motions passed at 2018 delegate conference and an instruction to get on and implement one of those motions, relating to the critical legal right of disabled people not to be subject to unfavourable treatment in connection with anything arising from their disability, was also on the agenda. Although not expressed as a censure, the motion was plainly critical of the NEC, and the mover of the motion sharply so. The NEC supported the motion – anything else would have been risible – but listening to the NEC speaker trying to minimise their inactivity, despite having reported to branches that they had done damn all with the 2018 resolution, was embarrassing.
The top table was also defeated in its opposition to the granting of conference making powers to the Public Services Group, a collection of unrelated and small negotiating groups which often feel neglected within PCS. Most significantly, and again unprecedented, the leadership was clearly defeated on a show of hands over the NEC’s pay “strategy” (a more-of-the-same, one-last-push, “we know best and don’t need to consult branches” approach). A look of dismay and indecision was written across the face of the Acting President before she recovered and ordered a card vote, which carried the NEC motion by just 1685 votes among many tens of thousands.
In opposing the leadership the majority of delegates were not rejecting the need for a fight against the Government’s continuing pay squeeze. They were, however, demanding a serious debate amongst branches on the strategy and tactics needed to win a ballot and, just as importantly, to actually win the ensuing dispute.
While balloting twice for a national strike over pay (2018 and 2019), and failing twice to exceed the high voting threshold required under the Tories anti-union laws, the leadership has not said one word about how the fight would be taken forward if PCS actually won a national ballot. Many delegates were plainly keen to draw lessons from the failed national pay ballots.
The PCS Independent Left, which AWL PCS members belong to, had a highly positive conference. Amongst a number of interventions, PCS IL members participated positively in the pay and equality debates, on Brexit (to oppose a would be left-wing but pro-Brexit motion), and on antisemitism (unsuccessfully opposing a motion which declared its opposition to antisemitism in general terms but which actually declared the issues a media storm).
Newly elected PCS Assistant General Secretary (AGS) John Moloney, a long standing supporter of the PCS IL and a supporter of the core politics expressed in the AWL journal Solidarity, gave a very impressive speech from the top table. He set out his fundamental identity with the rank and file activists, his commitment to taking a defined worker’s wage instead of the grotesque £91,000 paid to the AGS (John will donate the large balance of the salary to the PCS Fighting Fund), and pointed out that full time officials are supposed to work for the membership rather than the other way round.
John was generous in his comments about his defeated opponents and very demonstrably stood to applaud Chris Baugh, the defeated AGS, following his last conference speech as AGS. It was a respectful tribute to Chris Baugh’s work on behalf of the union, despite John’s serious political differences with him, and stood in stark contrast to the personalisation of the attacks upon Baugh by his opponents in the PCS/Left Unity leadership (people who once stood shoulder to shoulder with him on all major issues).
As John’s action was followed by delegates, the remainder of the PCS leadership felt obliged to also stand up and applaud their former comrade action too. It was a demonstration of John’s commitment to sharpness and clarity in debate combined with the respect and tolerance necessary to encourage members and activists to stand up for their politics and views in a typically top down run union John Moloney sounded like a very different official to those normally encountered at the top of PCS and other unions.