In November 2004 PCS members struck in support of six demands, including national pay. Yet pay never featured in the propaganda for the dispute.
Similarly, in 2005, members were balloted on a number of demands – including jobs and pay - but were then told the planned strike, called off for the “two tier” pensions deal, was really only ever about pensions (and frankly pay again did not really feature in the membership bulletins).
In 2004 AWL and Socialist Caucus supporters (now Independent Left supporters) moved a conference motion effectively calling on the NEC to organise a national ballot against the Treasury remit policy. The motion was an attempt to move the union beyond the very difficult policy of “coordinating” disputes in the huge number of bargaining units to a single national dispute with Treasury pay policy: each bargaining unit gets a different pay offer and all at different times whereas all bargaining units are governed by the parameters set by the Treasury remit policy (linking pay to individual performance marks, upper limits on pay bill increase, no extra money for equal pay problems, and so on and so forth).
The policy was carried nigh-on unanimously.
The Left NEC ignored the motion in the remainder of 2004, 2005 and 2006. At the 2006 Annual Conference, AWL and Socialist Caucus supporters put up a detailed motion calling on the NEC to implement the 2004 motion with a clear industrial action strategy and careful preparation. The motion was voted down by Conference on the advice of the NEC and Left Unity, the NEC effectively describing the 2004 motion as a motion which was out of time and no longer relevant. AWL predicted, at the Conference, that the Union would be running into serious problems given the Government’s pay remit policy.
Within a very short period after the 2006 Conference the NEC called a national pay forum as it realised that rising inflation, against a backdrop of a tight Treasury pay policy, would result in many members having their real pay cut. Yet, for all the talk at that forum of “a line in the sand”, there was no national fight back – not least because the NEC had authorised bargaining unit specific multi-year pay deals that were bound to complicate any national pay campaign in the years that those deals applied (the deals themselves were hardly a sign of a Union keen to launch a national pay campaign that would deal with the chronic pay problems of a civil service carved up into some 200 bargaining units).
In fact 2006 and 2007 were characterised by the NEC’s conscious rejection of preparation for a national pay campaign. Yet, in late 2007, the NEC launched (lurched?) into a national pay and jobs campaign with no idea as to what it would do after the January 2007 one day strike. In consequence it called one more national strike day on 1st May and then abandoned further action, and at a time when, if anything, even more members suffered below inflation offers.
Following a round of consultation meetings with members the NEC announced that members would not support more one day strikes (a hardly surprising outcome as one day strikes separated by months were never going to overturn Brown’s pay policy). The end result was that dreadful pay settlements were the norm in 2007, many members again got less than the rate of inflation and we moved into 2008 without any hint as to how the PCS leadership would stop the same awful pay settlements again being imposed on members.
Then, without any prior warning, members were told in May of last year that talks were “...ongoing with progress being made that can result in real improvements for members.” The suggestion that real improvements in pay would be made despite having abandoned the national pay campaign and despite Gordon Brown’s 2% public sector pay policy was plainly ridiculous – at least to an experienced activist. The problem of such claims, however, is not simply that they mislead members and many activists but that they send entirely the wrong message to the Government: Civil Service pay negotiators can see how desperate the PCS leadership is for any concession, they can see how pleased they are to be in “meaningful” talks, just as they have been since the national pay framework campaign was launched in 2003.
The talks predictably went nowhere (although activists and delegated pay bargaining negotiators struggled to find out what was going on) and the Union announced the pay ballot – essentially aimed at the remit policy, essentially a turn to the position campaigned for by AWL and Independent Left supporters but without any acknowledgement of that fact.
In truth the NEC decision reflects the increasing frustration of activists in trying to deal with a national government pay policy in a delegated bargaining unit, the pressure of year on year poor pay awards in the SP’s strongest base, the DWP ( where a dreadful multi-year has been imposed), the ongoing, spot on criticism of the Independent Left, and perhaps an overly optimistic belief, following all the bureaucratic bravado at this year’s TUC, that the TUC and other unions might join a public sector pay fight back.
However, the nervousness of the leadership could be seen in the constant stress on its desire for talks and the sheer reasonableness of not asking for anything more than the rate of inflation and the lack of clarity as to what would happen if the Government did not settle following two days of national action, a national overtime ban, and sectoral action. The nervousness would have been increased by the less than resounding ballot result for strike action (54% for action on a 35% turnout), the poor NUT ballot result, and the inactivity of the TUC’s and UNISON, and was reflected in the period for the action being extended from November/January to November/March.
The suspension of the industrial action has to be seen in the light of the NEC’s/Left Unity’s record on national pay and the fact that they have such form in calling off action without anything being offered by the employer (and this resume is by no means comprehensive on that point).