PCS, by far the largest civil service trade union, met in conference in mid May, as the Tory-Liberal coalition was drawing up its year-on-year slash-and-burn plans for the public sector: huge reductions in jobs and services; privatisation; cuts in real wages; further attacks on pensions and severance terms.
Conference got through a record number of motions and was a credit to delegates. Yet only a delegate with rose-tinted glasses would have returned home with the belief that the current PCS leadership is geared up to meet the enormous challenges facing PCS members.
The Left Unity/PCS Democrats Coalition has effectively abandoned the fight for common, national, pay rates for all civil servants and the national defence of members’ living standards. The National Executive Committee [NEC] is plainly unconfident about a pay fight with the Government, so has instead passed that task back to the members trapped in individual “delegated” bargaining unit (BUs). The 200 divide-and-rule BUs are designed to quarantine pay fights. Common national pay rates for the same jobs in different parts of the civil service cannot be won by dealing with pay unit by unit.
The truth is that the NEC gave up the ghost on national pay when it called off the ill prepared 2008 national pay dispute, claiming a “national agreement” when there was no offer on the table (spin of Blairite proportions is a vice of the PCS leadership). The NEC’s main hope is that a public sector trade union alliance will come to its rescue.
At conference it became clear that a public sector alliance is the key strategic aim for the NEC to meet the promised Tory-Liberal attacks. Conference agreed an NEC proposal that it should issue “a major call for joint action amongst public sector unions against the threat of spending cuts.”
On one level this is absolutely correct. A generalised attack on working people should be resisted by a generalised defence. Last year’s PCS conference passed an Independent Left [IL] motion calling for the NEC to approach other unions for a joint campaign against the Tories' aim of reopening the attack on public sector pension deals, making the retention of defined benefit pension schemes a key political and electoral issue. The NEC did nothing of the sort.
Some of the detailed proposals put forward by the NEC, local cross union committees for instance, have long been advocated by Independent Left (a grouping of left wing PCS activists, including AWL members, who have been highly critical of the NEC).
The PCS Independent Left (IL) has also consistently urged the NEC:
• Not to rely solely on intra-union diplomacy to build a public sector campaign but to use PCS Regional and town committees to reach out and forge links with the activists of other unions, building a pressure from below, even if the leaders of other unions do not want to unite in a common cause.
• Not to rely on a public sector alliance to defend members – not to rely on Unison general secretary Dave Prentis! - but to develop the strategy to fight alone if need be. PCS needs to go on a war footing. It should collect a levy to build its fighting fund. (It should have started doing that years ago. It should draw up detailed plans to combine selective action with national action, to keep the pressure on the employer and keep the action moving. It should develop the necessary propaganda amongst the members.
In the context of these looming attacks on the public sector, when the New Labour opposition is mired in its own calls to slash services, PCS conference rightly voted to “work up detailed proposals about how supporting or standing trade union candidates would work in practice” with a view to ultimately balloting members on final proposals sometime in 2011.
But the NEC leadership gives no thought as to how it might support John McDonnell MP in his campaign for leader of the Labour Party or in his work in the Labour Representation Committee. The slow job of throwing PCS’ weight directly into the electoral scales should not be counterposed to the task of fighting for political regeneration within the existing labour movement alongside John McDonnell, who has consistently supported PCS policies and fought the Blair/Brown cuckoos in the Labour Party.
John McDonnell campaigns tirelessly for a more equal Britain – an issue on which the IL has been at the forefront in PCS. IL has sought to compel the NEC to tie all membership equality issues into a cohesive, national, campaign that has the need for social equality at its core, that draws out for members the connection between workplace and wider society inequalities, and places such a comprehensive equality at the heart of all PCS’s campaigns.
In a grotesquely unequal Britain, the fight for equality, including the fight to place the burden of the fiscal crisis on the rich, is a critical element in renovating the British labour movement. Unfortunately the NEC did nothing on the key IL equality motion passed last year. It defeated a censure motion on that issue this year.
IL supporters successfully moved further campaigning equality motions at this year’s conference, and played a critical role in that part of conference. It held a large fringe meeting addressed by Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of an important study of inequality and its consequences, “The Spirit Level.”
The NEC set its face like flint against a mildly worded, very flexible, IL motion calling on the NEC to act on the Union’s policy to move full time officer (FTO) pay much closer to that of the members. The motion did not set any target salary, any timetable, did not specify which grades of FTO should be affected, and did not rule out reserve rights for existing FTOs, but was opposed by the NEC.
Some of the NEC members are Stalinists (no surprise about the support of those “Marxists” for luxury for bureaucrats), but many others are members of the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party, and Scottish Socialist Party – all of whom have a formal policy identical to that of the IL!
With the union rapidly filling up with members of these organisations as FTOs, the NEC and its supporters denounced the union’s own existing policy, called it brutal, and aligned themselves with the PCS rightwing. The motion was lost and PCS will remain a trade union where:
• The gap between the lowest and highest pay points in its own employment is £69,438!
• The highest paid official earns £87,656 with effect from 1st August 2009 (and donated back to the union just £2,000 last year and £4000 in 2008) but the average full time annual salary in the Civil Service was just £22,850 as at 31 March 2009.
The position of the would be Marxists on the PCS NEC seems to be one demand in trade unions by the right wing, and another in PCS where their mates and allies fill many of the FTO posts. We will return to this issue!