Two contrasting views of the proposed takeover of civil service union PCS by Unite by a PCS activist and a Unite community member.
PCS-Unite: no to merger!
A PCS activist
The annual conference of PCS, the largest civil service trade union, on 20-22 May will debate a motion submitted by the union’s Executive (NEC) on PCS merging into the big general union Unite.
The motion would instruct the NEC, on completion of talks with Unite, to convene a special delegate conference to debate the terms of “merger” and decide whether to proceed to a membership ballot to authorise the “merger”.
Strictly speaking the “merger” would be a transfer of undertakings. PCS members, staff and assets would transfer into Unite, essentially on the basis of the Unite rulebook (although the PCS leadership is said to be looking for assurances on democracy and PCS membership of Unite decision making committees).
Some PCS members think the leadership is keen on merger because the union’s future looks extremely difficult. With Tory-led Coalition’s austerity drive, PCS has lost a significant number of members since May 2010. In 2013 alone it lost a net average (leavers minus joiners) of 1,600 members each month. Further civil service job cuts are looming.
Moreover the union is under explicit threat of Tory ministers quickly ending the “check-off” whereby civil service departments deduct PCS dues directly from members’ wages and pass them to the union.
The PCS Independent Left, the left wing opposition to the ruling Left Unity/ Democracy Alliance, has said that if PCS is facing financial meltdown then “merger” with Unite has to be supported, irrespective of qualms, simply to keep trade union organisation alive in the civil service and other workplaces where PCS organises.
However the PCS leaders claim that the union is well able to continue as an independent organisation. The PCS Independent Left therefore argues that it should do so rather than transfer members to Unite.
The PCS leaders proclaim that moving PCS to Unite “would create a union able to bridge the traditional divide between unions operating in the public and private sectors so that we can boost our bargaining power.” They do not explain how, for example, the bargaining power of Unite members in a car factory will be boosted by the adhesion of PCS to Unite, or how the bargaining power of civil servants in HMRC or DWP will be boosted by being in the same union as car workers and other trade unionists in the private sector.
The Left Unity/Democracy Alliance has run PCS for eleven years. Over that time it has totally failed to overcome successive governments’ divide-and-rule policy of carving the civil service up into a huge number of “delegated bargaining units” and to regain civil service national bargaining. Yet that same leadership now asserts that merely by joining Unite it will overcome the bargaining divisions between public and private sector workers.
The PCS leadership effectively assumes that union “merger” is a shortcut to the development of wider working-class political awareness and industrial militancy.
The PCS leaders state that “merger” (transfer!) would create “a new, powerful force in the public sector adapted to today’s changing industrial circumstances that can deliver more for members” but has not explained precisely what it sees as the changing industrial circumstances and precisely how this new force within Unite would be better able to deliver for Unite and PCS public sector members. They do not say how the awful defeats PCS has suffered under their leadership would have been avoided if we had been Unite members.
The underlying and only very partially stated argument would seem to be that:
• PCS cannot “win” against the state on its own (winning is rarely defined by the PCS leadership),
• Public sector workers must therefore strike together on pensions, pay, jobs and services (and presumably keep striking until the demands of all the different occupational areas of the striking public sector workers have been satisfied – not a model the PCS leadership followed in the pensions dispute with the last Labour Government)
• Unison and other unions cannot be trusted to do so, as shown by the pensions debacle in November 2011
• If PCS “merges” with Unite and a large public sector group is created, then Unite will be able to call out its civil service, NHS and local authority workers at the same time, and thereby put pressure on Unison and other unions to join with it.
There is plenty of talk about a “new powerful force”, “making a difference”, needing “a more effective trade union fightback in the public sector” and PCS and Unite sharing the same basic approach of being genuine fighters for members. However, nothing has prevented Unite and PCS from calling such joint action before now if they wanted to.
In reality, Unite remains a relatively minor player in the NHS and local government. A fully united public sector fightback would require Unison to play an effective and committed role. That is extremely unlikely under the current Unison leadership.
PCS should certainly agitate for joint action, but has to develop its own independent strategy for winning on issues facing PCS members. There is no short-cut through merger with Unite.
The PCS leaders hint that they see themselves (in Unite) as competing with Unison for authority in the TUC and members in the NHS and local government. They say, “A merged union would become the second largest public sector union. It would be the first public sector union to hold substantial membership in…the NHS, local government and central government.” PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka spoke at last year’s PCS conference of creating a “left wing pole of attraction” in the union movement.
But competition with Unison is unlikely to attract its membership in mass numbers. If a few left-wingers are won over, that will be at the price of them abandoning the fight to replace the leadership in Unison of Dave Prentis or a successor in the same mould chosen in Unison’s next General Secretary poll in 2015.
Mark Serwotka or the Socialist Party, the dominant group in the PCS leadership quite clearly see themselves running Unite’s public sector group. They are certainly not going to give up the leadership of an independent trade union just to play second fiddle in one sector within Unison.
And Socialist Party must have high hopes of dominating Unite’s “United Left” through the much bigger PCS Left Unity membership.
Merger is likely to mean losing PCS’s democratic structures and its actual and potential industrial coherence.
PCS has annual elections at all levels; annual national and group conferences; delegates directly elected by branch members; and a widespread membership understanding of the key industrial issues.
Delegates to Unite’s national conferences are indirectly elected by regional committees and regional industrial sector committees; national policy conference takes place every two years; national rules conference every four years; industrial sector conferences every two years. Elections for the Unite NEC, Regional and Branch Committees are held every three years.
PCS’s very different circumstances enable direct relationships between members and the different levels of the union and within the single “industry” that is the civil service and the private sector support companies that provide services to the civil service. The end result is a membership with common workplace experiences and issues that gives national PCS an explicit and (potentially) unifying coherence of trade union purpose. That makes accountability (potentially) easier to judge and deliver.
There is simply no real industrial logic to merger with Unite.
There is some opposition on the left and right to merger with Unite because of its relationship to the Labour Party. It’s an opposition which either sees PCS in apolitical terms (a union for state employees!) or sees politics purely in terms of standing would be left-wing independent candidates in opposition to the Labour Party. Both are wrong and fail to outline any way in which PCS can help remove the Tories from government, ease the considerable pressures on members, and replace them with a trade-union based party whose leaders need to be opposed and tested with positive working class policies.
For certain an alternative to Labour will not be found through TUSC or similar candidates. Serious socialists opposed to the merger should not get caught up with opposition on sectarian grounds.
PCS-Unite merger is welcome development
As a community member of Unite, I would like to comment on the proposed merger of the Public and Commercial Services Union with Unite.
A merger of the PCS and Unite would probably lead to the merger of the broad left groupings — currently Left Unity in the PCS and the United Left in Unite. This would be a very good thing if it led to a more open broad left in the merged union.
A merger of the PCS and Unite would put community members of Unite, some of whom are claimants of job seeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance, in the same union as people who work in job centres.
This would be a good thing if it led to the merged union leading a campaign against the Department for Work and Pensions targets placed on job centres for sanctions against benefit claimants — one million of whom in the last year, according to Michael Meacher MP, have had their benefits stopped and then referred by job centres to food banks.
A merged union would be better able to publicise the petty nature of the sanctions regime in job centres. For example, some claimants have had their benefits stopped for being five minutes late for an appointment.
Another example, as reported in April’s edition of Socialist Appeal: ex-offender job seekers in the North-East are having their benefit stopped for not turning up for non-existent appointments which job centre staff have made up.
An article in the Independent (9 March) revealed that the PCS faces a pensions crisis, with an estimated £65.5 million combined deficit on two of its schemes. This is more than double the annual income of the PCS, which is £27.6 million. The pension deficit probably explains why the PCS bureaucracy is intent on such a rapid merger with Unite.
On balance therefore, given the welcome development of the open Grass Roots Left in Unite, which has a vastly more democratic structure than the United Left, I would say that Marxists in both unions should not oppose the merger of the PCS with Unite.