The debate about the suspension of elections in PCS drags on. The list of articles penned on the subject continues to grow, AGMs debate whether or not to support motions to overturn the suspension, and we’re still months away from Conference where the debate will reach a head.
But is this really the most pressing issue facing the union at this moment?
For clarity – the suspension of elections was wrong. Having annual elections makes PCS one of the most democratic of the TUC-affiliated unions, and setting a precedent that the executive can suspend that as they see fit is dangerous. But it is only one element of a much broader retreat by the union, and the problem cannot be tackled simply by electing a different executive. (Though, of course, this won’t hurt either.)
We’ve said before that there’s a dire need to rebuild, almost from scratch, an active, democratic culture in the union. This is the key to a rank-and-file movement which can take control of its own struggles, which is what the union lacks more than anything right now. But how do we get there?
Firstly, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the threat that we face. As workers and as a union, we are under attack both from the government and from our employers who appear to share their ideology.
- Over 80,000 civil service jobs have been slashed
- Workloads in many departments have more than doubled
- Our pay is worth an average of £2,300 less
- We’re paying more and working longer for pension that pay less
- Changes to terms and conditions have created a two-tier workforce
And, as it turned out, this was only the beginning.
There are many more job cuts to come. Office closures are helping force people out despite redundancies being ‘voluntary.’ Outsourcing and privatisation is being used to fill the gaps as the workforce shrinks. Workfare, claimants having to perform a job without a wage to ‘earn’ their benefits, is being introduced as another way to get more for less.
In order to stymie resistance to all of this, the government is engaging in blatant union busting tactics.
The removal of ‘check-off,’ the method of taking union subs via payroll, has effectively forced PCS to re-recruit its entire membership. Not an easy task in any climate, although reps have risen to the challenge admirably.
Cuts in facility time are equally insidious. Despite talk of ‘union barons’ being paid by their employer to organise strikes, facility time is the release granted to lay reps in order to represent individuals in personal cases, carry out safety inspections and bargain with the employer. It is widely recognised as reducing industrial conflict and having a net positive benefit. The main achievement of cuts will be to make it harder for workers to receive adequate representation.
In HMRC, a leaked document confirmed that the intention of management in all of this was to “marginalise” PCS and “disrupt [our] organising capacity.” They wanted to deal with a compliant union which would help it manage and implement its attacks rather than resist them, and boasted of already having been successful in this with the senior management union ARC.
An example of how far this move to “encourage HMRC employees away from PCS representation including but not limited to other workable alliances” goes, 4 March saw the launch of the Revenue & Customs Trade Union (RCTU).
RCTU was founded by former PCS officials including one who was suspended from a senior rep post after it was discovered that she tried to get management to remove facility time from other elected reps as a disciplinary measure. The same official was named in the leaked document as a “rare moderate influence” when she was in PCS, and the author of the paper met with the officials of the new union late last year to “understand what their intentions are.”
With PCS forced to effectively re-recruit its entire membership thanks to the removal of check off, the potential damage RCTU could do if it tries to fill a void should not be understated. Not only will they poach workers for a more management-compliant union, but they will divide the workforce and thus undermine our collective power.
By comparison, granting recognition rights in the civil service to UNISON may seem like an innocuous move. After all, what’s wrong with recognising and talking to unions? Nothing, if done in good faith. But aside from anything else, Francis Maude is pathologically incapable of good faith.
He’s recognised UNISON as he hopes its leadership will be more compliant with his agenda. Indeed, it has already endorsed a dilution of a jobs protocol which primarily affects PCS members. As well as putting hard won rights at risk of being watered down by a union representing a minority of workers, another effect of this move is to encourage ‘union shopping,’ with unions competing to provide a service instead of the workers standing together as one united force.
So now we stand at a crossroads. Workers in the civil service are under attack in the name of austerity. PCS are being assaulted for voicing opposition to that agenda. So how do we fight back?
The PCS response
The National Executive Committee has taken, in its own words, ‘bold decisions’ to save the union. The problem is, these bold decisions were taken to ensure the survival of the union as a financial and business interest. The survival of the union as a body of workers asserting our collective interests is a different matter.
Budget cuts, staffing reductions and the sale of assets will all help secure PCS finances for the future. But as a result the union will be more centralised, with fewer people making more decisions, and less resources available for branches. None of this is a good thing for the workers at the coal face.
At the same time, the revelation of union busting in HMRC has forced the union into retreat.
The HMRC Group Executive Committee got a pasting at Conference last year for their inactivity during 2013-14. In that time, the promise of a Jobs and Staffing Campaign (finally realised in time to invalidate half the motions to Conference) was used to hold off questions while the union engaged in ever decreasing circles of talks that went on forever yet never went anywhere.
Once we finally got a ballot and a positive result, and with the GEC drubbed at Conference for their inertia, we finally started hitting back. We had a couple of rounds of strike action and an overtime ban, with escalating action short of strike promised.
As we all know, the latter never came to pass. HMRC yet again offered talks without preconditions as a tactic to kill off the dispute. The GEC yet again fell for it and suspended action to get the talks. The talks yet again went nowhere, albeit this time far more spectacularly than ever before.
This cycle is wearily familiar. Dragging out talks indefinitely, calling token action to appease the membership, then falling lazily back into unproductive talks is the story of the last five years (at least). More than once in that cycle, victories have been claimed. Yet we’re still in dispute over office closures, job cuts and privatisation, and still failing to do anything that would actually be effective in resisting or staving off these things.
The GEC is very effective at lining this cycle up with the annual elections cycle so that Left Unity can appear militant for votes before retreating to cosy but ineffective back-room talks. Only a cynic would suggest this is deliberate, of course.
But the leak of the union busting document broke that cycle. At first, it appeared as though this might be a good thing – the GEC called for workplace meetings across the department, passing motions supporting the union and calling for industrial action, initially in the form of an overtime ban. We were cautiously optimistic that, shocked into action by the revelation, the GEC was actually taking the right path.
This didn’t last, however. The leadership have now retreated even further – keeping members almost entirely in the dark, begging HMRC to come back into talks rather than forcing them with effective action, and most likely setting up a capitulation of the already-dead jobs and staffing dispute that they can cynically sell as a win. At this point PCS in HMRC is all but dead in the water.
Nationally, that’s not the case everywhere. From the outside, the dispute in the National Gallery looks like PCS doing everything right. We offer our fullest solidarity to the workers there struggling against privatisation and taking a lead in innovative, militant campaigning.
But what of the civil service wide national campaign? True enough, we’re not used to anything more than brief bursts of activity at six month intervals. But the strategy agreed from the summer of consultation in 2013/14 remains largely unpursued. There is a fighting fund, but it’s not being pushed. There was strike action, but it was the usual token one day effort.
There’s some benefit of the doubt to be given here. Everywhere, the union is racing to sign members up to direct debit with check off gone or going. This is taking a truly gargantuan effort that everyone ought to be commended for.
But branches with some of the highest sign up rates are still organising and campaigning locally – indeed, if you understand how organising works it’s not a stretch to say that showing there’s something worth signing up to will drastically improve sign up rates. It’s also worth noting that PCS had its biggest recruitment surge ahead of the massive November 2011 pensions strike. So, again, where is the national campaign?
The movement we need
With the employer on the offensive and the union leadership in retreat, despair is an understandable response. But, to invoke an old cliché, we are the union. The whole point is that it is our collective strength which can stave off attacks on our conditions and win positive improvements – but only if we use it. With the leadership where they will, and without them where they won’t.
In the campaign to sign up members to direct debit, the hard work on the ground isn’t being done by the union leadership. Nor is it being done by any of the union’s factions, even if members of those factions are pulling their weight. Rather, it is being done by branches – and there is a direct correlation between high sign up rates and strong, well organised branches which engage and involve their members.
It is that kind of organisation on the ground which is necessary to defeat the government’s and employer’s attacks. And, beyond that, to fight for something more – because let’s face it: we want things to get better rather than just not get worse.
Left Unity has more than once declared itself a rank-and-file movement due to having captured a majority of the union’s activist layer, little understanding the political difference between a broad left which largely serves to prop up a nominally left-leaning leadership and a genuine rank-and-file which seeks to control its own struggles. Your Voice understands the difference and aspires to build that movement, but is honest about how far away we are from achieving that goal. Our comrades in the Independent Left appear to be in a similar position.
But when it emerges, a genuine rank-and-file movement in the civil service won’t be the property or the product of any one faction. It will be the product of strongly organised branches, rooted in the workplace as both the point of struggle and where decisions are made. It will be independent of the leadership, willing to criticise and go against it where necessary and work with it where possible.
Most importantly, it will be built on the premise that it is our collective power as workers which wins battles, regardless of support or otherwise from above. And it will take action accordingly.
Regardless of the outcome of the debate on elections, and we hope that the debate at Conference sees them restored, the need to build such a movement remains the most urgent matter for government workers to tackle.