By a PCS activist
THE Public and Commercial Services union’s annual conference in May voted by a huge majority to ballot for industrial action over pay. After a two-year freeze and five-year one per cent cap, many members’ pay has only risen 5 per cent in seven years, inflation has stormed ahead at 20 per cent: a 15 per cent pay cut. Even the lowest paid members have lost thousands in real terms.
General Secretary Mark Serwotka said, “Our members deserve a pay rise to make up for years of pay restraint but we have been told there is only 1 per cent in the budget for pay unlike other parts of the public sector… Theresa May should be under no illusion. If her ministers do not fully fund a fair pay increase we will be consulting our members on serious sustained strike action”. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell added, “We’ll be alongside you on every picket line.”
NHS and local government workers have received (unfunded) offers above 1 per cent and Scottish civil servants will receive a funded 4 per cent pay rise, but the Cabinet Office is not considering anything bigger than 1 per cent for other civil servants. The PCS strike aims to smash the cap and achieve a 5 per cent rise. The ballot will run from 18 June to 23 July.
In a recent consultative ballot, PCS achieved a 49 per cent turnout, the highest turnout in any national vote the union has undertaken. However, the threshold for a statutory ballot for industrial action is 50 per cent under the Tories’ Trade Union Act (2016) – and that bans online voting. Activists will be working hard over the coming months to secure the biggest turnout in the history of PCS and a resounding “yes” vote.
Recent ballots by postal workers and lecturers have shown that 50 per cent can be achieved and, with PCS members taking out payday loans and visiting foodbanks, there is no reason we cannot get a similar or even higher turnout and strike vote. The only question is do we have a plan of action to convince members we can win?
The motion passed at conference and the strategy suggested by the top table were cautious. “Serious sustained strike action” seemed to mean targeted action, i.e. select groups taking sustained action with strike pay rather than a sustained strike by all members with little or no pay.
This at least recognised that one-day protest strikes have not advanced our cause one iota, and in the end demoralised members. This was the stubborn strategy of Serwotka and the Socialist Party led Left Unity faction from 2000 until 2012, when it caved in under the weight of the crushing defeat in the pensions strike. The “left” leaders have never accounted for this failure – and its new tactic, targeted action, is not the magic bullet some believe it to be.
The recent universities strike is the best example of how a union like ours can engage, recruit and get results; 16,000 joined UCU over the course of their pensions dispute and staged mass pickets during their 14 days of escalating action. The union used social media to reach members and garner public support, and branches held mass strike meetings for members to have their say on the next steps in the dispute.
Targeted action means the majority of members not actually being on strike, instead relying on a small number of colleagues taking action on their behalf. Everyone who’s been on strike knows it’s a transformative experience in the workplace, with members working together to win. Targeted action can’t draw the mass of the membership into the campaign in the same way and could well leave those taking action feeling isolated while others forget they’re “in dispute”. The Trade Union Act allows employers to use agency workers and scabs, which is more viable when only relatively few workers at a time are on strike.
In the end this is only a variation on the one-day strike. They’re both partial, limited… and therefore less effective than all-out strikes. The latter can produce results in a relatively short time, like the Chicago teachers after just nine days. But they often involve facing down the anti-union laws and previously left-talking officials.
The campaign to raise £2 million for strike pay is a great opportunity to prepare for such a battle. At the same time activists should demand the union defends any member who is disciplined or dismissed on return from strike duty by escalating the action, and supports any branches that are ready to “jump the gun” and come out before they are due to strike.
At the 2017 conference, motions to affiliate to the Labour Party and to Momentum were defeated. However, this year conference voted convincingly to support Labour in the next general election. Some Scottish branches wished to keep the current policy that allows them to campaign for the SNP. Serwotka, a Labour member, said in reply, “Can anyone dispute, wherever they are from, that when the next general election comes it is in the interests of members to have a Corbyn-led Labour government?”
The motion was limited to the next election and is not the same as affiliation; PCS will not have a voice inside the party. However, this is a positive step towards placing the union where it should be: inside Labour, fighting for socialist policies.
Many delegates were surprised that PCS President Janice Godrich intends to stand down next year and instead challenge fellow Socialist Party and Left Unity member Chris Baugh for his role as Assistant General Secretary. Godrich has the support of Mark Serwotka and her prominence means she is likely to win. But her motives for challenging Baugh are unclear; their rival fringe meetings revealed few political differences.
Left Unity, which will later decide which candidate to back, is itself in a bit of a state. While members were voting in record numbers in the consultative pay ballot, only 7.5 per cent turned out for the NEC elections and fewer for the DWP, HMRC and Home Office GEC group elections. The Socialist Party called this a “landslide victory” but it was the smallest “landslide” in union history!
Another sign of rank and file disquiet was an HMRC branch motion that “censures the NEC for the lack of coherent cross-departmental strategy to tackle the greatest threat to staff and our tax and benefits scheme. Conference particularly censures the NEC for the lack of a national campaign to stop office closures.” The motion was passed by a sizeable majority, with not a single delegate speaking in defence of the union’s leadership.
Until 2016 it was PCS policy that a single compulsory redundancy notice would automatically trigger a ballot for industrial action. When HMRC staff received their notices, the ballot was nowhere to be seen. While the 2016 conference later dropped this commitment, the betrayal felt by HMRC members clearly now has resonance in the wider union.
There is a disconnect between the leadership and membership of the union. Angry about pay, jobs, pensions and conditions, members have voted in unprecedented numbers to fight for a pay rise. The leadership, which was once seen by PCS members and the wider union movement as courageous and combative, is now characterised by timidity, climbdowns and (in Tax Offices at least) betrayal.
The shame is that this has all been overseen by the so-called “Trotskyist” leadership of the Socialist Party, which controls Left Unity and many of the union’s leading committees. This isn’t Trotskyism; it’s bureaucratic trade unionism.
In the coming pay dispute and beyond, we should fight for a real Trotskyist policy: for a rank and file controlled union, basing its demands and strategy on what the members need, not on what the government can “afford”, nor on what its leaders judge the members are prepared to deliver.