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PCS Conference 2013: stumbling through the dark

The 2013 Annual Delegate Conference (ADC) of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union once again conducted a heated debate on a strategy to defeat the cuts, but the NEC backed away from creating the strategy needed to win. A delegate reportsThe Annual Delegate Conference (ADC) of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union began with a debate between a motion from the National Executive Committee (NEC) and one from the Revenue and Customs (R&C) West Mercia Branch, supported by the Civil Service Rank and File Network.

The NEC motion put forward the old strategy of a one-day strike at the end of June, trying to co-ordinate further strikes with other unions and consulting the membership on what kind of action we need to take next. The R&C West Mercia motion voiced the frustration of many union activists over the past few years of timid resistance to the cuts by the trade union movement as a whole. While recognising that the PCS has led the way in co-ordinating strikes and taking action itself, it has not done everything possible to pull the other unions along with it. The motion read:

Conference is disappointed, however, with the thus far lukewarm response of the trade union movement to these threats. Though members and reps have continued to deliver, the same cannot be said of the union leaders whose voices are often the loudest and most bellicose when given a stage and the attention of the cameras.
Conference condemns the TUC for effectively demobilising the pensions dispute following the strike action on November 30 2011 and for doing little more this year than organise an A to B march.
Conference also censures the NEC for its failure to mount an effective national campaign and to offer the leadership that the TUC refused to. With just three days of national strike action across three years of government austerity, it is no wonder that the government is refusing to budge.”

The motion goes on to list the kinds of industrial action the NEC should organise, from PCS-wide strikes to co-ordinated action and overtime bans. It’s a vague list that leaves the initiative in the hands of the NEC. It probably would have been acceptable to them if it wasn’t for the censure and, more importantly, the implication that they should provide an alternative leadership to the TUC and publically call on other union leaders co-ordinate strike action with us. Doing so would break the unwritten rules of trade union leadership. But now is not the time for good manners and old customs – we are suffering the worst austerity for a generation and we need an industrial strategy that will win. Although this motion received hundreds of votes, it was not enough to defeat the NEC motion. Motions calling for alternative industrial strategies, which focus on the PCS pulling together a co-ordinated or general strike through putting public pressure on leaders of other unions, have been tabled and lost at two conferences. Those of us who support such a strategy need to think about how to work together to pass it at the next conference, which effectively means popularising the idea now.

Privatisation threat
The most pressing issue in the civil service is now the looming privatisations. The Times and other newspapers have exposed Justice Minster Chris Grayling’s plans to privatise Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and yet they continue to deny that any of the options they are considering, including a “corporate arm”, would mean privatisation. Their attempt to hoodwink union members is clearly a tactic to delay effective industrial action.

Bits of the Department of Work and Pension (DWP) and Her Majesty’s R&C have already been privately outsourced, for example to ATOS, but HMCTS is clearly the testing ground for wholesale privatisation – if the government succeeds there then the larger and more militant departments will surely be next.

Privatisation will not only threaten the jobs, pay and conditions of PCS members, but also the existence of a public sector that has even a formal separation from private business interests.
If the NEC is to organise action to defeat privatisation then it is not enough to simply consult branches on what action they think members are willing to take – the NEC must also demonstrate leadership in developing a strategy that will defeat privatisation and trying to win support for this. To neglect to produce such a strategy is a gross abdication of leadership that will only ensure defeat for the union.

Unite merger
One of the largest debates at the conference, and certainly the closest vote, was about the proposal to begin merger talks with Unite. PCS has been fostering a closer working relationship with Unite over the past few years and the rumours of merger plans were confirmed by a motion from the NEC, proposing that it should engage with Unite if it proposed merger talks.

The debate began a year ago based on the shaky financial situation of PCS but General Secretary Mark Serwotka, who motivated the motion, made clear that our finances have stabilised – so the debate was about whether we should merge with Unite rather than whether we need to.

In addition to questions of a general strike and union democracy, the debate particularly centred on this passage of the motion:

“It is possible that a merged union could create a new, powerful force for fighting trade unionism in the public sector capable of shifting the current passive approach of other unions, which led to the squandering of the momentum generated by the joint union action over pensions on 30 November 2011 (N30).”

Those who were in favour of a merger emphasised that Unite continued to strike with us over pensions after other unions sold out, and Serwotka posed the possibility that if we had been part of Unite then we might not have been “left standing alone after N30”.

On this question, clearly the facts need to be re-stated. After N30, the PCS, UCU, NUT and Unite continued to coordinate strike action but when Unite did not support the strike on 28 March 2012, PCS also pulled out and left the UCU and NUT to fight alone. On 10 May there was one final day of action that included PCS, the UCU, Unite and the POA, but Unite reps complained that the national union was not promoting the strike. The mistake of tying our industrial strategy to that of Unite and other unions was recognised at the last conference, when it was agreed that we would go it alone if we had to.

Merging with Unite is not the solution to the failure of the TUC to sustain co-ordinated action or launch a general strike. If Unite wanted a general strike then it could organise one – there are 1.4 million Unite members across the public and private sectors. Rather than a merger pulling Unite to the left and making it a more combative union, one of the most combative unions in Britain would be absorbed into Unite.

One of the main arguments put forward by those who opposed the merger motion was that if Unite wanted to oppose austerity then we could work together in a joint campaign of industrial action, and that we could do so without merging. Issues of Unite’s democratic structures were also raised, with one delegate explaining that a Unite rep in her trades council had been informed by letter that, as part of the Unite branch reorganisation, his branch funds were frozen; he would receive a further letter detailing which branch(s) members would be reallocated to his branch.

The biggest issue by far, however, was Unite’s support for the Labour Party, which directly contradicts PCS’ s policy of an independent political fund. We have worked for years to use our political fund to support anti-cuts candidates.

The hand vote on the motion was very close, so delegates demanded a card vote. Whilst the card votes were being counted, a further motion about the proposed merger with Unite was taken, which served to clarify the basis of the discussions:

“1. Conference agrees any proposed merger terms put forward by PCS must be subject to ADC decision.
2. Conference agrees that any agreement to open talks on a possible merger must be based on clear demands. These should include the following:
• Keeping our current democratic culture and structures intact.• Guaranteeing representation in UNITE structures at all level.
• Protecting the finances and resources of PCS.
• Protecting and promoting lay powers, our activist culture, union policies and the leadership role we play.
• Ensuring a political fund independent of the Labour Party and run in line with current PCS policy.”

Delegates who opposed merger talks faced the problem that if the previous motion had passed then they would of course be in favour of strict guidelines for the negotiations, but if the previous motion had been lost then voting for this motion would risk agreeing the merger talks they had just voted down. The vote in favour of this motion was far higher and it passed alongside the first motion, which was voted through by around 109,000 votes to 100,000 votes.

In the next stages, any proposed merger must be subject firstly to a vote by an Annual Delegate, or Special Delegate, Conference and then by a membership ballot. This gives those opposed to the merger two opportunities to defeat it. At the next conference, we need to be ready to organise a large fringe meeting to win and organise support for a “no” vote both at the conference and in any ballot.

A worker’s wage
The Independent Left faction proposed a motion proposing that the union take steps to ensure that “full-time officer pay rates in PCS are much closer to the pay received by the majority of PCS members”. This is in the context of pay band 7 in the PCS being raised to a maximum of around £92,000 per year and where the 271 PCS employees collectively earn (including pension and National Insurance contributions) around £17 million or on average £62,638 each per year. The average wage of a civil servant (excluding pension and National Insurance contributions) is around £23,000, including management grades.

Motions calling for a workers wage for full-time officials are regularly brought to conference but face opposition from the leading faction Left Unity and organisations within it, such as the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This is despite the fact that, on paper, both organisations support the call for union officials to receive the average wage of those they represent.

This motion was also heard in the context of elections of union officials being spread further, with the conference agreeing that six newly created posts in the union will be filled by election rather than appointment. Losing the workers wage motion means that those elected to these positions will earn far more than the average union member and won’t live the same life and struggle in the same way as those they are elected to represent.

Benefit sanctions boycott
On the first day of the ADC the Civil Service Rank and File Network, supported by Disabled People Against Cuts, Boycott Workfare and the Brighton Benefits Campaign, blocked the road outside the conference centre in Brighton. The lobby called on PCS delegates to vote for a boycott of benefit sanctions to form part of the industrial action strategy in the DWP.

Boycott motions had been passed by a number of DWP branches but after taking legal advice the Standing Orders Committee had refused to even print the motions, never mind let them be debated by the ADC.

Emergency motions to the ADC went some way towards getting round this issue by proposing that PCS take a position against benefit sanctions and that a boycott of benefit sanctions be used as part of a “legitimate trade dispute”, for example over pay. Although both emergency motions passed, some delegates from the DWP raised the issue that if they were to win their “legitimate trade dispute” then they would have to go back to sanctioning benefit claimants; instead we should be boycotting sanctions with the aim of getting rid of them.

Scottish independence
The final big debate was over the question of whether PCS should take a position on Scottish independence. The NEC was clearly in favour of independence, but proposed a motion that commits them to organising a conference of Scottish branches where they will be consulted on the issue. Then the next conference will decide whether to make a recommendation on how members should vote in the referendum.

One thing that was clear in the debate is that some people were confusing supporting the right of nations to self-determination with thinking that countries should break down into different nationalities in all circumstances.

So where does this leave the PCS?
We are currently engaged in departmental action in support of the National Campaign against attacks on pay, jobs, pensions, terms and conditions, and privatisation. At the end of June there will be a national strike of all departments, which will likely be for just one day.

The government has almost reached its target of cutting civil service jobs by 20 per cent – but this will by no means be the end of the attacks. Over the coming months we will have to take industrial action against privatisation and draconian performance management policies, which will see “attitude” being assessed equally with actual performance. Performance will then be linked to pay and new pay deals are currently being put to the union.

The government is trying to hit back against PCS by cutting the facility time of reps, and steps are being taken to focus the majority of the remaining time on branches to maintain the base of the union.
The situation cries out for serious industrial action – not just one or half-day stoppages – but the union has very small reserves and only at this conference did we finally agree to establish a strike fund which members will be asked to make voluntary contributions to. This will give us the option of using the tactic of paid selective action (a section of crucial workers striking for a long time with strike pay funded by other union members), but it will not be enough to fund the kind of large-scale lengthy industrial action we need to take.

The options left open to us are to go out to other unions and the wider public to build up our strike fund, or to pile on the pressure for a general strike that, although it would be unpaid, would have the strength to bring down this government and stop all the cuts.

I support all these options: let’s organise paid selective action and start to raise funds on the basis that with more money we can ramp up the fight to save essential services. We should publicly call on the leaders of other unions to agree the date that we start an indefinite general strike against austerity.

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