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From The Socialist newspaper, 16 February 2022

PCS Elections 2022: Time for new leadership in our union

PCS delegation on the 26 March TUC demo, 2011. Photo: Senan

PCS delegation on the 26 March TUC demo, 2011. Photo: Senan   (Click to enlarge)

Defend PCS support for the National Shop Stewards Network

Dave Semple, PCS rep, Wigan Area branch and former NEC member 2018-2021

On 11 September 2011, 700 trade union reps from across the labour movement marched and demonstrated outside the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was held in London that year. No one watching the march could be in any doubt about what these reps wanted - leaders whose actions would match their fine speeches.

Some leaders, such as then-PCS President Janice Godrich and current PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, spoke to the rally of demonstrators, pledging to back their call for a mass co-ordinated strike and to build a campaign of action to oppose the Con-Dem public sector pension robbery.

The rally and demonstration, called and organised by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and supported by left unions, achieved its purpose. On 30 November, the largest single day of strike action since the 1926 General Strike was called, effectively a one-day public sector general strike. For a moment, the edifice of British capitalism shook just a little.

What has changed?

Ten years later, on 9 December 2021, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union's National Executive Committee (NEC) backed a call by the same Mark Serwotka to withdraw support from the NSSN. Has there been a change in the NSSN to justify this withdrawal?

The NSSN, which was initiated in 2006 by the RMT transport union, has not changed. In the last year, solidarity visitors from the NSSN have been on a host of PCS picket lines, including during the late 2021 dispute at the Royal Parks. This support was even welcomed on the PCS website in two posts last August and October. The NSSN actively publicises every dispute it can by a well-read email bulletin to all activists.

During key disputes for PCS members, such as the 2020 battle over union recognition in Interserve (now Mitie) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, visitors from the NSSN attended the picket at King Charles Street, London, and half a dozen NSSN shop stewards attended the rally outside Interserve head offices to show low-paid staff they weren't alone.

The NSSN is inclusive. Each year it holds a conference, of which all affiliates are notified. Shop stewards from across the labour movement have been attending this now for 15 years, to air differences and to learn about struggles in other sectors. National union leaders with widely varying views have spoken regularly.

Nothing has changed in terms of how the NSSN is run or its role in mobilising support from across trade unions to help workers in struggle. I would argue that it is Mark Serwotka and his backers on the PCS NEC who have changed.

Outrageous slurs

The letter from Mark Serwotka to the NSSN, notifying it of the disaffiliation, is typically full of mistruths. It asserts that the NSSN's "leading organisers have engaged in a campaign of opposition to PCS for political reasons." No evidence of this is provided. In fact, no such evidence exists. It is flatly untrue.

As a socialist and a PCS member, I have made any number of criticisms of the leadership of my union, which I believe betrayed our pay claim in 2020, and which has been absent without leave on questions like Covid safety and workloads in Jobcentres. Conflating the leadership of the union with the union itself is a dishonest sleight of hand.

The NSSN, bringing together shop stewards from across the labour movement, pays witness to many complaints about the leadership of the trade unions. PCS reps themselves were bitterly angry in 2012 about the leadership of GMB, and Unison, signing an agreement with the Con-Dem government on pensions that saw millions of workers ripped off.

That anger, and those criticisms were not opposition to GMB, or Unison! It is an outrageous slur to say that any NSSN activist - and in reality Serwotka is aiming at Socialist Party members who play a leading role - has opposed PCS for political reasons. I invite Mark Serwotka to respond to my comments here, in the pages of the Socialist.

Parked pay claim

When it comes to the PCS pay claim, the change in the leadership of PCS is very clear. It is an incontrovertible fact that Mark Serwotka, without the consent of the union's NEC, wrote to the Cabinet Office in 2020, in the early phase of the pandemic, to water down our pay demands from the 10% Conference had approved to an "above inflation" rise.

Civil servants, who make up the largest group of workers represented by PCS, have lost between 15% and 20% as a result of pay freezes and pay rises significantly below the rate of inflation. A 10% pay claim was demanded as the first step on a road back from austerity, which had repeatedly been pronounced as over by chancellors and prime minister.

Watering down the pay claim was an attempt to seem reasonable to the Tory government. In fact, it simply advertised Serwotka's lack of belief that the union could win the demand set by the Annual Delegate Conference (ADC). Sensing this weakness, the government rudely brushed Serwotka aside and imposed a maximum pay rise that still fell short of inflation, at 2.5%.

The NEC simply rubber-stamped this approach and, despite having been advised by the general secretary that ballots were possible, indefinitely put off a pay campaign because, they argued, how dare we - the Socialist Party and Broad Left - even think about pay?! No thought was given to the financial pressure the pandemic would bring for members.

In July of 2020, with the pay campaign having been in cold storage since Spring 2019, the NEC began beating the drum - not about a serious campaign, but about a petition launched on the Westminster Parliament's website. This was a stepping stone to a serious campaign, we were told.

Unsurprisingly, the government batted this aside and imposed a pay freeze for 2021.

Concession bargaining

At the Annual Delegate Conference in 2019, Serwotka and his coterie got up in front of the hundreds of assembled delegates to insist that the only valid approach was to campaign on pay alone - without attaching demands on other related issues like jobs. They also argued that the only possible approach was for one national ballot.

Socialist Party members and Broad Left supporters argued that this was mistaken. The anti-union Trade Union Act 2016 imposed new restrictions on unions designed to make it harder for workers to go on strike. This included making any ballot invalid if 50% of union members did not vote in it. This has made one national ballot very difficult to achieve.

In early 2019, the last time we balloted for strike action on pay, some areas managed to break the 50% threshold while others didn't. The University and College Union has faced similar difficulties across different campuses in their common dispute over lecturers' pensions. Yet they have managed significant strike action by disaggregating their ballot.

This means that any area which gets above the 50% threshold is free to take strike action, while the others can have more resources diverted to them in order to reballot and get over the 50% threshold. We argued that this tactic must be considered. Serwotka, Heathcote and their clique called us saboteurs and shouted us down in every meeting.

They won the vote - barely - at ADC 2019, but then used this mandate from conference to do nothing significant on pay until January 2022.

What some union members will not know is that, in the meantime, some civil service employers like the Ministry of Justice and HM Revenue and Customs, have used the absence of a serious union campaign on pay, and the increasing restlessness of staff in the face of rising bills, to push through cuts to terms and conditions in exchange for limited pay rises.

Despite their endless statements about restoring national pay bargaining - so that civil servants doing the same job in different departments get the same pay at the best rate - the failures of the union's leadership on pay has resulted in further divergence between the different groups of workers in the civil service.

Union democracy

Pay is not the only issue, however, that shows the retreats of the current leadership of PCS. Throughout the last three years, issues of accountability and democracy have repeatedly raised their head.

After cancelling elections in 2020 - despite admitting openly that they could have gone ahead - and cancelling the union's Annual Delegate Conference, the NEC then began tinkering with the rules that protect the democracy of the union for conference 2021. We take Covid safety precautions extremely seriously, but the NEC went much further than was necessary to protect members from Covid.

They imposed a limit of four motions per branch on every branch in the union. They insisted that three of those motions must be on preordained topics. Then they removed control of the conference agenda from branches, by preventing branches from collectively voting to overturn the decisions by the Standing Orders Committee.

Further, they insisted that because this was a digital conference, anyone who wished to speak had to volunteer well in advance, rendering delegates unable to respond spontaneously to what they were actually hearing in the debate. The result of this was a stale event with little of the democratic energy of previous conferences.

During 2020 and 2021, multiple "future of the union consultations" have been run, arguing that the union must either merge with another union or must be reorganised.

Hundreds of pages of NEC papers, branch briefings, consultation reports and conference motions later, no one has explained how either proposal would improve the ability of PCS to recruit or retain members in an era where the Civil Service is growing rapidly.

Attention is instead given to tinkering with branch and group structures, which are some of the few areas that are currently outside the control of the general secretary. This makes it pretty easy to infer what is actually aimed at with restructuring of the union.

The leadership has trumpeted supposed success in keeping the cost of PCS staffing within 33% of the total value of members' subscriptions. Arbitrary targets like this, and their ready resort to the language of targets, exposes how out of touch the current NEC is. This also applies to the bizarre changes to the union's website which deleted huge amounts of information, and to the segregation of PCS staff into distinct organising and bargaining specialisms, as if the two are not related.

Broad Left Network supporters have insisted that the NEC should exercise its democratic right to run the union. Decisions should not be made by the general secretary's office and then nodded through by the NEC. The NEC should insist that much more information is provided, to enable effective democratic oversight of the management of the union.

When debating these consultations at NEC, the general secretary has stepped away from his one-time commitment to the election of a much wider selection of the union's full-time officers. When Socialist Party members and Broad Left Network supporters raised this, we were told that calls for the election of full-timers are "outdated".

Far from being outdated, electing all the most powerful positions within the union is crucial to ensuring the accountability of those officers to members and their needs. This should be one of the most basic demands of anyone calling themselves a socialist in the labour movement. It recalls the late Labour MP Tony Benn's five questions to ask the powerful, with the most central being, 'how do we get rid of you?'

Rank-and-file NSSN vital

In September 2020, the TUC's General Secretary, Francis O'Grady, posed beside Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and the head of the Confederation of British Industry to announce cuts to the furlough scheme, on which millions of workers were depending to keep them fed, housed and safe from coronavirus.

Eventually, these plans were abandoned, and the country went back into lockdown. What this demonstrates, however, is that it's not sufficient to simply take what the leaders of the labour movement say and do on trust.

As socialists, we must have the right to put forward a socialist programme for fighting, democratic trade unions and to hold our leaders to account when they fall short of what we need. A national movement of shop stewards is a crucial weapon in that battle.

Yet it is precisely this goal - of a fighting, democratic trade union with a socialist programme - that Mark Serwotka and the current leadership of PCS have distanced themselves from in practice. This is the real explanation behind the move to try and break the link between PCS and the NSSN. PCS members and activists will be asking why this decision was taken on their behalf by the NEC rather than bringing it to conference

Therefore, those of us who have been grateful for NSSN support will ask the union's Annual Delegate Conference to reinstate that link.

It is now in the vital interest of every single PCS member to also replace the failed Democracy Alliance leadership. So we call on all branches in every group and area of PCS to nominate candidates from the Broad Left Network in the 2022 elections.

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In The Socialist 16 February 2022:

What we think

Britain's economic growth figures mask fragile false recovery


'Labour by name - Tory by policy'

Covid: Fight for full sick pay

Met police boss ousted

Tory stealth taxes burden 'packhorse generation'

Left Labour MPs under pressure over Erdington

'Stand together and fight'

Neither Washington, London nor Moscow

Australian nurses strike against understaffing and low pay

Erdington by-election

Birmingham Erdington by-election

Campaigning in Birmingham Erdington by-election

Saltley Gate

From our history: 1972 miners' strike

PCS elections

PCS Elections 2022: Time for new union leadership

Workplace news

Barts NHS strike

NEU strike at girls' school chain over pensions

University workers striking back

"If we don't fight, we won't win!"

Just Eat strike spreads and forces concessions

Join the scaffs mass picket at Scunthorpe steelworks

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West Sussex care campaigners' victory

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Campaigning to make 2 March student walkout happen

Stop eviction of Camden homeless collective

East Sussex: Poverty and cuts bring people to Socialist Party

Save St Mary's Leisure Centre

Fund us to fight for socialism

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