Representing the members

Union full-timers must be elected, not appointed, argues Dave Vincent, and be paid in line with the workers who elect them

Paris Commune barricade, 1871

Paris Commune barricade, 1871

I respond to the excellent article by Alan Stevens, in which we are reminded that there is an alternative to highly paid union bureaucrats (‘Union-bashers target lavish lifestyles’, February 12).

I have been a lay official (branch secretary) of the Civil and Public Services Association and its successor, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), for over 25 years now. Because of my politics I have never aimed at becoming an MP or even a full-time union-employed official (despite this being suggested to me at various times). I was won over years ago to the practice of the 1871 Paris Commune – working class democracy, with all posts elected, leaders instantly recallable by the rank and file and all officials paid no more than the average worker they represent.

I have seen activists come through the rank and file and then join the bureaucracy – such as Chris Baugh (Militant, then Socialist Party), who became an assistant general secretary, and Mark Serwotka (general secretary). A number of others (usually SP members) have become paid, full-time union officials at lower levels and are in charge of departmental negotiations.

I have seen the union under the control of rightwingers and now leftwingers, and, although we now have many more strikes, we have got nowhere near a return to the single pay and grading system across the whole civil service that was in operation until the early 80s.

As the article stated, Mark Serwotka was elected on the basis of his socialist politics and his pledge to take a salary closer to that of the members he would be representing. But he seems to have backtracked from this, citing the higher living costs of relocating his family to London. How does he think ordinary PCS members in London manage – on far less than Mark’s total package of £109,882 per year?

Despite originally backing Mark Serwotka for his socialist politics and worker’s wage promise, the PCS Independent Left faction (then Socialist Caucus) is not so pleased with him nowadays. IL is putting up John Moloney for deputy general secretary (the DGS is employed by PCS for a five-year term and then comes up for re-election). When on the NEC John voted against (and publicly exposed) the two-tier pension retreat he was dropped from the SP-dominated Left Unity slate as a result. He is up against careerist Hugh Lanning (who was originally backed by the SP when he stood against Serwotka for general secretary in 2000 – until it became clear that support for Serwotka was becoming unstoppable).

However, none of the left in PCS (SP, IL, Socialist Workers Party, Scottish Socialist Party) is now calling for 1871-type demands. Union members reading last week’s Weekly Worker article may be tempted to get their union to introduce that policy. Here’s what will happen if you try!

PCS did actually have a huge debate a few years ago over the call to limit the pay of full-time officials and to extend the requirement for all of them to be elected. A successful motion requested a review of current practice, to be followed by a report to branches for the following year’s conference. The report was duly produced, which, although very balanced in terms of pros and cons, armed those in favour of retaining highly paid, union-employed bureaucrats with many facts, figures and persuasive arguments. The report reproduced statistics showing that all unions employ full-time officers and listed their salaries (Alan Steven’s article updated us on the wages paid today by 12 of the most important unions).

Those in favour of paying full-timers wages more closely matched to those of the members they are supposed to be representing were accused of treating union officers worse than they would like members to be treated. We were advocating cutting employees’ wages – only the worst bosses behave in that way!

The ‘professionals’ line was then wheeled out – the job of negotiating departmentally delegated pay, terms and conditions is so complex nowadays. Meeting professional, well briefed managers requires a similar level of expertise on the union side. We were also given the old ‘Pay peanuts and you get monkeys’ argument (we’ve certainly got cheeky monkeys for the chocolate-dipped brazil nuts we’re paying them!). Didn’t we realise we wouldn’t attract people of the necessary calibre?

That, I thought, was an appalling insult to all our low-paid members. These arguments about market forces, used to justify keeping the well paid bureaucracy in place, are exactly the same as those employed by company executives in defence of their obscene salaries and bonuses.

Of course, much sympathy was expressed by many a so-called revolutionary for the sentiments behind the notion of a worker’s wage. But, being ‘realistic’, we needed to defend the current system, didn’t we?

What about making a start by employing all newly elected officials on lower rates, while letting current officers keep the pay and conditions they are contracted to receive? We were lectured that this would result in a completely unacceptable two-tier arrangement – two rates of pay for doing the same work. That is totally against union principles and the members would never stand for it. Yes, that’s right – a few years later the same SP comrades were claiming that the two-tier pensions deal they accepted was a victory. Then there are the multi-tiered arrangements that come with regional pay, which the union later accepted for the ministry of justice (MOJ).

Finally came the point that really wobbled me – the argument against subjecting all union officers to re-election. We were told that a member elected to a five-year term of office and employed by the union may not be taken back by the civil service at the end of their term (true – especially if they were any good at fighting for members. Other unions would hardly take them on either!).

This was discrimination, it was claimed – our members do not have to re-apply for their jobs every five years, do they?

No-one wants to see good activists, having served a five-year term on similar wages to the members they represent, losing their position at their next election but having no job to return to. Answers, anyone?

So no surprise then – with the status quo being argued for by the SP, conference voted down the demand for the pay of full-time officers to be linked to members’ wages and for their re-election every five years.

Years later, where would I stand now if this issue came up again (or shall I raise it myself)? During that debate the politics of rank and file accountability and recall was hardly touched on; nor was the socialist logic that lies behind it explained. Since then we have indeed seen the union accept ‘different rates for the same work’. We have longer serving workers on better terms than newer workers.

Faced with a Labour government imposing a two percent cap on pay, we have seen the ‘professionals’ – armed with all the data, presumably, and trained to wield the most telling argument at just the right moment – get nowhere. In the last analysis it is the willingness of members to take militant, united action that is worth more than any number of slick, well informed negotiators.

But if workers attempt to empower themselves by defying the anti-union laws, what do we see from our highly paid full-timers? Exhortations to obey the law and return to work. MOJ officials did just that when Mark Serwotka and the SP went against the departmental conference decisions of PCS members giving them a clear mandate to organise paid selective strike action against the introduction of regional pay. This has now been imposed without a fight.

So, to answer my own question, I am even more in favour of the 1871 demands today than I was when PCS last had this debate.

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