Dave Vincent looks forward to the May 21-23 annual conference of the PCS

pcs_conference_2009

I am not sure how much use this overview is going to be for other Public and Commercial Services union activists attending this month’s Brighton conference. This is because of the practice of submitting swathes of emergency motions the week before conference which end up replacing many of the main motions delegates read and prepare for in advance.

Branch delegates do not get to see these emergency motions until they arrive at conference and so will have no mandate from their members. They are also disadvantaged compared to the national executive because the president and general secretary address all the departmental group conferences (held a day or two before the main gathering, where we all come together to discuss overall PCS policy) to push the preferred NEC line on major issues that are not subject to debate in group conferences.

The first major session is entitled ‘Social and economic – recession’ and already I have a problem. Lead motion A1 covers a ridiculously wide range of issues that should be debated separately. It demands wage increases no lower than inflation (not hard to achieve, given current official inflation figures), increased tax on big companies, repeal of all anti-union laws, the taking over of all unsold houses and flats, free and equal health and education services (not specified) to all, an end to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (when?), abolition of tax on fuel and energy for old people (age not specified) and ‘the poor’ (not defined). Then there is opposition to racism and the BNP, an increase in the minimum wage to £8 an hour, a call for the TUC to organise a day of action and national demonstration, support for those groups of workers taking action to defend pay, conditions, pensions and jobs (what – even ‘British jobs for British workers’ strikers?) …

And if, by any chance, international capital does not concede all these demands? Er, nothing. The motions suggests no action (apart from a national demonstration called by the TUC).

It is quite a list for one of Britain’s second-tier unions to achieve, but wait until you read motion A2. This calls for complete nationalisation of the entire banking sector and of all public utilities and transport, an end to all work measurement and absence controls, eradication of regional and local pay in the ministry of justice (nice for that to be mentioned, given the Socialist Party-dominated NEC refused to sanction paid selective strike action agreed by the MOJ group conference in 2007 to defeat regional pay when it was about to come in). And that is not the end of it. There is the demand for the PCS 2008 pay claim to be met in full – even though members only voted by 54% to support strike action, which the NEC then called off in favour of so-called ‘breakthrough talks’.

The next major debate is actually on pay – even though the NEC’s broad position will presumably already have been endorsed in A2. As I say, the NEC called off strike action last November because of the claimed “breakthrough” in talks with the treasury that allegedly achieved the removal of the 2% pay cap and a commitment that some departmental efficiency savings would be ‘recycled’ into better pay. One year later there has been no sign of either claim being delivered. Motion A20 (from the NEC) mentions the above and agrees that members “need to be consulted on whether progress has been made” and whether “further national industrial action is necessary”.

A21 censures the NEC for its handling of the national campaign and wants all civil servants to be paid the highest rates attained in some departments. Failing which, we go for a work to rule (a call which received 86% support from members last year, but was never activated by the NEC). A22 also censures the NEC and calls for individual departments to be able to take their own action over pay.

I have sympathies with aspects of each of the above three motions, but also some difficulties.

The NEC motion talks about resuscitating last year’s strategy for joint union action, but now circumstances are even more adverse. So close to a general election we are just not going to get any public sector unity from unions affiliated to the Labour Party. Also the logic of the NEC’s claim that departments can now be paid extra from efficiency savings is that the national campaign is not a national campaign.

I cannot agree with the censures of the NEC contained in A21 and A22, as the action by the PCS alone could not go ahead after the narrow vote to support it. At the same time I disagree with the ridiculous spin the NEC put on talks with the treasury.

A21’s call for a work to rule would defeat the treasury if enough members stuck to it, but it is unlikely they would. Members hate letting the work pile up on their desks – some will even do overtime to get through it. You do not lose pay working to rule, but you are at your desk facing daily pressure from managers as an individual. Such action always peters out.

What of A22’s call for departments to be able to take their own action? That could allow the government to settle with one or two powerful departments – which would be a gain for the workers involved, but would widen the pay gap between departments still further. On the other hand, it is better that workers who feel confident enough to have a go do so when there is no mood to fight elsewhere. A breakthrough in one department might inspire others to consider taking action.

I have not so far mentioned a tactic which has not been tried for years – paid selective action in targeted key areas and offices, and switched from one place to another before management can organise to bypass it. In fact I submitted a motion along these lines, but it was ‘C-marked’ (C236). This means it is held to be against policy agreed at the 2008 conference and cannot be discussed again this year. In 2008 conference endorsed the NEC’s strategy (the nonsense of a day here, a day there) and rejected paid selected action.

I can understand the restriction on rerunning the same debate for concepts that have already been rejected, but to apply it to particular tactical options, which may actually be more appropriate when they are raised again, is bizarre. This seriously limits our options and must have management celebrating our inability to examine every possibility.

That we have a left-dominated NEC causes problems – and not just on pay. A rightwing executive rarely fights the employer, so all union activists are open to left calls for action. However, the SP-led NEC will often call for a fight, which the left unites behind. But after the initial action has been taken and more is threatened, management will usually make concessions (or, more accurately, give the impression it is making concessions) and the follow-up action is called off.

Then the initial left unity evaporates – NEC claims about what has been achieved are questioned and the leadership is criticised for abandoning the fight. Come conference, most of the left feels constrained about questioning the left NEC for fear of demoralising members and allowing the right wing to make gains. The SP is very good at marshalling its supporters to strongly defend the NEC’s actions and to denounce critics as ultra-lefts. So far they have always won the day.

The main international issue is to be debated in motion A39. This concerns the Israeli incursion into Gaza and calls on PCS to work more closely with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

This year there are two motions from the same branch calling for disaffiliation from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (A68, which is three and a half pages long!) and Hands Off Venezuela (A70) – in both cases due to the treatment of free, independent trade unions. This raises the question of whether ‘socialist’ states can justify clamping down on unions whose strike action is usually deemed to be anti-socialist and may indeed be motivated by the CIA and free marketeers. These two motions were the only ones submitted to conference by this particular branch, which must have had an unusual AGM! Motion A67 calls for affiliation to the No2ID campaign.

My motion concerning PCS support for the Hands Off the People of Iran anti-sanctions campaign has been ‘D-marked’ (D306). This means it will not be debated, because PCS is already affiliated to Hopi, and so, instead of troubling conference with a debate on the issues involved, members can just write to the general secretary asking him to support the campaign.

NEC elections

The SP-led Left Unity and the PCS Democrats have continued their electoral pact for this year’s elections – once again they are running a joint slate as the Democracy Alliance. A number of Socialist Party members are now hiding their membership of the SP from their election addresses and Democracy Alliance literature justifies the concealment of its left identity by the threat of the rightwing ‘4 the Members’ regaining control of the NEC.

‘4 the Members’ usually wins a few NEC places and narrowly loses out on several others. DA candidates are usually nominated by well over 100 branches, while ‘4 the Members’ can only muster around 10, yet it still runs DA close. It would win more seats but for the limits placed on the allocation of NEC seats to each department.

The voter turnout is usually pathetic – which only adds to concerns about how deep the left’s support really is – especially if groups like the SP feel obliged to hide the fact they are on the far left and instead enter into a ‘temporary pact’ that seems to be revived every year.

Also up for election are the deputy general secretary and assistant general secretary posts, which come up every five years. There are only two candidates for each post.

Blairite Hugh Lanning is standing for re-election as deputy general secretary for the Democracy Alliance and is opposed by John Moloney of the Independent Left (a split from Left Unity). Moloney, a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, has 33 branch nominations and is standing on a workers’ wage platform. He is repeating some of Mark Serwotka’s old campaigning points against Lanning, whom Serwotka defeated in the 2000 contest for general secretary. Back then the SP initially backed Lanning as the lesser evil, compared to Barry Reamsbottom of the rightwing National Moderate Group, and slammed Serwotka’s candidature as “an adventure”. Serwotka has since distanced himself from those who helped him win the first time and grumblings are now heard about how long his own commitment to a workers’ wage lasted after his move to London.

The SP’s Chris Baugh is attempting to retain his job as assistant general secretary and is opposed by Rob Bryson of ‘4 the Members’.

Finally, I am myself standing again for the NEC as an Independent Socialist, once more without factional support. Last time I came 78th out of 78 – let’s see if I do better this year!

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