Tag Archives: PCS

June 30: Bigger, better, more coordinated

Rank and file pressure must be brought to bear not only within the unions, writes Michael Copestake, but on the Labour leadership too

The June 30 strikes involving up to 750,000 public sector workers may only have been for one day, and may only have involved unaffiliated unions, but they gave the Labour tops much pain – a condition that will be intensified if, as we are led to believe, the next round of mass strikes in the autumn goes ahead with affiliated unions included. That Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and the entire shadow cabinet distanced themselves from the strikes (a Tory “trap”, they argue) provoked anger amongst many trade union leaders and Labour members alike – once again highlighting the contradictory nature of the Labour Party.

The results of the strikes in terms of impact were generally good. The claims of government and sections of the press to the effect that ‘no-one will notice’ were shown to be false and the government could not credibly paint an overall picture of ‘business as usual’. There was an excellent media profile. Some 28% of both state and private schools were fully closed and another 5,000 or so were badly affected; emergency service call centres in London were left without staff and many benefits workers also took strike action. Court hearings and driving tests were postponed, though border controls and airports were not disrupted seriously. The Public and Commercial Services union and the government put the figures for PCS members on strike at 200,000 and 110,000 respectively. No matter what the truth, all picket lines across the country were said to have been in high spirits – and with good reason.

In London some 30,000 attended a strike day rally, 5,000 in Manchester, 2,000 in Sheffield, 3,000 in Brighton, 4,000 in Bristol, with many more all over the country. A feature of the day was the near universal expression of disapproval by workers at the rallies, including booing and jeering, whenever a speaker made mention of Ed Miliband and his slimy stance. Miliband, while not directly condemning them, said that the unions should get back round the negotiating table – even though it was clear that it has been more a case of the government demanding surrender over pensions: workers must work longer, pay more and receive less. Between the government axe and the neck of the public sector workers there is only thin air, and Miliband knows it.

One bizarre aspect of the media coverage was the now infamous and downright weird interview in which Miliband, assuming that he would be edited down to only a single sound bite, gave the exact same answer almost word for word to at least six different questions in order to get his precisely contrived ‘middle of the road’ position across.

The only union leader of any note to stand with Miliband against strike action has been Chris Keates, head of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, who claims to believe that the unions must be seen to have exhausted every available option in order to win the battle for public opinion. Given that every option short of striking has been exhausted, this view does not carry much weight at a grassroots level. What is interesting is the extent of support for the strikes not just from the labour movement, but from a good proportion of our class in the face of adverse propaganda.

The opinion polls are mixed, but make for an interesting snapshot of the state of play. The Economist has noted that strikes by teachers provoke an ambiguous response. On the one hand, people are broadly sympathetic when it comes to the reasons for the strike and believe in teachers’ right to withdraw their labour, but when they are asked about the inconvenience, support dips. And, of course, that is the quandary for public sector workers – it is, by and large, not the government that is inconvenienced when they strike, but the public. This dilemma gives the government some leeway in its attempts to create a division between workers in the state and private sectors – most of whom do not receive occupational pensions that match up to even the inadequate ones that teachers and civil servants have won. Private sector workers are affected by public sector cuts as users, not providers, and for them the question is not posed as a sectional or trade union matter, like a struggle over wages and conditions. They have a class interest, of course, but where is the party able to represent this?

Presently, 76% of Guardian readers polled online believed that Ed Miliband should have supported the strikes, but, as the right of the Labour Party will point out, the online readership of The Guardian ain’t going to swing a general election.[1] Meanwhile, Progress, the reliably sickening, New Labour think-tank funded by Lord Sainsbury (who is presently withholding money from the party itself), went all nostalgic about the ‘good old days’, when there were ‘proper’ workers going on strike, not these overpaid, middle class ‘white collar’ workers.

Its website commends Miliband for having “got his betrayal in first”.[2] Except of course, as the author points out, the unions involved last Thursday – PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU – are not affiliated to the Labour Party. Certainly the whole situation would be even more awkward for Miliband if the striking unions were affiliated. Unlike during the mid-90s to early 2000s, when Tony Blair managed to persuade sections of the capitalist class to stump up substantial sums of money for the New Labour project, today funding by the unions is vital. However, it will not be easy to force the Labour leaders to side with the workers and back their strikes – after all, they have never done so in the past.

It goes without saying that next to no influence can be exerted on Miliband and the Labour leadership by non-affiliated unions, which is why there should be no more talk of disaffiliation – quite the reverse in fact: RMT and FBU must rejoin, and PCS, NUT, UCU, etc must take their place alongside them. Strands on the left – not least the Socialist Party in England and Wales – oppose this on the grounds that Labour is now a bourgeois party and the unions would be better served to dump it and set up a mark two. This is completely off the beam. Miliband’s squirming over the strikes makes it perfectly obvious that Labour is not like the Tories and Liberal Democrats – no matter how much the Blairite right would like it to be. In addition, such comrades are missing the central point. Labour leaders have always betrayed workers because the union bureaucrats have allowed them to do so. It would be exactly the same if the unions under their current leadership started from scratch and set up a new party.

There are no neat little side steps to get round the problem of the Labour Party. The problem is actually one of working class organisation as a whole – not least that of unresponsive and unaccountable union leaders. Sectarian interventions to get leftwingers elected on the basis of social democratic ideas are not just insufficient, but positively toxic for the movement as a whole. Then there is the total absence of a single Marxist party, whose work both in the trade unions and in Labour around an alternative programme for the whole of society would immeasurably strengthen the fight for the democracy that the workers’ movement requires in order to control its own organisations and, eventually, take power. In that light the CPGB demands that trade union officials are recallable, that no union official receives more pay than the average for the workers in their union. We also demand that the bans and proscriptions in the Labour Party are lifted, that party conference is made sovereign, that MPs too be paid a worker’s wage.

The concentration of working class influence in the Labour Party that the affiliation of every union would bring must be matched by the corresponding concentration of Marxist forces in a genuine Communist Party. The independent interests of the working class must be posed in every area. The left is quite right to call for bigger, better and more coordinated strikes against the cuts. But it is wrong to neglect the parallel struggle to transform working class organisation, not least within the Labour Party.

Action of general strike proportions might well cause the collapse of the coalition government, but its replacement by a Labour administration overseeing gentler, more gradual cuts would not be much of a gain. It was rank-and-file pressure in the unions that got 500,000 onto the streets of London on March 26 and 750,000 out on strike on June 30. We need more of the same – not just to ensure that the autumn sees millions out on strike, but to force the union leaders to utilise their political and financial power within Labour and decisively defeat the openly pro-capitalist right wing.

Notes

  1. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/poll/2011/jul/01/ed-miliband-lost-credibility
  2. www.progressonline.org.uk/columns/column.asp?c=709
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June 30 strike report

An important step forward for the movement

PCS pickets at Bowback House, Milton Keynes

Yesterday’s industrial action was a significant show of opposition to the government’s cuts agenda and in particular its assault on the pensions of public sector workers. It also represented an important step forward for the anti-cuts movement both in the forms of action being taken and in terms of the numbers of people mobilised to take a stand in opposition to the Con-Dems. The use of strike action, contrary to the views of leading Labour figures such as Ed Milliband and Ed Balls, is a vital weapon in the armoury of the working class as it goes into battle to defend itself from the government’s attacks.

 

The program of capitalist austerity which is currently being meted out to working class and poor people on a global scale will not be stopped easily. It will take organised and militant action on a mass scale and the development of a genuine alternative (certainly not a government led by Ed Milliband!) by the working class movement. As Unite leader, Len McCluskey, speaking at the PCS conference, said ‘this is a capitalist crisis and they must foot the bill.’ He argued for the formation of ‘joint strike committees where we can’ and went as far as arguing that, ‘we need to work together… to mobilise… behind a different vision of how society should be, putting people before profit and… putting socialism back on the political agenda in this country.’

 

Yesterday’s action showed signs of the potential for involving wider layers of workers in future strike action. Many members of the public were happy to give their support to those out on strike. We also saw impressively large rallies across the country. There were 5,000 in Manchester, 2,000 in Sheffield, and locally 300 people packed out the rally in Northampton’s Guildhall while around 150 marched through the centre of Milton Keynes. Members of the Coalition of Resistance also visited a number of the PCS union’s picket lines in the morning in Milton Keynes to show our support for their action. We met workers from the Department for Work and Pensions, Revenue and Customs, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The picketing was particularly strong at Bowback House on Silbury Blvd. There was also a strong turnout from members of the National Union of Teachers for the combined rally in Campbell Park. Many schools were closed for the day, with others running a limited service, following the industrial action by NUT and ATL members. Throughout the day we distributed a leaflet produced jointly by Milton Keynes Coalition of Resistance and Milton Keynes Trades Council to both strikers and members of the public. Our organisations will have a key role to play in providing solidarity as more and more workers are won to the idea of taking industrial action and we need to win more people to get involved. At our next Coalition of Resistance organising meeting on Tuesday July 5 at 7pm at Bletchley Railway Club we will be discussing how we can best go about meeting these challenges.

 

Finally, it is important to remember that not only is the attack on working class and poor people global in scale, but the resistance to it is global too. Currently this resistance is expressed in its most acute form in Greece, but we have also seen significant struggles across the Arab world, and from Spain to Wisconsin, USA, and beyond. We need to utilise the global nature of our struggle to its fullest capacity. As well as arguing for the vital task of separate UK unions coordinating their actions for greatest effect, we need to begin to organise and coordinate our actions on the international level. If workers across Europe took strike action all together then that would certainly make an impact.

Striking together

Ben Lewis looks forward to a bold show of mass opposition to austerity on June 30

On Tuesday May 24 the consultancy firm, MM&K, and the electronic voting agency, Manifest, published a report which exposed the harsh reality and twisted logic of capitalism in crisis. At a time when the majority of the population is bracing itself for a round of almost unprecedented austerity, the report reveals that the chief executives of the top FTSE 100 groups ‘earned’ on average 32% more in 2011 than in 2010.

This ‘crisis’ of popping champagne corks and Peruvian marching powder is, of course, a world away from the grim reality of daily life in modern Britain. Many workers employed by cash-starved local councils have either received their ‘letter in the post’ or are awaiting it with trepidation. Some have lost their jobs, others are told to accept ‘downgrading’ to cling desperately onto them. After all, the spectre of unemployment looms large, and its deleterious effects on people’s lives border on the Kafkaesque: one shocking article in The Guardian reports that some Jobcentre staff are currently receiving guidance on how to deal with benefit claimants so fraught and distressed that they are contemplating suicide.[1]

Little wonder that we are starting to see some green shoots of resistance. On the back of the March 26 trade union anti-cuts demonstration, one of the biggest manifestations of working class anger in recent history, sections of the organised workers’ movement are moving towards strike action.

The date already pencilled into many activists’ diaries is June 30. If all goes to plan, that Thursday could witness over 650,000 public sector workers taking coordinated strike action against the government. Such a move can only be welcomed, as can the militant mood on display at recent union conferences. All have been characterised by anger and radical rhetoric, with the University and College Union and the Communication Workers Union voting unanimously for motions backing mass strikes – in the case of the UCU for a TUC-organised general strike. The Public and Commercial Services union, National Union of Teachers and National Union of Journalists had already passed similar motions.

Depending on the outcomes of several ballots, the PCS, NUT, UCU, the traditionally unadventurous Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and Unison council workers in Doncaster and Birmingham could all come out on June 30.

Given this prevailing mood, it is more than a shame that unions like the Fire Brigades Union and Unite will not be on board. The FBU national executive managed to win its congress to an online survey of the membership rather than balloting for immediate action, whilst Unite general secretary Len McCluskey contented himself with assuring PCS conference that his members will “do what they can on the day to express … solidarity and stand united against the cuts”.[2]

Nonetheless, such synchronised action across the public sector, which will close schools, colleges and local government buildings, will surely be a taste of things to come.

Coordination makes all the more sense, given that many of the problems experienced by the different sectors revolve around the same issue: pensions. Already ground down by increasingly overbearing bosses and bureaucratic loopholes, teachers now face drastic cuts to theirs. It is estimated that the changes proposed by the government would require a teacher to work for 48 years in order to take home a pension of £8,000. Like the PCS, the NUT is confident that its ballot will see a formidable ‘yes’ vote. The UCU has already returned a 65% vote for action.

What is clear is that this shift in mood is finding reflection right across the workers’ movement. Hardly any union has been unaffected by the impulse towards coordinated action. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, for example, had been discussing the possibility of linking up its proposed action against the victimisation of a London Underground union rep with the other strikes.

A bold show of mass opposition to austerity on June 30, along with well organised demonstrations and solidarity actions, would serve to increase the self-confidence of our class, leading to further coordination between different sectors and the possibility of organising the working class as a whole. We need to mobilise both the public and the private sector. And we also need to bring on board students, pensioners, the unemployed and so on. Strikes are indispensable weapons in our class’s arsenal. Yet they are not the only one, and should certainly not be seen as some sort of sure-fire means of defeating the government.

Opposing austerity through working class militancy cannot be separated from the political representation of our class and our unions. As such it was a shame that the FBU voted down a motion to re-affiliate to the Labour Party at its recent congress. Indeed, if unions like the UCU, NUT, RMT and PCS were also affiliated to Labour, then this could have a real impact on the party of ‘official opposition’. The presence of new layers of militants, from Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack and Bob Crow down, would undoubtedly greatly add to the influence of the left within Labour.

The only way in which we can really challenge any government’s authority is by rebuilding our class movement at the base. June 30 is an encouraging sign that this can be done.

ben.lewis@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Notes

  1. ‘Jobcentre staff “sent guidelines on how to deal with claimants’ suicide threats”’ The Guardian May 9.
  2. Speech to PCS conference: http://www.unitetheunion.org/pdf/001-2011-05-20-PCS-speech-v3.pdf

Northampton rallies against cuts

Stand together to defend our communities”

Meeting reported in Chronicle and Echo

Hannah Phipps joined 150 others in Northampton’s historic Guildhall

We don’t want anyone believing the cuts are necessary,” declared Mark Serwotka of the PCS. He was joined Tracy Morel of Autism Concern and Mick Kavanagh from the CWU’s National Executive Council.

Opening the meeting, Ron Mendel of Northampton Trades’ Council called for those present to oppose all cuts and privatisation; “forge unity between providers and users,” he urged. On top of county council cuts of £67m the borough council is to cut a £4.7m.

Tracy Morel warned of 1.3m jobs being lost across the public and private sector. There are 1,500 families in Northamptonshire affected by autism and they faced a loss of support if the cuts are implemented.

Mick Kavanagh advised the meeting that the government wanted to get its hands on the postworkers’ pension fund – worth £25b. This was a “government for the rich” and they were seeking to dismantle the Royal Mail. Postworkers had defeated previous attempts to privatise their service and would do so again.

The final platform speaker was comrade Serwotka. He congratulated the meeting for a “fantastic turn-out.” We need a discussion about “what we can do,” he continued. He went on to list some of the attacks planned by the ConDem coalition: a rise in VAT; reductions in Housing Benefit and pensions. What the government promised was not a couple of years of pain but “generations of misery.”

Turning to the coalition’s junior partner, comrade Serwotka told those assembled the Lib Dems had “lied to the people of Britain .” He recounted a post-election meeting he had with the governor of the Bank of England; “What did you say to Nick Clegg to make him change his mind?” he asked him. “Nothing I didn’t say publicly before the election,” came the reply.

It was the likes of Vodafone and Philip Green who were the ‘scroungers’, not the people on benefits – we must “fight under the banner of ‘No to all cuts’”, the comrade declared. There were no “deserving and undeserving” service-users and we must “stand together to defend our communities.”

Comrade Serwotka finished by calling for the TUC demonstration of 26 March to be the “biggest demonstration in British history.”

The meeting was opened to speakers from the floor: libraries threatened with closure; care homes closed; support services reduced or withdrawn altogether.

A recurring theme was the £120bn ‘tax gap’ – several speakers demanded action on tax evaders and the closure of tax loopholes, while highlighting the loss of 25,000 jobs in Revenue and Customs. Summing up, comrade Mendel called for persistence – we were “in it for the long haul.”

Northampton anti-cuts demonstration: Saturday 12 March. See http://www.againstthecuts.blogspot.com for details.



CWU President Jane Loftus resigns from SWP

Following her vote, on the Communication Workers Union’s postal executive committee, for the acceptance of the interim agreement and the halting of the postal strikes, it became clearer than ever that the Socialist Workers Party had to do something about Jane Loftus’s repeated breaches of collective discipline in that organisation. It has been widely reported that the SWP asked her to choose between keeping her union position or making a self-criticism of her recent vote for the interim agreement. Given this choice she opted to resign from the SWP. It is good that the SWP leadership decided to take action over this. Unfortunately there has been no mention of this on the SWP’s own website so far – if it was left to them postal workers would be left uninformed of this development.

The following article was written by a Milton Keynes Communists member for the Weekly Worker before it was revealed that Jane Loftus had resigned.

CWU president addresses union rally

Bring Loftus to account

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).

Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action – that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week – had widespread support within the union” (November 14).

Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out – indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.

Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.

Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.

There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.

As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.

Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers – sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.

However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.

SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden – a Reesite Left Platform supporter – has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.

I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.

Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).

Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

PCS: Left under threat

Dave Vincent reports on the left-dominated PCS annual conference, but warns of a possible rightwing revival

pcs_conference_2009Last week’s annual conference of the Public and Commercial Services union took place against the background of the continual success of the left-led Democracy Alliance joint slate for the national executive. The DA – made up of the Socialist Party-dominated Left Unity and “centre-left” PCS Democrats – retained the presidency and vice-presidency and improved its NEC tally to 29 out of 30 places, with the rightwing 4 the Members reduced to one NEC place. As usual, however, 4 the Members were close runners-up for most of the seats, with the Independent Left again third.

The voting turnout dropped from just over 11% in 2008 to 9% in 2009. That has to be of concern for a left-led union constantly proclaiming its progress in developing more young activists, more participation by under-represented groups, and backing for its support for radical policies. The left is dominant among the activists, but is not making much headway amongst our more passive ordinary members.

I will leave aside the largely uncontroversial motions on health and safety, equality, international questions and other issues where most delegates are in agreement – for example, constant reference was made to the MPs’ expense-fiddling scandal in contrast to the merciless attitude adopted against benefit fraudsters who may also claim not to understand the rules. I will concentrate instead on three issues that reveal the political balance and direction of PCS.

Pay strategy

The Independent Left, from the start, had expressed disbelief that the alleged ‘breakthrough’ on pay supposedly achieved by the NEC in November 2008 was actually what it was claimed to be.

In calling off planned strikes, the NEC stated the agreement reached “had to be tested in each department” to see if members ended up with pay top-ups. Supposedly the 2% pay cap had been lifted and departments were now free to recycle some of their efficiency savings into wage packets. But the IL had correctly asserted in its pre-conference bulletins that not one member had got a single penny from this ‘breakthrough agreement’.

As usual an ‘emergency’ motion from the NEC was top of the section on pay strategy and had the effect of manipulating conference into either voting for the NEC (whose motion ran to three pages!) or a critical motion. The executive’s motion contained a lengthy blurb about the current economic situation and what had happened since the passing of last year’s ‘emergency’ motion, and ended with a call for a 6% consolidated pay increase, funding of pay progression separate from the annual pay rise, and a membership consultation through workplace meetings during the summer on what, if any, industrial action members are prepared to pursue.

Motion A21 censured the NEC (this proved to be its undoing) and only called for a work to rule to be organised in support of a claim that all civil servants be paid the rate received in the current highest paying department (the rate for the job).

General secretary Mark Serwotka, moving the ‘emergency’ motion, had to confess members had not received a pay rise but, instead of admitting he had been well and truly had, resorted to blaming departmental mandarins for failing to identify efficiency savings or to seek treasury permission to make top-up payments.

The Independent Left missed a chance to pose any alternative strategy and, while reminding conference that the IL had denounced the spin over the so-called ‘breakthrough’ and said that strike action should have gone ahead, ended up voting for the successful NEC motion and against the censure. IL speakers urged the NEC not to rule out any strategy suggested by our members – including paid selected action if that is what they want.

There is a huge problem here. The NEC is clearly not talking about all-out, indefinite, unpaid action, but it has also made it clear it is against working to rule. Yet our members have equally made it clear they are fed up with ‘day here, day there’ strikes and want paid selected action, which the NEC is absolutely dead set against. Calling yet again for public sector unity is no answer, since with a general election on the horizon it just will not happen. Labour-affiliated unions (the very ones who abandoned PCS last year) will do nothing that might harm the government’s electoral chances. So what does the NEC expect members to suggest during the forthcoming consultation?

Conference also carried an NEC motion opposing the government’s recent threat to make £500 million-worth of cuts in the Civil Service Compensation Scheme – and the NEC is looking to persuade members to come out over this too.

PCS support for union candidates?

Mark Serwotka

Mark Serwotka

The next indicative debate centred on NEC motion A72, which, whilst containing a lot of self-congratulatory blather about the supposed success of the union’s Make Your Vote Count campaign, declared PCS will remain unaffiliated to any political party, campaign for proportional representation, and consult our members on whether PCS should support trade union candidates in future elections. That consultation would inform further discussion at 2010 conference – too late for its conclusions to be implemented in the general election, obviously.

But this was cited as a really radical proposal placing PCS in advance of other unions and, although Serwotka admitted it would probably come too late for the general election, it was important we carry ordinary members with this and “get this right” for the longer term.

It was obvious that this motion was going to be overwhelmingly carried, so I decided to go in for some constructive criticism. I reminded conference that my 2007 motion, which had been dismissed by the rest of the left, called for the opening up of our political fund to allow branches to discuss whether to support candidates standing on an anti-racist, anti-war, anti-trade union laws, pro-public services platform. I said if we had carried that motion two years ago, we would now be better placed to decide on an active role in the next general election. We would also have been able to help fund left Labour candidates such as John McDonnell – a good friend of PCS who again addressed conference and was well received.

General secretary election

After shunning his original supporters (mainly Socialist Caucus – nowadays named the Independent Left) last time around, Mark Serwotka took advantage of the opportunity offered by conference to launch his campaign for re-election as general secretary with a packed fringe meeting. The election will be held in November.

IL has not yet decided its attitude. Its own fringe meeting, attended by less than 20 comrades, seemed to have no specific purpose other a general discussion about where PCS is going. I questioned the reason for IL’s continued existence as an organisation separate from Left Unity. I noted IL’s failure to grow or significantly increase its electoral support, the failure of John Moloney’s campaign to defeat Hugh Lanning for deputy general secretary, its conference support for the NEC over pay strategy, the lack of challenging motions from IL and its indecision over whether to oppose Serwotka.

I wanted to know why the comrades felt unable to carry on putting their arguments within Left Unity, given their lack of progress outside. I asked them to make their minds up on what they think of Serwotka and the SP-dominated NEC. Either they think it is made up of sincere but misguided socialists – in which case IL should rejoin Left Unity; or they think they are self-serving, undemocratic, politically corrupt, disingenuous empire-builders – in which case IL should say so loud and clear and organise on that basis. Instead IL carps from the sidelines, but tones its criticisms right down on conference floor.

Rob Bryson (centre)

Rob Bryson (centre)

Mark Serwotka is likely to be opposed by rightwinger (and alleged ex-SWP member) Rob Bryson. Readers may recall my last article, which reported that Bryson had come within 200 votes of defeating SP member Chris Baugh for assistant general secretary (‘Contradictory results in factional jockeying’, May 14). That will surely embolden Bryson and 4 the Members to go for the main man this time.

In that article I said I could not make sense of how Moloney, backed by the far left, had got within 2,000 votes of Lanning in the deputy general secretary election, yet rightwinger Bryson had come even closer to toppling the popular Chris Baugh.

One answer suggested to me at conference was that some members are prepared to support anyone who opposes the current leadership, such is their anger over the mishandling of the national pay campaign. If that is so, Bryson has everything to gain and Serwotka everything to lose. For example, the NEC elections demonstrated that left candidates, who generally had around 130 branch nominations, were only just able to defeat their rightwing opponents (about 20 nominations).

This domination of left activists over the right was reflected at conference, where 4 the Members were mostly invisible once again. It seems they do not feel they need to win over conference – they aim to appeal instead to the passive voting membership. Given that the left-led NEC talked up the supposed ‘breakthrough agreement’ and now admits it has not delivered a penny to members, Bryson will surely rely on this and, against the background of the MPs’ expenses scandal, will opportunistically compare Serwotka’s high salary with his original election pledge to take a worker’s wage. The declining membership support for industrial action will also be used by the right, which always claims that the left recklessly calls out members on pointless strikes.

However, if Serwotka lost, that would represent a huge setback for the left – in other unions as well as within PCS. But he would have been defeated by current economic circumstances as well as by his own spin. Unlike Serwotka, Bryson would not continually call for public sector unity, would not tirelessly attend left events, fringe meetings, and joint union platforms or meetings of activists. That Bryson did not once address conference on any issue shows his contempt for the activists and reliance on the apolitical, atomised ‘silent majority’.

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.