by an observer
THE PUBLIC and Commercial Services Union is the biggest civil service workers’ union in the country and one that has faced the brunt of the Government’s onslaught of cuts and privatisations. Not surprisingly this dominated the debate at annual conference in May.
Over 1,200 delegates took part in the annual delegate conference in Brighton following the elections which once again returned the centre-left "Democratic Alliance" bloc to power. The leadership has tried to establish meaningful negotiations with the Government, the major employer of PCS’s 320,000 members, through national protest strikes including two this year, the last this May Day. This has been well-supported at grass-roots level and it is reflected in the continuing strength of the union’s organisation.
PCS is the fastest growing union in Britain with 72 per cent of eligible civil servants in its ranks compared to 59 per cent in the public sector as a whole. Most of them are drawn from the administrative, secretarial and executive grades.
Most are low paid compared to the private sector and all are facing increased work-loads and stress. A quarter of them earn less than £15,400 and the two per cent public sector pay cap is essentially a pay cut in real terms. Past Tory and Labour governments have broken up the civil service into 200 separate agencies, each with its own pay bargaining arrangements. PCS has been fighting for national pay coherence since its foundation in 1998, but with little success and the Blair government is moving even further in this direction through the farming out of work to the charity sector. Few expect any change from Gordon Brown, who as Chancellor was the architect of the programme to cut 100,000 civil service jobs mostly from the giant Department of Work and Pensions.
PCS is not affiliated to the Labour Party but the chair of its parliamentary group is John McDonnell MP, the leader of the Labour Representation Committee that launched its own "Public Services not Private Profit" campaign last year. John addressed conference and received two standing ovations for all the work he had done for the union in publicizing their case in defence of jobs and services.
The union was originally dominated by right wing factions who had dominated the two civil services unions that merged in 1998 to form PCS. But the left won sweeping victories in 2003 as it has continued to do every year since then. The Democratic Alliance is a bloc dominated by members of the old "Militant Tendency" now in the Socialist Party and its Scottish cousins and consisting of a number of left social-democratic Trotskyist factions including the Socialist Workers’ Party along with revisionists and a centrist faction that broke with the right wing in 1998.
Its charismatic general secretary, Mark Serwotka, a former Trotskyist who now favours George Galloway’s Respect Party but has not joined it, has since his first election in 2002 spear-headed the drive to restore the democratic traditions of the old Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) in PCS. Annual conference has been restored. The reactionary heart of the new rule book was torn out and democratic controls restored.
This undoubtedly provided the basis for another electoral victory for the Alliance. The major right-wing bloc only managed to keep their one seat on the National Executive despite a vigorous anti-left campaigning while the other, the rump of the old faction that once dominated CPSA, achieved nothing and is clearly a spent force. An attempt to build an alternative left focus around a platform led by a number of small Trotskyist groups that operate within and on the fringe of the Labour Party who broke with the Alliance late last year failed to split the left vote and their sitting EC members, who had originally been elected on the Democratic Alliance slate, were all defeated this year. But the low turn-out – barely a tenth of those who came out on strike – is a warning against complacency.
The main right wing faction is called "4themembers" but it has little to offer the membership apart from the usual "red scare" and the suggestion that the Government would respond reasonably to the union if it were led by the likes of them. The breakaway "Independent Left" focused on their long- standing demand for prolonged selective local strikes maintained by the union’s generous strike pay. The first argument, essentially that of appeasement and class-collaboration, fell because there’s no evidence whatsoever that this Government is prepared to cosy up to any union, even those which are affiliates of the Labour Party, which PCS is not. The second would plainly be a recipe for bankruptcy given the Government’s determination to sit out long local strikes in the civil service.
Of course the only way to really put decisive pressure on the Government would be an all-out indefinite strike but everyone recognises – including the "Independent Left" – that the members are simply not prepared to endure the sort of sacrifice and hardship that this would entail with no guarantee of victory at the end. So the only realistic alternative is that which the leadership has followed throughout the campaign against the cuts: national one or two day stoppages throughout the year designed to put pressure on the employer. It’s essentially a campaign of attrition and while it may have slowed down the cuts it has not brought them to a halt. Some 60,000 jobs have already gone and the cut-backs and closures are continuing. PCS is therefore seeking to widen the front by working with organised labour in the rest of the public sector which is also under the cuts axe and its natural partner is Unison, the giant public services union with over 1.3 million members in the health service, local government, education and the gas, electricity and water utilities.
Unison has responded positively and its general secretary Dave Prentis sent a letter of solidarity to PCS conference calling for trade unions to stand together to fight the problems facing public services. Prentis said the Government’s "relentless drive to privatise" and the imposition of a two per cent pay limit were the two issues that had to be challenged by both unions. He said, "Unions cannot fight these battles alone and the PCS and Unison should be working together to maximise our impact in responding to the attacks on us".
The Unison leader also proposed meeting the PCS leadership to discuss how the two unions could coordinate campaigns against privatisation and work together to promote public services; liaise on pay developments so any industrial action could be coordinated and share information on developments in public services, the impact on members and in developing a response. His letter was distributed to all conference delegates who were urged to take it back to their members and set up meetings with Unison activists to plan joint actions.