Wednesday, 17 June 2009

PCS ponders the future

By Andy Brooks

Brighton was once again the venue for the annual conference of Britain’s largest-civil service union and the sixth biggest in the country. Delegates representing some 320,000 members in the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) gathered at the south coast resort last May to pass a host of worthy and progressive bread-and-butter motions and welcome the new national executive elected by a postal ballot that was an overwhelming vote of confidence for the left-led Democracy Alliance platform. The left held the deputy and assistant general secretary posts, retained the presidency and vice-presidency and the ineffectual right-wing opposition was reduced to just one seat on the NEC. On the face of it this would seem to be a remarkable victory for the left. But behind the scenes there are causes for concern.
Though the Democracy Alliance notched up another electoral victory – the seventh on the run – the turn-out was low. Only 9.5 per cent of the membership bothered to vote, a drop of two per cent from last year and that should send alarm bells ringing amongst the leadership, which is dominated by members of the former Trotskyist Militant Tendency now organised around the Socialist Party.
Though the senior officer elections were won by the left-led slate the incumbents were hit by an anti-full-timer vote. Deputy General Secretary Hugh Lanning, a veteran careerist, was seriously challenged by a maverick left candidate while a relatively unknown right-winger came within 200 votes of toppling Assistant General Secretary Chris Baugh, a leading member of the Socialist Party.
The charismatic general secretary Mark Serwotka, of course, dominated conference, and he rounded on the City, MPs and the government over the expenses scandal and the handling of the economy in his opening speech to main conference.
Serwotka launched his re-election campaign at conference during the week and over 300 delegates packed a hall to pledge support for him at the forthcoming poll this November. The Socialist Party rally was also dutifully supported by many delegates. But attendance at other fringe political meetings was well-down on last year.
John McDonnell, the leader of the Labour Representation Committee, is also the chair of the PCS parliamentary group and his address to conference summed up the bitterness, anger and frustration of the membership at the sleaze culture that revolves around Westminster. He demanded a sea-change in the entire British political system and called on PCS to reach out to other unions to build the new agenda for fundamental change in favour of working people. Though this was met with rapturous applause the leadership are following a slightly different path.
PCS, like its predecessors in the amalgamated union, is not an affiliate of the Labour Party. and the Democracy Alliance as a whole is pursuing the illusory path of the “left alternative”.
The Alliance is a big tent of factions that came from the three civil service unions that finally united in 1998 to create PCS. Led by the Socialist Party it includes its Trotskyist rivals in the Socialist Workers Party and what once was the Scottish Socialist Party; the revisionist Communist Party of Britain and even a section of the old right-wing Membership First bloc which includes at least one prominent Liberal Democrat. Bizarrely enough the only forces, like the NCP, that directly support the Labour Representation Committee or still work within the Labour Party are in the maverick “Independent Left” that walked out of the big tent last year over the pay campaign.
The right-wing For the Members (4TM) faction, a motley crew led by former Blairites, may have little to offer members but the Democratic Alliance itself is going down a blind alley of its own with the “Make Your Vote Count” campaign which aims to funnel union support for trade union candidates, opposed to Labour, in the general election. All sorts of nonsense was said by leading members of the Socialist Party, who should know better, about the supposed support for this on the street, when this was debated. Though the European elections had not yet taken place the miserable vote obtained by No2EU and the other left social-democratic slates could have easily been predicted.
Solidarity with the Palestinian Arabs was highlighted when guest speakers Fathi Naser and Hana Joma,from the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) told delegates about the reality of trade union life under the thumb of the Israeli occupation that opened a debate on a solidarity motion condemning the Israeli attack on Gaza which was overwhelming passed.
Pay is, of course, the paramount issue for the membership and it’s become the Achilles heel of the leadership. Last year the union called off a series of planned protest strikes and accepted a deal which they claimed was a “breakthrough” that would lead to considerable improvements in the future. In practice all it’s done is provide a cover for departments to impose the miserable pittances they intended to implement in the first place.
The problem is simply that the only way the employer – and we’re talking about the State in most cases – could be forced to seriously negotiate with PCS is under the threat of an all-out indefinite strike. That is beyond the reach of PCS, or indeed any other union in the country. Few are ready to endure the immense hardship of a prolonged struggle these days and most believe it wouldn’t work anyway. But that’s the point. What members fear is not lost wages as such – victory would get it back and more – but struggle which ends in hardship and defeat, like what happened to the miners in 1985.
The Serwotka leadership chose the only other course open to them which was a series of two-day protest stoppages designed to wear down management and put pressure on the Government to settle. It was essentially a war of attrition and the only favourable outcome could have been a “good draw” with at least half a loaf on the table. Unfortunately the strikes were called off because support over two years of action was waning – creating a climate in which even crumbs from the employer seemed credible. In reality the problem was that the leadership didn’t explain the tactics to the membership and perhaps more accurately hadn’t really worked out the strategy for maintaining a prolonged protest campaign in the first place.
The Independent Left alternative was the old tactic of pulling out key workers on high strike pay – ignoring the fact that when that was used last management simply routed work to other offices and bled the union’s coffers dry in the process. As for the right-wing their answer is the white flag. They argue, without any shred of evidence, that if they were in power the Government would reward their collaboration with a better deal.
When PCS was created it was led by a united and craven right-wing bloc that won the first elections with ease. Within a year the right-wing split and the left not only won control of the executive but also succeeded in tearing up the undemocratic new constitution and restoring the powers of Conference through the same postal ballot procedures that the right had for years thought was their ticket to ride. The Democracy Alliance has achieved a lot with the support of the activists and the rank-and-file. It now needs to mobilise the membership to take on the challenges of the future. This can only be done by encouraging mass participation in the campaigns and within the Democratic Alliance itself. The old dragons have been slain. But it’s not the past that matters but what comes next that counts