Make or break time for PCS?

Thomas Barker

The civil service union, PCS  has suffered significant attacks by the Tory Government. Its membership and finances have been drastically affected by the end of check off (the taking of subscriptions from pay) in large Government Departments (e.g. the DWP and HMRC) and job cuts. However PCS membership has also declined through the failure of the Left Unity leadership of the union over many years to lead a fightback against the employers policies in the major departments.

Left Unity is largely dominated by the Socialist Party, but also has the support of the SWP and  the CP in the union. The right wing in the union has now disappeared as an organised force and failed to stand any slates in the main Union elections this year. The opposition to Left Unity was from joint slates of the Independent Left and independents. In May,  opposition slates won 3 seats each on National Executive Committee and Group Executive Committees (GECs) of the DWP and HMRC (the two largest sections of the union). Usually Left Unity holds all seats on these committees so these results were an upset. If Left Unity did not have Mark Serwotka, the popular General Secretary, as its figurehead, then it could well have lost all contested seats – the opposition did not run full slates.

The discontent amongst the membership with Left Unity is at an all-time high.  In HMRC, the PCS Left Unity leadership has refused to endorse national strike action against the Government’s office closure plans (reducing 150 offices down to 13) and its announcement of 150 compulsory redundancies. In DWP the majority of the Left Unity Group Executive Committee has recommended recently the ‘Employee Deal’, a pay offer with major changes in terms and conditions. Under the deal (which still has to be voted on by PCS members), workers will be expected to work Saturdays and evenings to get a pay rise. If you opt out of such an arrangement and refuse such hours then you will get only 0.25% per year for four years. Clearly many carers and staff with disabilities will opt out and then be penalised for it. Although the pay offer has increases for some lower grades (AAs and AOs) these are just to ensure their pay is slightly above the national living wage by 2020.  This pay offer has probably been the most controversial ever in DWP, with 8 of the Left Unity GEC even opposing it.

Many activists argue workers are facing a similar pay offer/contract to the Junior Doctors and should join them in strike action. At PCS DWP conference last week the Employee Deal was only just endorsed by delegates 24,887 to 19,184. The ballot of members on the deal will be in early June.

PCS National Conference was addressed by both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Delegates gave a standing ovation to Corbyn for announcing he would re-introduce national pay bargaining in the civil service (with one set of negotiations for all civil servants). However Conference later voted down a motion requesting the union join Trade Union ‘Momentum’ (the support group for Corbyn that includes both members and non-members). The motion was lost because Scottish and Left Unity delegates combined to oppose it. Left Unity’s position was influenced by the Socialist Party and SWP’s sectarianism towards the Labour left. In addition this vote demonstrated some apoliticism in PCS, fostered by the Left Unity leadership and reflected in their refusal to allow PCS to support any candidates that were standing in the 2015 General election (even John McDonnell, the PCS parliamentary chair). This apoliticism was also shown by PCS Conference supporting neither in or out in the EU referendum debate.

Currently PCS is engaged in some important small scale disputes involving Welsh Museums and Sheffield BIS workers. These struggles have been inspired by the PCS National gallery workers all out strike. These disputes need urgent solidarity, but the union’s future will be largely determined by how it reacts to the developments in HMRC and DWP.

Hopefully PCS DWP members will reject the Employee Deal and the union in HMRC will belatedly support national action against office closures. If HMRC doesnt stop the closures, there may be a similar cull of DWP offices. It is make or break time for PCS.

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