Britain: PCS conference

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is one of the UK’s largest trade unions. The PCS has nearly 325,000 members who work in government departments, agencies, public bodies and in a number of private companies. Socialist Party members take up many leadership positions in this union.
By Bill Mullins Socialist Party England and Wales

Five times-elected trade union president Janice Godrich opened last week’s civil service union PCS conference, saying that the union has a distinctive voice in the British trade union movement.

Janice, a member of the Socialist Party’s counterpart, CWI Scotland, said: “The key factor in this was our pensions campaign which forced this government into its first ever retreat.

“The union’s national executive (NEC) was united behind the campaign and we led a campaign across the public-sector unions for the same unity. Now the same Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties vie for who can be the biggest butchers of our members’ jobs.

“Our response to these attacks has resulted in over 25,000 new members joining the union.

“The government attacks not the super-rich but our low-paid members. But as a result of the fighting lead we give, more and more people are turning towards the union in response. We should be proud of our union and its members but we still have a long way to go.”

Conference mood

The mood of the conference very much reflected Janice’s opening remarks. The chair of the standing orders committee reported that there were more resolutions than ever before (some 550). 180 of these were scheduled for discussion, along with five of the 16 emergency motions submitted.

The conference is extremely democratic and its only restriction is time, so the speeches by NEC members in response to resolutions were generally restricted to the same time as allocated to the branch delegates (three minutes).

General secretary Mark Serwotka spoke on the main resolution on defending jobs and services. As he remarked throughout the conference, the union is now preparing to take civil service-wide action if the government do not give the union guarantees of no compulsory redundancies.

Jane Aitchison, a Socialist Party member from Leeds and the president of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) section of PCS said: “The service in the DWP is collapsing. Claimants are told not to come to the offices but to phone instead, when 95% of calls go unanswered. The result has been a 62% rise in assaults on staff.”

She told the conference that 1,000 DWP staff alone have been sacked because of the new attendance procedures.

Other delegates spoke passionately about the crisis in the service and the pressure upon staff.

One held up a bottle which had been issued to call centre staff with their name printed on it: “I am not sure whether it is for drinking from or something else. It definitely has a medical look about it”, they declared.

At a press conference afterwards, Mark Serwotka said that the union would be balloting its whole civil service membership in the autumn if the talks with the government get nowhere this week. The union is demanding a no compulsory redundancy guarantee and other concessions from New Labour.

“Seven or eight separate sections of the union are preparing to take action on their sectional issues, from the MOD to the driving standards agency”, he reported.

He said it is bizarre that Tory leader Cameron is making speeches about his sympathy for the public sector whilst Gordon Brown is announcing a three-year pay freeze. “The government is chilling in its desire to offload work onto the private sector.”

The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party

The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) meeting attracted 80 delegates and visitors. It was addressed by Socialist councillor and CNWP chair Dave Nellist and Mark Serwotka. Mark repeated his point that he has made on other occasions that: “there should only be one left alternative to New Labour”.

But as Dave pointed out: “We should have a sense of proportion. There were at least 8,000 council seats up for election in May.

“The left stood in a couple of hundred at the most. There is plenty of room for left candidates to stand.”

Over 400 attended the Left Unity rally, with dozens more unable to get in. Mark Serwotka spoke with Alex Roulliard from the French section of the CWI.

Alex related the massive struggles in France earlier this year against the attacks on young workers’ rights.

He summed up by saying that in France as in Britain, workers desperately need their own political voice. “What can be won on the streets can be taken away by political trickery”.

Other debates

Organising against the far right

The conference debated many other issues, from nuclear power and the environment, to low pay and the need for a national pay claim for all civil servants.

A major debate took place on the rise of the BNP and the union’s anti-fascist polices. Marion Lloyd, a Socialist Party member from Sheffield, replied for the NEC in a powerful speech that showed that the union will turn out its members against this danger from the far right.

Lindsey Baker, also from Yorkshire and a Socialist Party member, also told the conference about the role that the PCS played outside the Leeds courts when BNP leader Nick Griffin was up for preaching racial hatred. “The last time we mobilised was five times as big as the first time, with hundreds of PCS members there.

“New Labour’s crimes create the breeding ground for the BNP. We have to explain this as well as fighting the BNP,” she said.

In a controversial session on black members’ reserve seats, the conference was split. The NEC already has reserved seats as a result of the union merger which created PCS six years ago. The resolution before the conference wanted to extend this policy to group executives.

Despite the support of the NEC it was defeated by 131,239 votes to 118,425.

No doubt this issue will be returned to in future conferences. It was the only real issue that did not find a consensus on the conference floor or amongst the left in general.

The conference received a report about the latest stage of negotiations on the pension scheme for new members. When the negotiations are concluded this will go for a ballot of the whole membership.

The resolution that criticised the leadership for “creating a two-tier scheme” was heavily defeated by 20 or 30 to one on a show of hands.