Last week, from 24-26 May, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union met for its national annual delegate conference.
This conference came off the back of Left Unity’s recent victory in the NEC and group elections. Twenty years of consistent campaigning work has earned this leadership the trust of members and activists. This is a solid foundation on which to build resistance to the government’s attacks.
This campaigning experience will be vital in the struggle to come. Civil servants are being pressed hard, with inflation eating into members’ pockets, and everything from National Insurance to energy prices set to jump in cost.
On top of this cost-of-living crisis, the Tory government has announced 91,000 civil service jobs are set to go. Scandalously, many civil service workers only found this out for themselves via the press, as there had been no formal announcement.
This is no idle threat. British capitalism is in the middle of a deep crisis, and the Tories will do everything they can to make workers pay for it.
Accordingly, these challenges the union faces took centre-stage when PCS delegates gathered in Brighton last week.
A loss of 91,000 civil servants wouldn’t just seriously harm PCS; it would also cause enormous damage to a whole range of public services – services that are already on their knees thanks to over a decade of swingeing cuts.
As such, the union’s response to this crisis was the very first thing on the agenda. Delegates were more than aware of the Tories’ habit of scapegoating them. The mood of anger was palpable, as branch delegates took to the podium to express their fury and determination to fight.
In response to the government's latest attack, the motion tabled by the NEC proposed that PCS declares an official dispute with the employer, and prepares itself nationally to go to a full legal ballot, with the aim of being able to take unified national strike action from September.
This will take time and significant efforts to organise. But it is clearly the right path to take. The scale of the attacks the union faces demands a successful ballot and a national strike in response.
To do anything less would give the government a free hand in implementing the cuts. These are part of a programme to cut not just jobs, but conditions and services too. The Tories are also intent on attacking redundancy rights and payments, as they attempted to do in 2016.
The need to fight back was clearly well understood in the hall. And the response of the delegates was overwhelming. By an enormous majority, they carried the motion, committing PCS to battle with the Tories, and to building towards a national strike.
Conference has carried Motion A204 overwhelmingly - we will be moving to a national dispute over pay, pensions and the CSCS in the UK civil service and related public sector areas. #PCSADC— PCS Union (@pcs_union) May 24, 2022
Rule or ruin
Unfortunately, while there is no longer any organised right-wing opposition within PCS as a union, there is a prominent trend of sectarian behaviour. In particular, this was seen from the Broad Left Network – a grouping that in effect acts as a front for the Socialist Party.
Arguing that action was needed ‘now’, members of this grouping put forward a separate motion arguing for a ballot to take place in early July, rather than September. However, as union general secretary Mark Serwotka put it: "Nobody in this hall…seriously believes that we will be in a position to win a national ballot by the first of July."
This was reflected in the support for the NEC’s motion against this alternative, with only a few scattered hands showing against.
The NEC’s motion on political strategy was discussed. This called for building the widest possible alliance in the trade union movement, and in working-class communities and social movements.
This was met with objections from Socialist Party speakers, framed in blatantly false terms. They claimed the NEC was arguing for donations to right-wing Labour MPs, despite the NEC’s motion not even mentioning Labour or the union’s longstanding position of not giving money to candidates in elections.
Conference demonstrated its contempt for this behaviour by overwhelmingly supporting the NEC’s strategy.
At any time, such action is unhelpful – based more around the desire for prestige than a genuine wish to advance the cause of the working class. But at a time when the union is facing one of its greatest threats in decades, it is completely unacceptable.
Aside from the main attacks against the union, a vigorous discussion was also held on: the need to adjust membership rates to ensure that the burden is equally shared; the effects of NHS privatisation on PCS members and the wider class; the war in Ukraine; and many other issues besides.
The final highlight of the conference was the strength and energy shown at the rally of Left Unity – the union’s socialist rank-and-file broad left. Despite being held after two solid days of debate, it was one of the biggest and strongest such rallies in many years.
Absolutely buzzing PCS Left Unity Rally on Wednesday. Great inspiring speeches, good to hear from striking bar staff in Brighton from UVW, excellent contributions from the floor. If you were in Brighton this week and liked what you heard, join us. Visit https://t.co/1Kb9DAuxJ4 pic.twitter.com/0jpMomIpcm— Fran Heathcote (@FranHeathcote) May 27, 2022
Chaired by HMRC president Lorna Merry, around 120 people heard fighting speeches from Laura Pidcock, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, union president Fran Heathcote, and a Brighton United Voices of the World (UVW) striker. The mood was optimistic yet serious, facing up to the challenges the union faced.
Socialist Appeal comrades played their role in these events, as well as in the conference proper. Comrades spoke on the pay campaigns, highlighting the need to utilise the lessons of the consultative ballot, and the need for a vigorous campaign to ensure success.
We were also present at the Left Unity rally, discussing the major issues with attendees and distributing the latest issue of our bulletin.
Like the RMT and the CWU, our union is heading towards a confrontation with the government. We will need maximum possible unity in order to win this fight – both inside the union and across the trade union movement more generally.
All effort must be put forward to win the upcoming ballot. Only by fighting back – and fighting back hard – can we turn the tables on the capitalists and the crises they have caused. Authority to take the union out on strike nationally is an extraordinarily important step in that.
As part of this, PCS must again take up its tradition of coordinating with other trade unions. The issues we face are not unique to PCS. Workers across both the public and private sectors are being similarly hammered. But as the recent RMT ballot shows, workers are prepared to fight back and are moving into action.
The potential for a one-day public sector strike is incipient within such a movement, and must be seriously considered as part of a wider campaign to topple this Tory government and defeat these attacks.
PCS must once again set the example for our movement, as it has done so many times before. The stakes are high – but the potential for victory is higher. Let’s seize it.