Strong left minority at PCS Conference

Submitted by martin on 22 June, 2021 - 5:38

The National Conference of the civil service workers' union PCS took place virtually on Sunday-Monday 13-14 June.

Branches were allowed to submit motions and requests to speak in advance of the conference, with votes taken during the conference based on the strength of branch memberships.

There was no ability to submit emergency motions or for branches to appeal to conferences to challenge standing orders. PCS Independent Left comrades on the NEC made proposals for this to happen, but this was voted down by the leadership majority.

The conference was split into four sections: Covid-19 and Health and Safety, Future of the Union, Campaigning and Bargaining matters and an Open Session.

Many of the motions were uncontroversial, and the National Executive Committee (NEC) contributed a lead motion in a number of the sections.

The first Section on Covid-19 and Health and Safety was largely uncontroversial, although Independent Left does not accept that the union nationally or groups were bold or creative enough in collectivising section 44 walkouts, as motions to the NEC and various Group Executive committees from Independent Left comrades show.

The section did however highlight the significant struggles being taken by members to defend their safety, including the countless days of strike action being taken by PCS members in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea following 600 cases and a death due to management forcing staff to work in an unsafe office during the peak of the second wave.

The Future of the Union section had a number of motions from opposition groups which demanded the election of senior Full-time Officers (FTOs).

We believe that the majority of union FTOs should be elected. If you are negotiating on behalf of or organising members, you should be directly accountable to them. The two motions were very moderate in as much as they only demanded the election of certain roles, senior industrial officers and regional secretaries.

Shamefully, this was opposed by the leadership and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), an organisation which includes the election of union officers as one of their main trade union principles.

The Standing Orders Committee decided that they would fall if the NEC motion in that section was passed.

The NEC motion passed by a much closer margin than expected, 61k to 54k. A similar ratio continued throughout conference, representing the combined strength of left opposition on the virtual conference floor.

Independent Left comrades wrote and proposed a motion which would have instilled the principle that union full-timers should be on wages closer to those of our members

The motion was opposed by the leadership, including the SWP, using arguments which included the claim that if we limited Mark Serwotka’s salary that he would resign (!), and that the GMB – which represents union full-timers – had stated that if the motion was passed, that they would be in dispute. In a similar way the leadership had passed a motion condemning John Moloney, upon his election as assistant general secretary, for only taking a worker's wage, claiming that it devalued their work.

Being a union full-timer is a vocation. We don’t believe that employees of the union should be on greatly inflated salaries, more than double, sometimes quadruple, those of the members.

The full-timers and their GMB branch should not be in control of the union. The members should.

We also don’t accept the argument that unions should "never demand pay decreases". PCS thinks MPs are paid too much. We also believe there should be a greater level of taxation and a ceiling on the ratio of highest to lowest pay employees in the institutions our members work in.

Previous motions to conference on the question have received minimal support. However, this one got 39,314 votes for, with 75,818 against and 6,826 abstentions.

The section also included the only motion where the leadership's position was overturned. Motion A14, seconded by Independent Left supporters, condemned the inadequate legal support provided to reps and members and demanded assurances and minimum guarantees for when and how cases are dealt with, including publishing transparency data on cases taken-up.

Despite leadership opposition, the motion passed by a small margin of around 61k votes to 54k votes, largely on the strength of branches' own experiences and arguments on the day convincing the minority of branches who had a "listen and decide" mandate from members.

The Campaigning and Bargaining section was headed by an NEC motion on the pay campaign.

This motion asked the conference to instruct the NEC to "maintain and build a powerful PCS national pay campaign". In fact there is no such campaign to maintain. The leadership has presided over pay inertia and has done little to campaign for an industrial response amongst members.

The NEC proposer lauded to conference the numerical increase in membership, choosing to omit the fact that membership density is haemorrhaging in our largest employer groups and, for the first time in living memory, density across the civil service is now below 50%.

It was a remarkable exercise of spin and obfuscation, and a wasted opportunity when we could have been discussing an organising strategy to recruit the 100k plus non-members in the civil service and outsourced contracts and increase confidence by agitating for action on a wide range of issues affecting different groups of members.

Instead, conference was treated to table-thumping bluster about how the union was recruiting massively and going to beat the Tories on pay.

The NEC motion was supported, but again the margin was closer than expected, 62k to 54k.

The Open session included a motion proposing re-affirmation of the union's solidarity with the Uyghurs, a position initially taken by the NEC in 2019 following a motion submitted by Independent Left NEC members.

The systematic oppression of the Uyghur people by the Chinese regime is well documented by many human rights organisations including Amnesty, and the trade union movement should be consistent, internationalist defenders of human rights whatever country perpetrates abuses.

This passed overwhelmingly with no speakers against. We know there are groupings active in the union who disagree with the motion. Either they don’t believe there is systematic oppression, or they believe that the trade union movement should remain silent about atrocities being committed by so-called "communist" states.

So, either they refused to put their position, or they had all been defeated in mandating meetings.

The final motion in the section related to how the conference was organised. It set out the same criticism that IL and Broad Left Network (BLN) NEC members had made, that branches did not have ultimate control over the way the conference was run. Unfortunately, that motion was defeated.

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