Civil Service union PCS’s national ballot for strike action over pay failed to meet the 50 percent turnout threshold imposed by the Trade Union Act. This despite the most intensive period of activity in the union’s recent history. What do we learn from this? And what comes next?
Despite the tangible sense of disappointment felt by all activists, we can be proud. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but the commitment and effort of everyone who leafleted, who canvassed members in the workplace and who gave up their own time is not in doubt.
The activist training schools that ran ahead of the launch of the ballot, the first of their kind in PCS, were an extremely welcome development. We need more of this, and a wider effort to teach all reps how to organise and build campaigns in the workplace.
Likewise, it was heartening to see the amount of support given to branches by the union apparatus. The cooperation between branches, through town committees and similar, as well as the deployment of full time staff to enable local organising efforts both represent developments that PCS needs to maintain now that we have left the ballot period.
These efforts paid off in the level of engagement of members with the campaign, in the recruitment of new members (some 2,000 according to the General Secretary’s recent YouTube message) and activists, and in helping many branches improve their density and organisation levels. We need to ensure that the improved organisation is maintained, and the new activists are encouraged and supported in getting more involved.
The consultative ballot last year gave PCS a breakdown of the turnout by office and branch which showed where our areas of strength and our shortfalls were. This was used this time, with more full-time staff and senior lay reps encouraged to leaflet in those areas. There now needs to be a forensic examination of where the union is coming up short and a concerted effort not just to mobilise the next time a campaign requires it but to actively rebuild the union from the ground up.
There was also a lull in activity between the close of the consultative ballot and the decision at Conference to run a statutory ballot.
The monthly pay protests continued, but little else from a national perspective. There should have been no doubt that the consultative ballot turnout would lead to a statutory ballot. In the intervening seven months, we had ample time to lay the organisational groundwork for a decisive result: More activist schools and earlier, covering not just what was needed during the ballot period but how we made the most of the lead up; using the workplace mapping and organising skills those schools could teach activist to take a more deliberate and painstaking approach to getting ballot addresses, grade information. This would have given us a solid foundation for building and maintaining the momentum of the campaign.
Where this was already being done it is because amongst our lay activist base PCS has a number of skilled and experienced organisers who have been assets to the pay campaign.
Co-opting such activists full time to the ballot effort would have undoubtedly made them even more effective, and it is something that PCS needs to seriously consider.
The union needs to be honest and transparent in its analysis of what happened.
The NEC met the day after the ballot to discuss the next steps. The final agreed recommendations were that the union would support action that groups decided on a delegated (departmental) level. That the building for the 2019 pay campaign would start immediately with a draft document presented to the NEC in September which would include a plan to prepare for a 2019 civil service-wide ballot, and that an extraordinary pay conference/event be held at the end of 2018/beginning of 2019.
The Socialist Party, who now have 3 members on the NEC since the President Janice Godrich either left or was expelled for standing against their preferred candidate for Assistant General Secretary, asked that the pay conference be agreed for October. This appeared to be a way of artificially distinguishing their candidate from Godrich, especially as this is the first time they have broken ranks in a NEC meeting for 15 years.
We need to understand the voting figures and any outcome of the delegated pay bargaining, including whether there will be any group-based strike action before any national conference is held.
The vote was easily carried with the Independent Left supporting the original motion, but making the point that any group action needs to be co-ordinated and that in future we should consider separate bargaining unit ballots instead of a single civil service wide one.
We can win this fight, and we can smash ballot thresholds in the future. Key to that is rebuilding the union and re-orienting it towards organising the workforce from the ground up.
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