SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 116 - March 2008

The PCS, the CWU dispute & the struggle for public sector workers’ unity

New Labour’s co-ordinated attack on the public sector has not, to date, been met by co-ordinated action by the public sector unions, despite the best efforts of the left-led PCS civil servants union. PCS national executive committee member JOHN McINALLY replies in a personal capacity to allegations published by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that the PCS leadership blocked the possibility of public sector unity in the recent CWU postal workers’ dispute.

LAST NOVEMBER the SWP’s central committee published a political statement, entitled Pay, Brown and the fight in the unions, as part of their party’s pre-conference discussions. Referring to last year’s postal workers’ strikes, the statement claims that: "When CWU members spoke at solidarity meetings – many of them organized by us and our allies in Organising for Fighting Unions – it was a genuine revelation to them of the support they could tap. In a matter of weeks, due to pressure from below, the CWU leaders had to go from sneerily dismissing the idea of striking with the PCS to seriously considering it. But it didn’t happen. The Socialist Party dominated executive of the PCS pressured Mark Serwotka to back away from such a move, and he felt he had to go along with them. We did not have enough influence in the PCS to force through united strikes". (SWP Pre-conference Bulletin No.2, November 2007, p4)

The allegation that Socialist Party members on the PCS national executive committee (NEC) ‘pressured’ the union’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, to back away from joint strikes with the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) – or indeed any other union – is not only offensive but also a barefaced lie.

It is simple enough to deal with the SWP’s attempt to stand reality on its head by reference to the fact that Mark Serwotka himself has refuted any such suggestion. But the fact that the SWP’s claim was made at all begs questions about the political methods of the SWP and the implications these have both for the PCS and the wider trade union movement. In terms of the PCS, it is an attack on Socialist Party members of the NEC; on the PCS NEC as a whole; and one which seeks to manufacture a division between the PCS NEC and Mark Serwotka that has no basis in reality.

Such methods can only aid those who want to sow division amongst the campaigning leadership of PCS – including the right wing in the labour and trade union movement, the employers and the government. They are contrary to the tradition of open, honest and robust debate within the labour movement that is so vital to develop and test ideas and have more in common with the behaviour of the gutter press and the right wing.

What is the purpose of such methods? Why not just debate issues in an open, honest manner? The SWP believe it is in their interest to portray others on the left as less militant than they are and, therefore, lesser socialists. The false method of ultra-leftism begins with a conclusion and then goes out to find the ‘evidence’ to support it. Most often this simply takes the form of distorting or not addressing important factors – like the mood of workers at a given phase, or giving insufficient weight to, or failing to, clinically assess objective factors like the balance of class forces. They invariably take the view that union members are always ready to take action in any dispute but the leaders just won’t lead. Of course, there is a great deal of truth in this; the history of the trade unions in Britain, particularly in recent times, is littered with examples of leaders refusing to lead and holding members back. The problem is that the leaders of the SWP are incapable of adjusting this ‘analysis for all seasons’ when commenting on the record of a genuine left leadership such as that of the PCS.

The record of the left-led NEC

THE RECORD OF the PCS under the leadership of Mark Serwotka, Janice Godrich (PCS president), and the left-majority NEC (in which Socialist Party members play a leading role), is a model of how a fighting socialist leadership in the trade union movement should operate. The SWP’s unjustified attack on the PCS NEC denigrates the achievements of a left campaigning leadership that has consistently called for and attempted to build unity amongst public sector workers. It echoes the line from Brown and New Labour that campaigning and striking will get you nothing, in this case by saying that you will always be sold out! This only serves to create cynicism and defeatism amongst the rank-and-file membership and lay union activists.

Since the left won control of the PCS from the most reactionary right-wing leadership in recent decades it has been transformed and is now an inspiration to workers in Britain and internationally. In the face of an unprecedented assault on the civil service, the union has campaigned on every level – through parliament; alliance-building with service users groups and other unions; using the law and media; developing political work through the ‘Make Your Vote Count’ campaign, and much more.

The union has also campaigned at local level, fully involving members and activists, and that has been the platform on which successful industrial action, which the PCS has not been afraid to call and which has been consistently delivered, has been launched. The PCS has organised more industrial action than any other section of the British trade union movement in the past five years. Four national ballots for action have been won and three successful national days of action have been held. PCS members in the troubled Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) have delivered a staggering nineteen days of action in five years. These have not been merely ‘protest’ strikes, or just ‘striking for striking sake’. On the contrary, these campaigns and the action taken have produced settlements that have gone some way to protect members’ interests in the face of the government’s attacks.

In 2004 concessions were won following the first national civil service dispute in twelve years which has stopped thousands of compulsory redundancies and will potentially save tens of thousands more. Campaigning and action has also stopped attacks on paid sick leave, and prevented jobs from being privatised; the union has also campaigned against unfair and unequal pay offers.

Mark Serwotka, with the full backing of the NEC, pressed public sector unions to unite in defence of pensions, standing firm against the most defeatist cynicism from some other union leaders, and secured the pension rights of all existing civil servants – something which was widely regarded as impossible to achieve and which was greeted with universal acclamation by PCS members and activists. The only exceptions to this were those around the so-called Socialist Caucus/Independent Left group in the union and the SWP, who incredibly described this significant achievement as a ‘shabby deal’ – a viewpoint that was rejected almost unanimously by PCS conference and by 98% of members who voted in favour of accepting the deal in a membership ballot.

At both national and at group level PCS members have responded to their fighting leadership – which operates from the platform of a comprehensive analysis and strategy based on clear bargaining aims, underpinned by conference policy and the widest possible consultation amongst members and activists – by giving tremendous support to union campaigns which have been delivered with determination and unity.

The trust of members in their union has confounded the government, management and the right wing. The government believes the unions have no alternative but to knuckle down and accept their neo-liberal agenda – which has meant misery for millions of workers – because ‘there is no alternative’. ‘If you don’t support us, you get the Tories’, is the refrain from New Labour politicians and their allies in the leaderships of Labour-affiliated unions. The PCS, (which is not affiliated to the Labour Party and has no desire to be), has proved the way to get influence and concessions in the midst of the worst ever attacks on the public sector, is through effective campaign work and by putting the interests of members, not New Labour, first.

Nonetheless, the left leadership of PCS is not complacent. It recognises that, despite the tremendous fight-back it has led, the sheer scale of the government’s cuts and privatisation agenda has had a dreadful impact on its members and the communities they serve and full account is always taken of the fact that life is very difficult for members as a result of the attacks. Even just blunting the worst of the attacks has in itself taken gargantuan effort. The PCS leadership has been very much aware it was of paramount importance to neither run ahead of members nor lag behind them – and to ensure, particularly on the question of an industrial action strategy, that it was deliverable, effective and sustainable.

The PCS leadership has also placed its industrial strategy within its wider political context and understands that defeating the attacks and going on to improve public services will require much more than a struggle on the industrial field – the battle must also be conducted on the political front as well as the industrial, a conclusion more and more workers are starting to draw.

The PCS & the postal workers’ dispute

GIVEN THIS CONTEXT what then is the truth behind the assertion in the SWP’s statement? In summer of 2007 – when the postal strikes were taking place – the PCS was conducting a mass consultation with members in which the leadership spoke directly to 25,000 members at around 3,000 meetings. The PCS NEC had unanimously agreed this strategy after two previous one-day strikes against compulsory redundancies, low pay and unfair pay systems, privatisation and in defence of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. This consultation had also been supported unanimously at PCS conference as part of the union’s wider strategy. Despite this the PCS leadership was clear that joint action with other public sector workers would not be ruled out. If any department went ahead with compulsory redundancies thereby triggering a national strike the PCS would have striven, as a priority, to link this with any other disputes taking place, including the postal strike. That notwithstanding, the PCS would have given full consideration to any appeals that were received from any group of public sector workers to coordinate campaigns and set out a joint industrial action strategy. The PCS NEC took the view that matters of ‘timescales’ in delivering action could be resolved if there was the will to do so.

The PCS led the campaign to unite pay struggles in 2007, which it tried to base on the successful united campaign to defend pensions in 2005. In summer 2007 the PCS was preparing its motion to the autumn TUC conference calling for public sector unity against Brown’s pay freeze, but at the same time it was pressing for immediate bi-lateral talks with other unions. Mark Serwotka, with the PCS NEC’s full backing, wrote to various public sector unions – including the CWU – asking to meet with a view to link up plans for campaign work and joint action where possible. The CWU leadership did not take up this offer. In fact the first the PCS knew of the CWU plans for action was when the union announced a series of strike days for the postal workers. The CWU leadership, including the president – SWP member, Jane Loftus – missed a real opportunity to link up their campaign with that of the PCS.

Why were the CWU leaders so reluctant to coordinate with the PCS? At one level this was about their failure to adopt a comprehensive campaign strategy to win their struggle. The idea of a ‘quick win’ against such a major assault on postal workers, which was backed by the government, was always unlikely, unless on the basis of all-out action, even with the considerable industrial strength of the CWU. The scale of the attacks launched on the civil service by Blair and Brown were such that the PCS left leadership had honestly calculated the union could not deliver and maintain the type of all-out action that was the only viable way to completely overturn the government’s so-called ‘efficiency agenda’ and that the union was in for ‘a marathon, not a sprint’. This analysis was based on a sober assessment of the balance of forces and the hostile industrial and political climate. The leadership identified bargaining priorities, deciding what kind of campaign and industrial action strategy were required to achieve them, all of which were repeatedly endorsed by national and group conferences and the widest possible consultation. The CWU leadership, however, did not share this analysis and simply did not regard linking the campaigns as a priority as part of a comprehensive strategy in an attempt to defeat the attacks.

The failure to develop a comprehensive strategy is not the whole story though. It is a brutal reality that the leaders of unions affiliated to New Labour operate on the basis of divided loyalties. The consistent demands for public sector unity by Mark Serwotka and the PCS leadership against the anti-working class assault from Brown and co, have been met with conscious foot-dragging amongst the leaders of Labour-affiliated unions. They recognise that unity in action across the public sector could deliver a potentially fatal blow to the government if it refused to abandon its attacks on pay and its cuts and privatisation agenda. Many leaders of Labour-affiliated unions are prepared to face down growing demands within their own ranks for unity because they fear the implications of building an effective opposition to what they describe as ‘our government’. It is also the case, and there is increasing evidence to support it, that some union leaders see the preparedness of the PCS to campaign and take action as a ‘bad example’ to their own activists and members who increasingly ask, ‘if they can do it, why can’t we join them’?

No union has done more than the PCS in attempting to build unity in the trade union movement against the attacks on the public sector. Mark Serwotka and the PCS NEC have been as one in pursuing this aim – not least because it is the policy of the union as decided by successive conferences. The allegation that the NEC and particularly its Socialist Party members held Mark in some sort of ‘headlock’ and stopped him proposing a united fight with the postal workers, would be laughable if it were not so serious.

What, in effect, is being said is that Mark Serwotka, as the general secretary of one of the most militant unions in Britain, has so little influence on his own NEC that nine Socialist Party members, along with the rest of the thirty-strong NEC, can stop him from building joint action with another union. Rather than attempting to ‘exonerate’ Mark by saying he had no option other than to bow to the NEC’s reluctance to build joint action with the CWU this untruthful allegation actually denigrates him. In trying to be smart the author of the article ends up condemning not only the NEC and Socialist Party members alike but Mark himself – by effectively saying that the most militant campaigning leadership in the movement would shirk its responsibility in supporting the CWU and that Mark would just stand by and allow such a thing to happen without speaking out if ever such a situation arose, which it most certainly did not.

The truth is that during the course of the CWU dispute, all Mark’s recommendations to the NEC were unanimously supported – including by the three SWP members on the NEC – and all the efforts to build links were supported and acted on. If any differences existed they were not raised at the time by those SWP comrades – because they did not exist.

SWP cynicism

THIS BEHAVIOUR DEMONSTRATES the cynicism of the SWP in attempting to smear the PCS NEC and exposes their narrow factional interest in doing so. SWP member and CWU president, Jane Loftus, has been the subject of considerable criticism from CWU activists because although she voted against the CWU deal, she failed to speak out publicly against it. Given the vital importance of this issue to the rights, terms and conditions of postal workers, it was her duty to do so. This reveals that all too often behind the left face of the SWP lies a policy of actually propping up an ‘awkward squad’ who are not always as awkward as they like to portray themselves.

All this is made so much worse by an article which was published subsequently in issue No.117 of the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism, which states: "Last year union leaders did Labour a considerable favour. The health and local government unions managed to avoid any action. Postal union leaders persuaded their members to call off their highly effective series of strikes for an offer that conceded very little. This left civil service workers isolated for the moment – although 80,000 were on strike as we went to press. But, it has to be repeated, the battle over public sector pay is due to continue for more than another two years, with teachers balloting for action early this year. And strikes of some sort or other are no longer a rarity, even if we are still a long way from the high strike figures of the 1980s, let alone the early 1970s". (International Socialism, Winter 2008, our emphasis)

This statement completely contradicts what is set out in the pre-conference bulletin and in doing so demonstrates the pitfalls that await those who adopt the unprincipled tactic of re-writing history on the basis of unsubstantiated gossip – with a view to gaining factional advantage by ascribing to their left ‘opponents’ positions completely at odds with those that they really held.

The false methods of ultra-leftism lie at the root of the SWP’s position. In attempting to present a ‘left’ face and maintain their ‘socialist credentials’, they need to constantly expose ‘sell-outs’. (When this conflicts with positions taken by their own members – such as Jane Loftus – they remain silent or distort the position). This behaviour is unprincipled in itself but also damages the left because by such behaviour they unwittingly bolster the very people who are doing all they can to scupper attempts at building public sector unity. Every scoundrel, including New Labour apparatchiks in the trade union movement, will happily trot out the lie that the PCS let down the CWU to attack the socialist leadership of Mark Serwotka and the PCS NEC. The divisiveness implicit in this accusation cannot be understated.

Unity through honest debate

THE SWP ARE part of Left Unity and the Democracy Alliance in PCS that wrested control from the ultra right-wing Moderate leadership that dominated the PCS and one of its predecessor unions, the CPSA, and like all other groups and parties and independents they have a place in the union’s left leadership, correctly so. But in rejecting the genuine responsibilities of socialists representing workers in struggle they put their own ideological ‘purity’ first, and consistently stand aside from or openly oppose important and difficult strategic decisions, especially in relation to the settlement of disputes.

Reference has already been made to the pensions agreement secured by the PCS and other public sector unions in 2005. PCS members rightly understood that to secure this agreement in the most hostile industrial and political climate was a significant achievement. Mark Serwotka and the PCS NEC ignored the ‘advice’ of those in the movement who argued we should take whatever we can because it would be imposed anyway and by doing so won a deal that secured pensions for existing members. It is also important to note that the PCS then went on to negotiate one of the best pension deals in the public sector for new entrants.

To have held out for ‘more’ after forcing these concessions would have shattered the union alliance patiently built up mainly by the efforts of the PCS and would have allowed the government to impose a much worse settlement on the divided unions. Yet, in lieu of any alternative strategy, this is precisely where the SWP position of rejecting the deal would have taken us – from a significant achievement in defence of workers’ rights to ignominious defeat that would have represented an historical set-back for workers generally, and particularly civil servants. Going down the road of rejection in such circumstances would have meant the return of the right-wing in the PCS, on the basis of a defeated and demoralised membership who would have seen a so-called left leadership surrender their pension rights for an ultra-left adventure.

All this was fully understood at the time – not least of all by the SWP members on the NEC who initially supported the settlement. This, however, did not suit the SWP central committee – who operate from the position of bureaucratic rather than democratic centralism. Consequently, they ignored the situation on the ground when evaluating whether the settlement was the best that could be achieved and demanded that their members on the PCS NEC recant and withdraw their support for the deal. This led to the resignation from the SWP of one of their leading NEC members, with 30 years party membership, because he could not stomach the cynicism and dishonesty implicit in a position which was the very essence of ultra-left opportunism.

Given the enormous battles we face and the fact that real campaigning union leaderships are thin on the ground it is regrettable this lie about the PCS and the CWU dispute appeared in the SWP pre-conference bulletin. Workers and activists rightly expect unity in the face of the unprecedented attacks that are taking place on them. The left has the duty to debate how we respond and, while there will be real differences on occasions, this can never be an excuse for adopting the type of cynical methods that have been used in the SWP’s article to openly lie about a campaigning left union leadership for dubious factional advantage.


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