The future of the PCS debate

Unlike some other unions that have grown during the Covid crisis, the PCS civil servants’ union has not reversed a pre-pandemic trend of declining membership. The debate now under way on the union’s future structure, assessed here by NEC member DAVE SEMPLE (in a personal capacity), has relevance for all trade unionists in the struggle against the capitalists’ attempts to pass the costs of the crisis onto the working class.

Meetings of the PCS national executive committee (NEC) over the summer have discussed two papers which laid out ‘strategic options’ for the union. The two options were potential merger with an unspecified other union; and restructuring, which expressly included the idea of voluntary redundancies of union staff. Neither paper explained how these options would address the problem of a membership base that is still shrinking while the civil service as a whole has been growing since the EU referendum in 2016. This lack of analysis is a theme that runs through everything the formerly left leadership of the union have said or done on the ‘strategic options’ so far.

Members of the PCS Broad Left Network (BLN) on the NEC, including Socialist Party members, voted for the first paper presented to the June 24 meeting, which essentially laid out a programme of research on what is causing the problem and asked for the production of two scoping documents, one on merger and one on restructuring, that would look at the possible options. The second paper however, placed before the NEC on July 22, then laid out an extremely rapid process of ‘consulting’ different elements of the union. BLN members of the NEC voted against this, because it was rushing to discuss options before any serious discussion had been had about the underlying problem and potential solutions.

Disregarding this, the NEC majority, made up of ex-left faction Left Unity (LU) and grouped around the union’s General Secretary, Mark Serwotka, were determined to plunge ahead. At ‘consultations’ across the union, where up to a third of attendees have been full time staff of the union rather than reps or members, NEC speakers pushed for an urgent decision on merger or restructuring. No concrete proposals were put forward and no one has given a single example of how either option would improve recruitment and retention in a civil service that has grown since 2016.

The declining membership problem

At the end of June a branch briefing was produced – just days after the NEC, the elected lay leadership of the union, first became aware that the senior officers were proposing the ‘strategic options’ for the union’s future. The bulletin gives three reasons why the Left Unity leadership believes that the PCS will have fewer members in 2020 than in 2018. This is a direct quote: “continuing job cuts in the largest civil service departments, a lack of facility time for reps on the ground, and a generally hostile approach from employers in our bargaining areas”.

It is worth looking at these in some detail, as they are common rhetorical refrains used by the leadership of the union. All serve a neat purpose of exonerating the leadership from any responsibility for the failure of its organising ‘strategy’.

It is a fact that the large Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has shrunk since 2018. It has about 3,000 fewer staff in June 2020 than it did in June 2018. In HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), however, including the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), there are 1,000 more staff in June 2020 than in June 2018. Similarly in the Home Office, staffing has risen by about 4,000 in the same period, which at a stroke cancels out the fall noted in DWP.

Overall the civil service has grown from 384,260 in June 2016 to 423,050 in March 2020; these are the most recent publicly available Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures. That is a rise of just shy of 39,000 additional staff in the civil service. PCS publishes membership figures annually; membership in 2016 was 185,090. Membership by March 2020 was 178,096, a fall of some 7,000 members during a period where the civil service as a whole was growing. Not only do job cuts in the civil service not account for the membership fall, but specifically as the branch bulletin references job cuts in the largest civil service departments, these do not account for the fall either.

DWP is of particular interest as its leadership strongly overlaps with the leadership of the national union. If compared using the most up to date figures publicly available, the rate of losing members in DWP has been nearly double that at which DWP has lost staff. This suggests a problem well beyond the shrinking of the department.

Facility time and hostile employers

Again, there is no doubt that there has been a substantial attack on facility time, the paid time off from an individual’s job to enable a rep to carry out their trade union role. The Con-Dem coalition of 2010-2015 aimed to halve facility time from 0.2% of staffing budgets to 0.1%, and the Cabinet Office systematically sought to ban union reps having offices on government premises. Most government departments, however, had long since settled into their new facilities arrangements by 2018 and the most recent figures suggest that only 60% of available facility time (0.06% of the civil service staffing budget) is being used. We can’t just dismiss our problems in organising as being down to facility time or hostile employers.

At the NEC, BLN supporters asked, what is the General Secretary alleging is not getting done now, that was getting done before? Answer came there none. Underneath the blame being apportioned (rightly) to the government, a section of the leadership of the union is blaming PCS reps for not doing the work of recruiting and organising members – and they are using this to justify an increasing dependence upon the union’s full time staff, when it comes to union organising.

This is one of the reasons that analysis and discussion of why we are not growing is much more important than the LU leadership are allowing for. It will involve difficult conversations about the extent to which union organising has been allowed to drift, over the last few years. It will almost inevitably expose the total failure of the union’s full-time officer-led response, instead of a persistence with the basics. Following up lapsing members, identifying common concerns. Is facility time the problem here? If so, how have branches and groups tried to address this?

These are basic questions and they can be repeated for other elements of union work such as inductions for newly recruited staff, but it is crucial to establish the facts before jumping to conclusions. Certainly it is not clear how Mark Serwotka or Left Unity imagine a union merger or restructuring will address this.

As with the issues of stagnating membership numbers and reduced facility time, that there is a generally hostile approach from employers is not in dispute. Nor is it new. It is not clear what LU mean when throwing out comments like this as they never specify. BLN supporters know that employers are less willing to concede things through negotiation; they actively attempt to disrupt organising, for example by victimising campaigning reps or banning desk-dropping or restricting the facilities we would use to tell members what the union is doing.

All groups are likely to have examples of some of these from the past few years, but the extent to which they have really disrupted union organising is something that needs discussion. There are more basic things to ask. Are reps able to have meetings with a manager covering each workplace – or do the current arrangements enable management to prevent this? Are they able to report back to members what has been discussed and agreed? Are they able to gather information from members about their needs? Leaving aside areas without recognition agreements or facilities agreements (imposed or otherwise), some or all of these things can and do happen in most workplaces. Where they are not happening is not necessarily the result of a hostile employer (any more or less than in the past) – and this is where the union needs to work with groups and branches to provide support to rectify the situation.

A lack of shining national victories on pay, pensions or office closures, for example, will no doubt dim the attraction of joining the union, but this can be compensated for by having a strong, visible union that exercises control in the workplace and which keeps members informed. Getting to the bottom of just how visible the union is, and how effectively we are exercising control in workplaces, is vital. Visibility will have been hit by the withdrawal of high-profile publications mailed to all members, at both national and group level. Are we visible enough and what can the national union do to support reps?

Control in the workplace will ebb and flow according to the confidence and consciousness of reps and members. That confidence and consciousness does not change simply based on goings-on within PCS but also in relation to wider successes and defeats of the trade union movement both locally and nationally. What is the current state of play and how can the national union intervene to improve these? These require concrete answers before we simply lump the blame on more hostile employers.

What actually is being consulted on?

The July 22 NEC meeting passed Mark Serwotka’s second paper authorising an extremely rapid consultation and a national all-reps Zoom meeting was held on 13 August, which has since been supplemented by presentations at regional and devolved nation committees and the equality committees. The plan is for decisions to be made at the 2021 annual delegate conference.

The problem with this railroading of the discussion is that, without concrete detail, it is not clear how structural reorganisation of the PCS, including reductions in full time officer numbers, or a union merger, would increase our ability to recruit.

The branch bulletin makes it clear that “the situation is not one of financial crisis”. But the underlying contention seems to be that if there was more money to spend on campaigning and to put into the fighting fund, this would increase the number of victories PCS could win, and would thereby encourage more people to join and existing members to stay. Yet the available evidence suggests that spending on the union’s employment costs has been decreasing over the last few years, without any increase in membership. This was put to the current union president Fran Heathcote at the West Midlands meeting in September and she was unable to answer it.

If additional funding is the issue, are there examples of disputes that have failed because of a lack of support from the national union, due to a lack of funds? Are there examples where disputes have not been developed because there was a fear of a lack of funds? We are unaware of such examples. We are aware of areas where disputes have not developed or have been settled early due to a lack of support from the union, at national or group level, but that is a political issue, not a funding issue.

On the other hand, since Mark Serwotka has stressed the question about reducing the number of full time officers – while always adding that there would be no compulsory redundancies and even the need for further management posts – we know the impact this would have on bargaining in a lot of smaller departments. What functions does he believe are currently being carried out that do not need to be carried out any longer? Or what workloads does he think can be increased by expecting remaining staff to pick up the workloads of those who leave on a voluntary exit?

The lack of any answers to these questions, or even discussion of the questions, highlights the false nature of the ‘consultation’. How can you consult people about what they think when you have given them nothing more than buzz-phrases?

Moreover, despite references to reducing the number of branches and groups, and to build mega-branches covering more than one employer, until reps are shown a concrete picture of what exactly the general secretary wants to implement, the potential downsides will not be clear. How drastic a reduction in the number of branches and groups? Will there be a reduction in the number of lay reps on group committees? If there is a move to ‘super-branches’, how will the principle of direct election of those negotiating at a departmental level be retained? What will be the impact on branches forced to merge when there is no industrial logic to do so, such as with a DWP and HMRC branch? How will facility time be used to cover meetings in branches where there is no industrial link between the constituent parts of the branch? These questions cannot be answered until something concrete is proposed.

Right now ‘consultation’ amounts to a one-sided propaganda exercise to railroad the discussion prior to the annual conference by banging on about the same themes: we can’t maintain the status quo, so you have to pick structural reorganisation or merger.

In defence of a lay-led union

Political divisions in the union over the last few years have centred around the question of accountability, either of reps to members or of the official structures of the union to the elected leadership of the union at all levels. This was the critical factor in Mark Serwotka’s opposition to Socialist Party member Chris Baugh in the 2019 assistant general secretary election (see PCS: The Real Issues At Stake, in Socialism Today, No.221, September 2018). He was prepared to back Lynn Henderson, a senior manager in the union with precious little background as a union rep, even though Chris, the incumbent AGS since 2004, had been democratically selected as the Left Unity candidate. The whole aim of this was to remove someone who was prepared to hold Serwotka and the other senior officers of the union to account and, in the process, splinter Left Unity and transform it into the uncritical leadership support group that it is today.

We do not accuse all members of Left Unity of having abandoned their politics, and we work closely with some LU members in HMRC who are fighting a rear-guard action in that group. The drift in the rest of the union, however, is pronounced, and it has been facilitated by Left Unity on the union’s NEC. At no other time in the history of the union would a supposedly left NEC have accepted the argument that, as all the full time officers in the union answer to the general secretary and he answers to the NEC, that therefore elections of full time officers are not necessary.

In one stroke this repudiates the history of the left in PCS and its predecessor unions, especially the CPSA, where the independence of groups, and the election and accountability of full time officers to groups, was the focus of huge battles and victories for the left, which ensured the freedom to wage campaigns, to take strike action, and to fight in ways that a right-wing union would not permit.

This idea, that full time officers answer to the general secretary and he answers to the NEC, ignores the fact that ninety percent of what happens in the union is never discussed at the NEC. The BLN view, and that of the Socialist Party too, is that full time officers are accountable to the lay structures of the union, not just the NEC. People appointed secretaries to elected executive committees are responsible to that committee, within the confines of overarching policies set by annual delegate conference. This accountability has been breaking down over the last period, for example with full time staff meeting shadow cabinet figures without lay reps present, and reports presented to executive committees after the fact, or with full time staff having contact with employers without lay reps present, which is expressly contrary to conference policy.

Very capable full time officers have also found their duties changed by the general secretary’s office, with no reference to the NEC or to the elected committees covering the areas of work. The dismissive attitude of the ‘management’ layer of the union to the smaller bargaining areas was highlighted by the letter from eight group presidents, published in support of Chris Baugh during the Assistant General Secretary election. Consistency of the resources and staffing provided by the national union is something that the smaller groups in the union value, and which is important to their ability to achieve victories on behalf of members.

More recently the arbitrary division of full time staff into ‘bargaining’ or ‘organising’ (as if there is no interplay between the two) was approved by the NEC after the fact – although BLN supporters did not approve it. This move even provoked some anger amongst FTOs themselves, including some who had backed Mark Serwotka in the 2019 general secretary election, resulting in three motions being carried by the sub-branches of the GMB union branch which represents PCS staff.

A programme for union democracy

This background is important because it establishes a basis for our absolute distrust of the management layer of the union full time apparatus, at the top of which stands Mark Serwotka. Reliance on FTOs rather than the lay structures to drive organising, centralisation of authority to the union management, lack of transparency when it comes to deployment of resources, the whittling down of the role of the devolved nation and regional committees and interference with communications; these are just the headlines of developments over the past several years. This is why members can put no stock whatsoever in promises from Mark Serwotka and Left Unity that lay democracy will be central to discussions about reorganisation and/or merger.

If there is waste or examples of organisational sclerosis in the union, the best way to identify them is to strengthen the accountability and transparency of the full-time structures to the lay structures. Our view is that this will automatically yield some improvements in our ability to organise members, which will feed through into higher visibility, more informed members and improved recruitment and retention.

Our ideas include the following:

* The election of Senior National Officers and Regional/Group Secretaries; overall accountability to reside with the NEC and annual delegate conference (ADC) but each to be answerable to and operate under the direction of the executive committee covering the area in which they work.

* No weakening of PCS Group structures or the industrial logic which underpins these structures, as this is precisely from where they draw their strength and ability to campaign and defend members.

* A communication strategy which allows branches and groups to contact members directly, with the minimum of bureaucracy within PCS.

* A website geared towards making information about a member’s employer, their workplace and the work of the union accessible, without the need to log in except to access sensitive information not for public release.

* Restoration of the role of devolved nation and regional committees in organising work, including receiving detailed reports on deployment of FTOs and the outcomes of such deployments. Enhanced responsibilities for Scotland, Wales and Ireland committees given the devolved contexts.

* Long-term allocation of FTO resources to bargaining to be agreed by and kept under review by the NEC, in conjunction with Group Executive Committees, national Branch Executive Committees and the relevant NEC Liaison Officer. This will ensure resources are being allocated to areas where density can be improved by national support.

* No further moves on restructuring or on merger until a serious and thorough analysis, review and consultation has taken place to establish a full picture of the current state of bargaining and organising across the union.

* The NEC to develop a detailed and serious organising plan covering the civil service, non-civil service public sector bodies, and private sector employers organised by PCS, to be published to groups and branches as soon as it is agreed, for consultation ahead of the ADC, with amendment proposals to be considered first by the NEC then by ADC.

The Covid pandemic has severely tested the capability of all trade unions to fight for their members’ interests against the employers’ attempts to pass the costs of the crisis onto the working class. The pressure would be on even the best union leaders to look for organisational panaceas to meet the problems they face. But there is no substitute for a fighting programme – and democratic structures that give the fullest confidence to members that the union is fit and ready for the battles ahead.