PCS: Challenges for 2020

by on 31 December 2019

By Phil Dickens

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We close out the year, and the decade, with the Tories holding a majority in parliament. The damage wrought by the last nine years of austerity looks set to not just continue, but to escalate. For PCS as a union, the key question is: how do we reverse course from a decade of defeat in this environment?

How we fared in the last decade

Some would argue that the label ‘decade of defeat’ is unfair. After all, we came out swinging when the government removed check-out (the method of paying union subs through wages) and re-recruited the bulk of our membership, and PCS members have taken strike action and won, in incredible circumstances.

All of this is true. The hard work of reps during the Direct Debit campaign and of the members in BEIS, National Gallery, Welsh Museums, and elsewhere who have taken strike action - including all out action - and won deserves commendation. I’d never want to claim otherwise.

The point is that when our opponent was the government, or its biggest departments, they won. They changed our pensions, slashed our redundancy pay, have restrained our pay for a decade, and have closed office after office with mass redundancies. I’m not going to dwell on where we set them back in court or, in the case of office closures, where they have had to revise their own plans - these are positives, sure, but PCS is a trade union rather than a legal firm or lobby group. Our strength is, it should be, in the collective power of our members as workers.

The two biggest defeats we saw were on the restrictions to facility time and the implementation of the Trade Union Act.

The former may have mildly inconvenienced a few high ranking officials being paid by their employer to do only union work - but for the most part it forced the union to police its own reps in how they use their time. This was aimed at reducing PCS to the kind of union the Tories want - holding members’ hands in individual cases, but diverted from organising, from collectivising issues, from building workplace power. Not that we as a union were (or are) particularly doing that anyway, but now it was that much harder.

The Trade Union Act, of course, has to this point effectively stopped PCS taking national strike action. Not that our biennial one-day strikes were much use to anybody, but even that has been taken off the table. Using my own workplace as an example, I’d say at least a third of members have no prior experience of taking industrial action as a result. Our resistance on both fronts came to big speeches and sharply worded responses to consultations. So, of course, it came to nothing.

The challenges to come

Most of the big defeats of the last decade came in its first half. So, by the time the Brexit vote happened, and the Tories lost their 2015 majority, we were already unable to capitalise.

In one way, this was a good thing. The realities of defeat allowed activists to finally win the arguments for a fighting fund and for selective action, and there were less barriers (albeit only marginally) to members wanting local fights from a union leadership that now needed them to show there was still life in PCS.

The downside, however, was that it taught a new generation of members that on the big national questions like pay, there isn’t much we can do. That’s a lesson we will need to unlearn quickly, otherwise the defeats will continue to come.

HMRC is offering a new pay deal for its staff - if they sell off their terms and conditions, of course. A decade of pay immiseration coupled with a two-tier workforce makes that an easier sell than it otherwise might be. Other departments will be looking to follow suit.

Boris Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings has promised further attacks on the civil service in a candid blog. These are set to make Francis Maude’s Civil Service Reform Plan look tame.

Following the example of the NHS, we also must be ready for more attempts at privatisation. The Government Estates Strategy (GES), consolidating the civil service into a much smaller estate made of ‘campuses’ with shared service providers is already set to make this easier. As is departments like HMRC already having reorganised to formally separate their policy and service-delivery areas.

How exactly the attacks will take shape remains to be seen. But we will still be fighting on multiple fronts - and ‘doing what we’ve always done’ isn’t going to cut it for the union’s battle fatigued activist base.

Building a real, organic rank and file movement

The view of the PCS Rank & File Network is that our union, indeed the trade union movement, needs a real, independent rank and file movement in order to build real strength – but especially with a hostile government and hostile employer.

It’s worth being clear that, as things stand, such a movement doesn’t exist within PCS. Our Network is made up of people who want to see such a movement, but we make no claim to ‘be’ that movement. The rank and file of the union exists, of course; that is simply the term for the membership at large, as distinct from the officials and the paid bureaucracy. Turning that mass into a movement means organising to give the workforce not only confidence in its own collective power, but also the will to act – ‘with the leadership where possible, without them where necessary,’ as the old saying goes.

Such a movement is defined, in the simplest terms, by mass participation, direct democracy, and direct action. Mass participation meaning that most of the workforce is involved rather than a minority from the ‘activist layer.’ Direct democracy being where decisions are taken collectively by all workers in mass meetings, or where necessary through recallable delegates with strict mandates, rather than on behalf of the workers by representatives. And direct action being the collective activity of the workers forcing the bosses to act.

Needless to say, in any assessment of our union, we are a long way from such a movement. We are still a long way even from being an organising union rather than a servicing union.

This doesn’t mean that, until we achieve such a state, we do nothing – of course, we have to organise in the present and with the tools we have to fight by all means necessary. What it does mean is that if we have such an end goal in mind and recognise that there are no shortcuts to getting there, we minimise the risk of losing focus or going off track.

In terms of the most basic things, that we should all be doing in our workplaces and branches – regardless of our role – see our short introduction to ‘the fundamentals’ here, mostly adapted from materials put out by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). There is training within PCS, currently confined to bite-size courses, that covers some of this – but I would also recommend looking up the training offered by the IWW themselves and the Solidarity Federation, neither of which hold back on the direct action aspect which still meets with incredible nervousness within the PCS mainstream.

But just as important as what we do in our own individual workplaces is how we link up with other workplaces, across branches and employer groups, in ways horizontal (i.e. that are neither dictated nor mediated by the hierarchical structure of PCS itself).

Town committees

A town committee is nothing more than an informal grouping of PCS branches within a given geographical area (usually a town, hence the name). They don’t exist everywhere, and their usefulness varies, largely dependant upon how often they meet, how many reps and branches take part, etc. Nonetheless, if utilised properly, they have the potential to serve as the embryo for a network of activists that could hopefully grow into something more.

PCS centrally doesn’t publish (and likely doesn’t hold) a list of all extant town committees. Likewise, not all branches will be particularly keep on encouraging participation – or, perhaps, participation from ‘the wrong people’ – therefore reaching out to your local PCS office is probably the quickest way to see if a town committee exists where you are. If it doesn’t, of course, then one will need to be set up.

Unless you are a branch officer, there may still be barriers to setting up a new town committee or even to participating in an extant one depending on the level of gatekeeping on offer. If that is the case, then reach out to activists in other branches through any informal links you might have or get in touch with the Network to see if we can help. There will be some way to break through, even if that has to mean circumventing your own branch and its officialdom.

From a rank and file perspective, we would argue that a decent town committee should be open to any and all members to attend from the branches it covers. It should meet at least monthly, and those meetings should be advertised as publicly as possible to circumvent any branch gatekeeping. And, crucially, they should go beyond basic activities like leafleting in support of extant campaigns, etc, (though this is important) to providing help and support to all participants to organise in their own workplaces and branches.

There is a balance to be navigated here. We don’t want the potential of town committees to be cut off by the gatekeeping of overly bureaucratic branches, but equally we don’t want town committees to be undermined by getting mired in the politics of individual politics. As a rule of thumb, it is often easier to simply sidestep and ignore bureaucracy than to try and contend with or reform it. This may still result in hurt feelings, but if it leads to more effective organising then bruised egos are a small price to pay.

Government hubs

The GES, and the concentration of civil service into ‘hubs’ presents on the one hand an opportunity – given the sheer mass of workers piled together into one location – and on the other challenges. These will include limitations on the ability of reps from one department to walk into another, of course, but arguably more difficult will be the territoriality between branches.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to look at how the union might restructure to address this. Let’s just say that I favour organising industrially – i.e. one workplace, one union (or, in this instance, branch) regardless of employer. This doesn’t preclude separate committees to deal with negotiations specific to one employer, management span, etc. But as a unit the ‘branch’ is about coordination, campaigning, health and safety, and organising – and it makes no sense whatsoever to have multiple, competing versions of the same thing on one site.

In lieu (or, being a bit generous, in advance) of any sensible restructuring, however, then a hub committee in the model of a town committee is the most sensible direction to push in. As with town committees, the aim should be to increase participation and support organising efforts rather than to empower bureaucracy, factionalism and gatekeeping – those guilty of such things should, ultimately, be wary of such developments.

Strength from the shop floor

These various ways of linking up should all ultimately be in support of effective organising. What that means can’t just be measured in terms of union density, much less in terms of how many home emails and mobile numbers the national union holds.

As a national union, PCS needs to undertake a serious, systematic rebuilding effort. It has branches with a considerable activist base, which can deliver high ballot turnouts, etc. But equally it has branches which are barely or non-functioning, where if there are reps at all they are fighting a losing battle to stay afloat and on top of personal cases, with no time available to do anything more. It has enthusiastic new activists ready to take on the world, and activists who are going to see out their career battle-weary, beaten and feeling betrayed by their own union. There are confident, effective organisers matched in number by lay bureaucrats more concerned with developing processes and putting roadblocks in place if they’re not correctly followed than with building participation.

There aren’t the staff resources for the systematic organising we require. Translated through PCS’s management structures, even the right message gets distorted. We can therefore expect this situation to persist.

By starting to link workers up across workplaces and across branches, we can make a dent in the problem. By sharing our own time, resources and experience, we can increase the numbers confident to organise, help them navigate the barriers to doing so, and build real collective strength from the shop floor up.

It’s not going to be easy. It takes patience, hard work and persistence. But there’s no great mystery to it, except in the illusions offered by the gatekeepers to minimise challenges to their positions.

Whether it’s getting five workers to publicly say ‘no’ to a bullying boss or a thousand to attend a mass meeting and a picket line – it all starts with a conversation.