Government union busting and the PCS response

The PCS union is facing concerted union busting activity from the government. However, despite its rhetoric it has fallen into a retreat that helps nobody

Submitted by Phil on January 22, 2015

Just before Christmas the leadership of PCS, the union representing workers in the civil service and companies contracted to the government, announced that it was suspending its annual elections. This decision, understandably, drew a lot of ire from the union's activists. However, it is not an isolated bad decision but part of a wider crisis for the union.

In part, this crisis is the result of a deliberate campaign of union busting. Both the Coalition Government and the bosses of the biggest government departments have done all they could to diminish the union's influence whilst pushing through cuts which have so far cost almost 64,000 jobs and seen the real terms value of pay decline by an average of £2,300.

However, there have also been internal problems in the union, mainly financial. The union was determinedly pursuing a takeover by the Unite union in part because of its dire financial situation including a fairly massive pensions deficit for its own staff. This has seen PCS implement its own cuts internally, including voluntary redundancies for staff (PDF) and a considerable scaling back of branch budgets.

The PCS National Executive Committee has taken what it calls "bold decisions" to address the crisis. Unfortunately, whilst the decisions are indeed bold in terms of the union as a business (read: cuts), they're exceptionally timid for the union as an association of workers engaged in an industrial struggle. On that front, PCS isn't being bold but is engaging in a tactical retreat.


PCS has in the past five years gained a reputation amongst that nebulous mass known as 'the left' as a particularly militant, fighting union and one of the main forces resisting Tory austerity.

Opinions will differ as to how deserved that reputation is. Right-wing defectors from the union will bemoan that the union is too political and strike happy, and relatively mainstream leftists will celebrate the same. However, a growing number of militants within the union are disillusioned with its practices, whilst claimants groups in particular despair at the union's continual unwillingness to fight attacks on claimants with on the job action in the DWP - even when there is a clear industrial logic for doing so1 .

Nonetheless, it remains a fact that PCS has taken a considerable amount of strike action over job cuts and austerity - even if that action has been sporadic, with little follow up and months of inactivity in between.

As a result, it has come under fire from government departments and the government itself.

In HMRC, a leaked document showed that the Department's Executive Committee had put plans in place to marginalise the union and disrupt its organising capacity. The measures advocated are ones duplicated across the civil service: drastic cuts to facility time for senior representatives, bypassing collective bargaining, and propaganda exercises to make staff trust "direct contact" with the bosses over union representation.

Then there's the attack on funding. Following Eric Pickles's failed attempt to get check-off, the method of collecting union subscriptions through payroll, scrapped in the DCLG other departments have with greater success gotten rid of the process or announced a date for its end. This amounts to a considerable funding cut all at once while the union races to essentially re-recruit its own members by signing them up to direct debit.

The threat posed by a failure to switch all or a significant majority of members over to direct debit is clear: a substantial loss of income impacting on every service the union provides and all of its operations. The withdrawal of check-off is therefore a calculated effort to have the union distracted shoring up its own income so that it can't focus on industrial resistance to cuts.

Unfortunately, it's working. As well as cancelling the national elections, the union has all but wound up its industrial dispute over jobs and staffing in HMRC and shows no sign of any further national strike action in the near future. Despite the union's shortcomings in industrial strategy, going from sporadic action to nothing whatsoever is a clear step backwards, especially as there is no indication that there will be any rethinking of how campaigns are conducted once they are back on again.

The tactical retreat

The dispute in HMRC is a clear example both of the general shortcomings of PCS industrial strategy and of the retreat in the wake of union busting efforts which has only hampered things further.

I could go back several years in discussing the problems with the dispute in HMRC. However, for the sake of brevity I will note that the almost exact same demands being made now were declared "won" by PCS in a previous sell-out deal in 2012. It was almost immediately apparent that job cuts, privatisation and office closures remained an issue and management had no intention of keeping their promises, but after a whole year of inactivity it took being outflanked by a more conservative senior management union and a rank-and-file challenge to the leadership before the union finally ballotted for action over jobs and staffing in 2014.

After the ballot was won, there was a flurry of activity with two tranches of rolling strike action. However, from then a promised escalation of action short of strike failed to materialise and everything went quiet. When something finally came out after two months of silence, it was a suspension of action for "talks without preconditions." That is, management refused to talk whilst PCS were taking industrial action, and PCS capitulated.

Unsurprisingly, HMRC took this opportunity to put their union busting strategy into practice. They announced massive cuts and office closures, refused to give the union advance notice of the announcements despite being in talks, and then abandoned negotiation on the flimsiest of pretexts (disagreement about the wording of an article in a union magazine).

With talks off, action didn't recommence. Initially, there appeared to be a positive response since the union was encouraging workplace meetings to pass motions in support of the union and a reinstatement of industrial action. However, it has since become apparent that industrial action isn't going to happen in the near future.

The deadline for Self Assessment submissions, one of the key peaks which PCS could gain key leverage by threatening to disrupt, is about to pass without interruption. The peak sees the Department proving how short staffed it is by having to pull workers from various business streams in to take phone calls, yet the union response is non-existent. Even discouraging volunteering for the work is deemed too radical.

The reason appears to be that PCS fears HMRC actively hampering its direct debit signup efforts in the event of any challenge to cuts. And the fact that some members face losing their jobs before we lose check-off hasn't made the leadership reconsider the need to revive any form of industrial fight.

Bureaucracy and politicking

The debate over whether suspending elections was the right decision or not has been done in considerable depth elsewhere. The arguments in favour are summed up by the PCS Left Unity faction, whilst the PCS - Democracy Deferred website remains the best resource for the arguments against the decision and the campaign to reinstate elections.

However, the suspension of elections remains one issue in many. The fact that the decision wasn't made at the regularly scheduled NEC meeting in December, but at an 'emergency' meeting a couple of weeks later, with no forewarning that it was on the table, no consultation with members and NEC members themselves given just an hour's warning before the meeting of the proposal hints at the lengths the leadership is going to in order to ensure it gets its way.

There has been speculation as to how this feeds into efforts to revive a merger with Unite, among other theories on why the bureaucracy acted as it did. However, the key issue is a structural contradiction between the associative and representative functions of a union.

As libcom's excellent introduction to unions puts it, "Union leaders have to put the needs of the union as a legal entity above those of the union as a group of workers fighting for their own interests. This is because their jobs and political positions are dependent on this legal entity continuing to exist."

If that requires suspending elections, putting one over on members, and withdrawing from important battles over job cuts, then so be it.

There is an alternative

Critiques aside, the decision has been made and PCS members won’t get to condemn or reverse that until Conference at least. If the attempt to overturn the decision is succesful, then the elections will either see a new NEC brought in for a drastically reduced term or all of the union’s schedules have to be re-written. All the chaos that will entail will no doubt be another argument in favour of accepting the decision as a fait accompli.

But do we need to be in this position at all?

Some have argued for trying to reform the union. Limiting the amount of terms that an NEC member can serve, introducing a right of recall, and so on. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but there’s a limit to how far trade unions can be reformed.

Trade unions exist to moderate the relations between workers and bosses. That doesn’t just mean representing workers to the bosses, but representing the bosses to the workers and bringing both sides to a compromise. The boss class and the state gave legal recognition to trade unions precisely because they recognised the use of unions in policing their workers, regulating and limiting class struggle.

That role came from the adoption of the representative function, and from that role came the bureaucracies and the union-as-a-business. Made more democratic and with a right of recall on its lay leadership, the union would still have to perform the same role with the employer and (crucially) operate within the same restraints in order to keep the union as a business financially solvent.

That isn’t to say that there’s no use whatsoever in changing the leadership. The difference between, for example, PCS and UNISON shows how different things can be even within the parameters imposed by the representative function. But we need to recognise that those limitations still exist, and at the more ‘militant’ end of the business union scale PCS will still cross the picket lines of other unions and hang its victimised reps out to dry.

So what to do then? We can’t reform a business union into a revolutionary union - it’s alchemy. How many years or decades of effort would it take to win people over to that form of unionism, bearing in mind that you don’t just need to win the activists over from a ‘right-wing’ leadership to a ‘left-wing’ one but would have to win over the majority of members to an entirely different form of unionism with a specific, revolutionary political outlook? How many motions would you need to pass - and how many Conferences would that take when they’re all rule changes and the rules section is one of the shortest sections of Conference? How easy would it be to scupper these efforts, set them back, or simply rule them out of order to comply with the UK’s stringent trade union laws?

In short, reforming a trade union into a revolutionary union is up there with creating a communist society through electoralism and parliamentary reform. It just isn’t happening.

That’s why building a rank-and-file movement remains so necessary. The majority of civil servants are in PCS, so trying to form a new union from scratch would only divide the workforce. And while the union structure is there there is no harm using it where it is beneficial, whether that’s in the rep role, at Conference or through elections, as long as there is a clear recognition of its limitations.

But those limitations are why the greatest part of our efforts need to be focused on organising, with the union where it will and without it where it won’t. Making decisions at workplace meetings open to all workers except managers and scabs, refusing to cross picket lines regardless of which union is striking, spreading disputes and building solidarity. That doesn’t happen overnight. But the first step is giving workers confidence - not in the union leadership but in our own collective power to win improvements through direct action.

Because that’s what gets the goods, and when workers are able to organise and act independently the question of elections cease to matter - because those who proclaim themselves in charge of us cease to matter.

  • 1Rank-and-file DWP activists have won the debate at Conference so that on paper the union is committed to building the confidence for such action. However it remains unclear if any effort has been made on this front at the time of writing: