The Public and Commercial Services Union has in the past year worked to sabotage a dispute between its members at Hewlett Packard and their employer. This has culminated in the betrayal of one of their own reps, John Pearson, after he was unjustly sacked by the company.
PCS is best known as the civil servants’ union, however it has members in various areas of the private sector due to privatisation and outsourcing. This includes workers for Hewlett Packard who before 1995, with several contract transfers in between, were civil servants in the Department for Social Security’s (now the DWP) IT Services Agency.
In May 2012, in a move to appease it’s American shareholders and push up profit margins, HP announced 27,000 global job cuts. The banner for this was the insultingly euphemistic ‘Make It Better,’ stamping a smile on the widespread axing of people’s livelihoods. 15,000 of these cuts were to take place in Europe, with a disproportionate amount expected in Britain since we have less employment protections than other countries on the continent.
PCS members in HP had to this point had no compulsory redundancies for 3 years. This was following a 2009 strike campaign which led to a Job Security Agreement, a pay rise and the extension of collective bargaining rights to ‘second tier’ workers who had been employed after privatisation had taken place.
However, in 2013 HP made a number of workers compulsorily redundant, alongside voluntary redundancies and other sackings. It also embarked on a project to relocate work in the UK to two ‘strategic hubs’ with higher paid, unionised staff to be replaced by lower paid, non-union recruits through a graduate scheme. This was a very clear attempt to break the union as it forced through cost-cutting and restructuring measures.
Unfortunately for the workers concerned, these attacks were compounded by the actions of PCS officials.
Workers voted to engage in industrial action in the form of both discontinuous strikes and an overtime and on call ban. However, in April the Group Executive Committee – on instructions from the Full Time Officer – voted to suspend this action. The reason being that time was needed to consider an offer from the employer before carrying on with industrial action.
This is a scenario that PCS members in all groups will be depressingly familiar with. While news reports often describe other unions engaging in ‘make or break’ talks right up to the onset of a strike, the strike going ahead if the offer isn’t good enough, all to often just the presence of talks or an offer – regardless of content – are enough for PCS to put everything on hold. In some cases even for months, demobilising members as well as frustrating effective action.
In this case, the fudge was compounded by the fact that the GEC refused to report details of an earlier offer they had rejected. The reason given was that doing so could make HP unhappy enough to not produce the second offer, ignoring the very fact that these offers come about due to industrial strength rather than the ability of the union to make the employer happy!
Suspension and dismissal
John Pearson resigned his position as Group President at this point, as this turn of events went against his election platform policy of full report back and accountability to the membership. He thus declared his intent to fight the GEC’s betrayal from the rank-and-file.
He was successful in this. It emerged that the offer included a measly (and subsequently-imposed) 1.6% pay deal, as well as a flat refusal to guarantee no compulsory redundancies or end job cuts, off-shoring and the use of contractors. The rank-and-file of the union, through workplace meetings, overwhelmingly rejected the offer from management forced the GEC to reinstate action.
HP responded to this by moving against John. He was suspended and invited to attend a disciplinary hearing on two charges. The first was of ‘breaching confidentiality,’ because he distributed to members of his branch a spreadsheet received by PCS from HP in accordance with statutory redundancy consultation requirements containing details of the job pools from which 584 job cuts were to take place. The second was a failure to follow HP policy regarding press interviews, because he had talked to the media in a PCS capacity about the ongoing industrial dispute!
These clearly trumped-up charges were to lead to John’s dismissal, though he continued to act as branch secretary in the North West while fighting for his job back. That is, until PCS finally hung him out to dry.
HP had, unsurprisingly, rejected a written demand from the Group Secretary for John’s reinstatement. Following this, the union’s legal department advised against pursuing an employment tribunal on the grounds that a claim of dismissal for the automatically unfair reason of trade union activity had “no reasonable prospect of success”. It took some time for John to establish the basis of this view, until finally, a letter over the signature of PCS General Secretary, Mark Serwotka in January 2014, implied that the dismissal was justified since the document detailing the 584 job cuts was provided on a “negotiations in confidence” basis.
This is also perhaps unsurprising. Employment law in the UK is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of employers, so it is credible that a tribunal could indeed find this way. But why were the union unwilling to test that theory, and fight the idea that an employer can simply sack a union official sharing information with union members related to an ongoing dispute?
The simplest view would be that it comes down to money. The new costs imposed on employment tribunal claims, combined with cost-cutting in PCS more generally since the union is several million pounds in the red, means that John is far from the only member to be denied the chance at an employment tribunal.
It could also be argued that PCS itself is wedded to the concept of negotiations in confidence. Such a state of affairs makes relations between union officials and bosses cosier, away from the pesky matter of accountability to members. The representative function of trade unions has a clear interest in selling itself to the bosses as a ‘responsible’ negotiating partner, able to police its membership and offer industrial peace. Where this collides with the collective interest of workers to fight rather than mediate what the bosses are imposing, then a militant rep whose loyalty is to the members rather than the bureaucracy becomes an annoyance rather than someone to defend.
However, his branch was exploring the possibility of an industrial remedy, combining the demand for his reinstatement with pay and job cuts. Bizarrely, rather than provide support to this the GEC insisted that industrial action for his reinstatement had to occur as a single issue. Therefore, even as a consultative ballot went on, the Full Time Officer informed John that the union was no longer seeking redress for his case and therefore he was no longer eligible to be a union member.
Mark Serwotka has backed up this decision, calling the situation ‘regrettable’ but offering nothing further. Meanwhile, even though action short of strike continues demoralisation has set in among the workers, compounded by the official attitude of the union. No further strikes have been called and officials are committed to a ‘dialogue’ with HP as jobs are slashed.
It is clear that John Pearson was singled out and victimised by Hewlett Packard for his role as a militant trade union rep. It is equally clear that PCS’s resistance to this and other union busting efforts was piecemeal at best and that they have been willing to hang him out to dry for supporting a rank-and-file led approach and going against the official line.
While not as overt as the witch hunt seen against Socialist Party members in Unison, it remains an example of how unions will discard militants in their ranks whose behaviour becomes inconvenient.