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More than ever, we need accountable union leaders
Dave Semple, PCS National Executive Committee (personal capacity)
On 26 March, the leadership of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents civil servants and private sector workers on government contracts, voted to suspend the union's national elections.
During February and March, thousands of members met to consider nominations to the leadership of the union; balloting was due to begin in April.
Given that the union's National Executive Committee (NEC) and departmental executives are elected annually, there is concern that this decision would in effect be a cancellation.
This decision comes at a crucial time. PCS's leadership is in daily discussions with the Cabinet Office.
This is while the union's groups are dealing with the different civil service departments and employers, including contractors like Interserve, ISS and Aramark, as public services have been thrown into chaos by the Covid-19 crisis.
With such complex negotiations going on, it is more important than ever that the leadership of the union be accountable to members through elections.
Immediately prior to the NEC debate on suspending the elections, members of the PCS Broad Left Network (BLN), in which the Socialist Party participates, raised concerns that the senior officers of the NEC were far too weak in these negotiations with the Cabinet Office.
Some of the demands posed by negotiators included a "moratorium" on office closures, an "above inflation pay rise" rather than the 10% demand agreed by PCS annual delegate conference, a delay to changes to civil service redundancy rights for a year, and a 2% reduction in pension contributions.
Members would welcome all of this as a step towards more in the future, but BLN supporters queried why the union's negotiators should take this step.
Talks with the Cabinet Office had already been agreed. It's for the employer to make counter-proposals to the union, not for the union to reduce its own proposals before the negotiations had even taken place.
The coronavirus crisis is not a reason to reduce the union's demands, however temporarily, in the hope of scraps from the table of the government and the capitalist class.
Workers are suddenly looking to the trade union movement for leadership in a way that hasn't happened since the mass strikes of 2011.
If anything, the union should be demanding deep and long-lasting change, including the kind of substantial investment in IT and protective equipment that would allow tens of thousands more members to work from home, and the others to work safely in their offices, where they are needed to support vulnerable people, or to maintain the infrastructure that delivers benefits and other services.
BLN supporters specifically raised the vagueness of an "above inflation pay rise" demand, the need to rule out private profiteering from the crisis by taking outsourced work back into the civil service immediately, the need for the cancellation of all office closures, for the 2% overpayment of pensions to be returned, and for an immediate end to government attempts to attack the Civil Service Compensation Scheme.
BLN supporters also criticised the lack of any reference to the thousands of new jobs that will need to be created across the civil service and related areas to cope with the crisis.
Correspondence with employer
After the NEC meeting on 26 March, the union's senior officers, including president Fran Heathcote and general secretary Mark Serwotka, published correspondence that had been sent before the NEC even met and which increases our concerns.
In a letter dated 25 March to Mervyn Thomas, an executive director in the civil service and key representative of the bosses, the PCS representatives stated that any agreement should work on the principle that the members of the union face no detriment as a result of the crisis.
All members will agree that they should suffer no detriment due to the coronavirus crisis, but this does not come close to enough.
The whole reason the crisis in public services is reaching fever pitch is because of the cuts implemented by successive governments, New Labour, Con-Dem and Tory. The key task of the union is to demand that these be reversed immediately.
As a concrete example, Serwotka's letter, written to Thomas days before union negotiators met representatives of the Cabinet Office in person on Friday 27 March, utterly fails to take up the question of additional staffing required by the civil service during the crisis.
The very most it raises on this question is that no fixed term member of staff be let go, and that "in areas where there is a requirement for additional resources to cope with the coronavirus crisis" fixed term staff should be made permanent.
In fact, all fixed term staff should be made permanent and thousands of extra permanent jobs are urgently needed. In many cases, departments have thousands of potential recruits already on waiting lists to immediately draw on.
The Department for Work and Pensions has lost 43% of staff to self-isolation of one kind or another, and the Cabinet Office estimates 71% of the civil service are at home currently, if we include those who have laptops and can work.
This has happened in a civil service which has lost more than 100,000 staff over the last ten years. The scale of the crisis is clear.
Yet the union's leadership is failing to seriously raise the democratically-agreed demands of the union with the employer.
The suspension of national elections needs to be put into this context. General secretary Mark Serwotka repeatedly told the NEC that a legal ballot was deliverable but that he did not want the elections to go ahead.
Socialist Party members of the union's NEC put forward extremely measured alternatives, and agreed that any deterioration in the situation could well result in a need to suspend elections, but that with Serwotka's repeated assurance that a legal ballot was deliverable, this should proceed, with additional time and support to drive up turnout from the usual meagre 10%.
But these proposals were denounced in thunderous terms by Serwotka and his supporters in 'Left Unity'.
Socialist Party members in PCS met online on 28 March to discuss the situation, more convinced that the current leadership of the union must be ousted by the union's members, who deserve better.
Yet the urgent task is the defence of members against haphazard Tory responses to the coronavirus which puts PCS members at risk, and reversing the cuts which have reduced the civil service to such a parlous state.
We call on all PCS reps and members who support these aims to join and support the Broad Left Network, and to get active, to put the union on the war footing it needs.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 31 March 2020 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.