pcs at the crossroads?

by Steve Ryan

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS ) is currently balloting in a general secretary election. The union is one of the biggest in the TUC and seen as a left led bastion of militancy.

At first sight the elections seem unremarkable: the left poster boy Mark Serwotka is standing as the incumbent against only one opponent, Rob Bryson, who is standing in a last ditch effort by the  rump of the old Reamsbottom-led right wing ‘Moderate’ group.

Serwotka has 199 branch nominations – in high regard still – whereas Bryson has 19… as well as a  red-baiting standing dating back to the late 80s!

However the election will prove pivotal for PCS. Much effort is being put in to ensure a big victory for Serwotka.

Firstly because of course no election is certain and a return to the old right wing would be a major set-back. However it could also be that there is some private fear around turnout. Last year’s NEC elections attracted a very poor 9% turn out. Since then the failings of policy in PCS outlined in previous editions of The Commune have led to further disaffection in the ranks. The mishandling of pay last year was a big error. Calling off the November strike at short notice and not returning to action when it was clear that no progress had been made in securing even modest pay awards in line with inflation has shaken members’ confidence. Also promises of action on jobs now after years of inaction strike a hollow note and will need to be backed up with an innovative and far reaching programme of industrial action that members feel engaged with and confident of some success.

The current campaign on the civil service compensation scheme appears to be reverting to type with a massive consultation exercise which was extremely well attended and was firm on backing industrial action in danger of being squandered as the union gets drawn into protracted talks with only one members briefing issued which plays down industrial action in favour of talks and lawyers.

If and when Serwotka wins it will be claimed that this was massive victory for the Left and its policies. Serwotka is a good GS – and clearly preferable to Bryson! However the danger is that a big victory will descend into further complacency and conviction that there is no alternative to the present lack of will to fight by the NEC.

This is compounded by the lack of a real left alternative within PCS. The Independent Left, a left split from the Left Unity group, appears to have collapsed, and certainly nothing has been heard from them much since the elections. Within LU itself any real debate is too often ruthlessly suppressed though there are signs that a number of comrades have realised the error of this and that LU should be a more open and plural grouping.

In the meantime the trajectory of the Left PCS union seems to be to the right in action if not in theory. Maybe an election win will give Serwotka nce to follow a more Leftist agenda. Either way the lessons are that unions in themselves, even supposedly Left wing , are inherently bound to reformist actions. That is not to say that communists should not work within them, though this should be around democracy and industrial action being controlled by strike committees rather than dictated from above. Within the union movement it is clear that a new rank and file movement is needed. The National Shop Stewards’ Network is a step towards this but needs involvement from many more shop stewards and activists.

Also no real gains can be made without the building of at real workers’ communist movement that is open, pluralistic and truly based on the desire for workers’ self management and communism from below. The task is a slow and arduous one but given the above there is clearly a vacuum developing throughout the Labour movement including the Left led unions. Our task is to occupy that vacuum!