Socialist Worker

Mark Serwotka interview: ‘Vote for a strong and vibrant union’

The 310,000 members of the PCS civil service workers’ union will begin voting this week in the election for general secretary of the union. The two candidates are left wing incumbent Mark Serwotka and Rob Bryson, a member of the right wing 4themembers

Issue No. 2178

Mark Serwotka at Marxism 2009  (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Mark Serwotka at Marxism 2009  (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

What do you think the key issues are for PCS members in this election?

The election takes place against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. All the political parties say that they are going to slash public spending.

The issues that will come to the fore are defence of pensions and jobs, and opposition to compulsory redundancies and pay freezes. The question will be how the union responds.

I will say that we have to be prepared to fight and take industrial action. We have shown in the past that when we fight, we can win.

Our members face stark choices – ones that people across the whole of the movement have.

My opponent in the election has said that strikes can’t win, and that partnership with the government is the way forward.

He will say we have to make tough choices, which I believe is shorthand for doing things like accepting pay freezes to “save jobs”.

I hope people will conclude that we have to fight. If we stand up for ourselves, particularly if we do it with other unions, I believe we can see off the coming onslaught.

If we keep our heads down it will probably be the bleakest period for public sector workers for many years.

You were elected as general secretary in 2000. How do you think the union has changed since then? Is there anything you would have done differently?

The union is unrecognisable from the one I came to in 2000. Membership is up and we have more activists than before.

We’ve democratised the union, with annual elections and conferences, and election of full-time officials.

We see our activists as the solution to our problems, while other unions often see them as the problem.

If you recognise that activists are the key to mobilising in the workplace and standing up to management then that helps the union become a strong force.

The PCS is supporting many campaigns that it wouldn’t have touched before.

I’m pleased that the union campaigns against the British National Party and is part of the Stop the War Coalition.

If I look back at anything I would do differently, I would say the 2008 pay campaign.

In 2005 the PCS led a coalition of unions in defence of public sector pensions. The government was forced to make concessions.

The 2008 pay campaign was different. The TUC unanimously agreed joint public sector action on pay. Come the end of the year we were the only union prepared to do anything. People lost on pay in 2008.

You have spoken about the need for solidarity across the unions. Do you think the trade union movement and the TUC could have done more to support the postal workers in their recent battle?

The postal workers’ dispute is a pivotal one and crucial for everyone. The PCS has offered all the support that we could.

I’m particularly pleased that, as a result of our intervention, we forced the removal of adverts for casual staff from job centres.

Rank and file post workers are angry. There is no doubt that they have the potential to win, and if they win it is important for workers everywhere.

Do you think there will be any significant difference in the policies followed by whichever party wins the next general election?

All three of the major parties have signed up to make spending cuts.

But they are not all the same. I have no doubt that the Tories will be worse – with deeper and faster cuts.

But it’s a degree of scale. Whoever wins the election we’re going to have the battle of our lives.

I’m pleased that we have moved from the old view that we’re an apolitical civil service union to one that recognises that we have to be political.

Our Make Your Vote Count campaign was incredibly innovative. It broke the idea that you have to be tribally loyal to Labour. It put all election candidates on the spot.

But good as this is, when all the candidates give you a similar answer it doesn’t help you decide how to vote.

So we’re now consulting members on whether the PCS should stand in elections in certain circumstances. That’s a really exciting development.

We need to work with other unions to shift the political agenda so there is a voice for trade unionists and working people.

What are you asking people to do in your union election campaign?

We’re not just saying vote for me, we’re saying get involved in the union.

I did an interview with Socialist Worker in 2000 where I said that my election is part of a process.

I wanted people to vote for me, but I wanted them to do that so that they could build a strong, fighting union.

I must be one of the first incumbent candidates to accept a hustings debate when the challenger has refused!

My candidacy is based on building a vibrant union, where activists and members are the key.

His approach is to tell the members there’s nothing much we can do about anything.

I hope members will conclude that they want a union that will fight and unite with other unions to defend working people.

For more information go to » To get involved in the campaign email [email protected]

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Tue 17 Nov 2009, 17:15 GMT
Issue No. 2178
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