Socialist Worker

Undermining democracy won't help union beat the Tories' attacks

by Paul Williams, PCS NEC (PC) and Marianne Owens, PCS NEC (PC)
Issue No. 2434

The PCS union faces concerted attempts by the Tories to destroy it. 

In the civil service, where the union represents members, the government is attacking workers' pensions, pay, terms and conditions and is privatising jobs.

At the same time they have cut the union’s facility time and have forced nearly all of the civil service into withdrawing the “check-off” system. This is where, when the worker agrees, union subscriptions are taken straight out of wages.

This means that PCS now has to re-sign all of its members to the union on a direct debit. 

It is a political attack to destroy the union’s income and prevent PCS campaigning against the Tories’ attacks on workers. 

The union’s executive members need to make difficult choices in order for the union to survive—but not simply accept any proposal. 

On Thursday of last week the executive were presented with recommendations to cut costs. These included selling PCS headquarters and also agreeing to a three-year budget plan. 

The plan looks at cutting expenditure on all non-running costs, but crucially also at suspending elections to the national and group executives. 

The recommendation was to put these decisions to PCS annual conference in May—after they have been implemented. 

Socialist Workers Party members on the executive agreed that there should be a three-year budget which deals with recouping a deficit if income drops. But we could not vote to accept a budget that includes suspension of elections. 

We argued that there were other ways to get finances back on track. Such as looking at where we have to, and don’t have to, use the Electoral Reform Society for elections. 

We have to cut costs, but this is a three-year budget. That should mean asking members and reps for their views how money could be saved. 

But above all else we believe that in a democratic union it must be the right of members to decide when the national executive gets elected. 

It cannot be for the executive to decide. We believe that this decision should have been taken by conference. At that point we will also know the financial situation we face. 

So we voted for the union’s headquarters to be sold and for the financial decisions to be put to conference. 

We did not vote for a budget that included proposals to suspend elections or for the suspension of elections themselves. 

We were joined by one other executive member, who voted against suspending elections who also felt that conference should decide. 

Suspending elections may also lead to a legal challenge under the union’s rules. This would divert resources we cannot spare and would add further costs. 

It would also lead to accusations by the Tories and the right wing press of PCS being undemocratic. 

Re-signing members to our union on direct debit goes hand in hand with democracy. We believe they will be more encouraged to sign up if they believe that they have a fighting, democratic union. 

There are attempts to set up a scab union—the RCTU in the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)—which is trying to join forces with ISU, a scab union in the Home Office. These scab unions are being encouraged by senior management and indirectly by government. 

Cancelling union elections in our view will hamper the sign-up campaign in areas such as HMRC. Opponents will argue there is a lack of democracy within PCS.

Members want a union whose leadership continues to be regularly re-elected. We are proud of PCS and its members and much of what the leadership has done. 

Only by turning outwards, engaging in resistance with other unions and campaigns can we succeed in beating the Tories’ attacks on workers.

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