Socialist Worker

'We can’t miss this moment', says PCS leader Mark Serwotka

PCS union leader Mark Serwotka told Charlie Kimber that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is a historic opportunity to build resistance—and stronger trade unions

Issue No. 2492

Mark Serwotka addressing striking PCS members on the picket line at the National Gallery last year

Mark Serwotka addressing striking PCS members on the picket line at the National Gallery last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Mark Serwotka has been general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) since 2000. PCS is the main union representing civil service workers, with over 200,000 members.

You’ve often been very critical of the Labour Party’s performance. But clearly Jeremy Corbyn’s election makes a big difference. How do you analyse that?

Potentially this is a historic moment. Potentially. We’ve had 15 years of unrelenting hostility and attacks on our members, from New Labour and Tory governments.

We had Labour in government attacking us and Labour in opposition under Ed Miliband, who clearly found trade unions embarrassing.

So having a leader of the opposition who is pro-union, anti-war and anti-austerity, and wants a fundamental shift in society, is exciting.

As general secretary I think that, along with Bob Crow, I’ve been the most high profile critic of Labour in the trade union movement. I stand by all the criticisms I made.

But now there’s an opportunity for trade unionists to operate in an environment where the leader of the opposition will use the position to challenge the rich.

The Labour hierarchy prevented you registering as a supporter. Even if they want to, some socialists won’t be allowed to join Labour. Is that a problem?

The refusal to allow me to register to vote was a very clear foretaste of what has since come to pass.

People in the Labour Party bureaucracy and machinery refused to accept the momentum behind Corbyn’s election campaign and the enthusiasm he was whipping up. And since his election, we’ve seen the refusal to accept the outcome.

When I was blocked from being a supporter I was mildly amused to get a letter that told me I didn’t share the aims and values of the Labour Party. It said I could only challenge that if I join the Labour Party.

There are people in the parliamentary Labour Party who consistently and constantly brief against Corbyn and John McDonnell and who want them to fail. That’s why I think it’s important that trade unionists and socialists don’t let this moment pass us by.

Left wing party Syriza in Greece faced unrelenting opposition from banks, bosses, EU institutions—and it cracked. It clearly won’t be enough to get Corbyn in office.

Absolutely not. And if we want to bring it closer to home we can look at A Very British Coup, which was obviously a fictional account.

But it was based on a left wing working class Labour leader being crushed by the forces around him—including enemies in the trade union movement and the Labour Party.

It could be a very profound book. If we got the Labour Party elected now, trying to implement Corbyn’s programme, it would meet opposition from all over the place.

The programme doesn’t even have support among Labour MPs.

And unless that government had mass support, the pressures on it would probably be too difficult to resist.

The election in all likelihood will be in 2020. What happens between now and then, particularly in resisting austerity, has the potential to affect this balance of forces.

For example, public sector unions could coordinate strikes over pay restraints and cuts to redundancy terms. The potential that has to shift a mood, build resistance and involve millions is huge.

Out of that a movement would be built that would probably see tens if not hundreds of thousands more people join the Labour Party.

You’ve mentioned coordinated strikes, and we saw that in 2011 over pensions. But we seem further away from such action now.

That’s absolutely true, but there are strong material reasons to change it.

The government has launched its consultation on cutting redundancy terms for all public sector employees.

It is almost a replay of the pension dispute. They want sector by sector negotiations.

Workers are very worried about their redundancy terms when there are so many job losses. This is a live issue where unions could and should make common cause.

In the civil service we had loads of strikes on this issue a few years back and won in the High Court.

David Cameron at that time said the changes put these schemes on a long term sustainable footing.

Changes now put to us mean cuts of up to at least 25 percent in redundancy terms.

My line is that there shouldn’t be a single reduction in anyone’s redundancy terms.

We’ve got to get on with it. We need coordination.

How should unions respond to the Trade Union Bill and the new ballot thresholds?

If unions believe they can never get half of their members to vote in a strike ballot, that’s pretty pessimistic.

The best we’ve ever done is 42 percent in a national ballot. But in our last 11 ballots we’ve smashed the thresholds.

In a recent DVSA ballot we had 92 percent support strikes on a 65 percent turnout. So it can be done.

We’re reviewing our industrial action strategy. Our review is based on the premise that the core unit of organisation is in the workplace.

If the workplace is well organised with a high density and lots of reps, there will be more leverage locally and nationally.

We have carried out a very radical restructuring. Over half the union’s paid staff are now in frontline, predominantly organising roles.

Their job is to identify and work with shop stewards and activists to build the union.

At a recent TUC executive meeting, on behalf of PCS, I proposed the TUC should call a summit of all unions to share best practice.

It should also say what we will do when the first dispute comes that falls foul of these laws.

In “essential services” you need at least a 50 percent turnout and a yes from 40 percent of all those entitled to vote.

If 51 percent vote and 78 percent of those vote for strikes, it’s inconceivable to say we’ve missed it and we can’t do anything. We need to start talking about what we’re going to do in those circumstances.

The first dispute where agency workers are bussed in has to see a mass mobilisation against it.

If the TUC does not call a summit, perhaps the unions in the Trade Union Coordinating Group could.

When history’s written, the unions’ resistance to austerity will be seen as a failure because it’s been woefully inadequate.

I really hope we don’t have to say the same about the Trade Union Bill, but the clock’s ticking.

How can we get young people involved in unions?

The average age of our members is in the high 40s. For us there is a specific reason—there’s been no recruitment to jobs. You don’t have that stream of young people coming through.

Unions are often seen as too bureaucratic, hard to get involved in and don’t always have a presence on the ground.

It’s also about joining up economic struggles with political ones. The work we do over tax justice, climate change and anti-racism gets interest from lots of young people.

Unions need to be about much more than just what happens in a workplace. They should seek to put themselves at the heart of wider movements.

It’s also about a vision of what unions are for.

If you think you’re just a little lobby group, with links to politicians that’s one thing. If you think you’re trying to lead a movement, that’s another.

We’re supporting the anti-racist demo, the People’s Assembly demo and the Trident demo. There will be thousands of people there who are not members of unions and we can reach out to them.

Are you as hopeful now as when you first became general secretary?

I’m absolutely as hopeful and convinced about the need to challenge things and that the trade union movement is pivotal to those challenges.

We have a power that, if ever utilised, is a force for real change.

I also never cease to be amazed at the inadequacy with which these challenges are met. Defeatism infects too many parts of the trade union movement.

I’ve never found any trade unionist anywhere in the country who doesn’t believe we should call everyone out together.

There’s a disconnect between what’s obvious to people on the shop floor and what happens.

But things are not static. The changed political situation gives us opportunities that we didn’t have ten years ago and we’ve got to seize them.

Socialist Worker will interview a number of union leaders and other figures on the left over the coming weeks to discuss how to build a bigger fightback to the Tories. Read our interview with CWU union leader Dave Ward at bit.ly/23HpKlI

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