Delegates to the PCS union’s national conference have passed a motion committing the union to continuing a campaign for national strikes over pay.
But a narrow vote in favour reflected a debate about tactics following the result of a recent ballot.
The members of the civil service workers’ union passed a motion that included an instruction to “hold a further national, aggregated, statutory ballot for industrial action on pay at the earliest possible time”.
It was debated alongside two other motions that raised the prospect of a “disaggregated” ballot. This would see each section of the union voting separately.
PCS members voted by 79 percent for strikes in a national ballot held earlier this year. But the turnout fell just short of the 50 percent threshold demanded by Tory anti-union laws. It was an improvement on a national ballot last year, which had a turnout of 42 percent.
One of the two unsuccessful motions said the union should consider disaggregated ballots, as well as tying other issues into the dispute.
The other said anti-Tory union laws mean that a strategy of attempting national ballots “does not allow members to defend themselves”. It called on the union to organise a disaggregated ballot of all branches and areas that achieved 50 percent in the recent ballot.
Introducing the successful motion, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said calling a national aggregated ballot had been “the right approach to take.”
He added, “The next ballot we should have should also be a national aggregate ballot.
“If you need national terms and conditions, and you need nationally to beat the Treasury’s pay cap, it is only national civil service action that will do it.
“Any less will allow the employer to divide and rule, try to play one off against another and frankly will not shift the Treasury from its rigid 1 percent policy.”
The debate now has to be about how to increase the turnout in the next ballot—by building up rank and file workplace organisation
But many supporters of the other two motions said the union had to try a different strategy.
Fidel McClean from BEIS Scotland and North of England said, “Not reaching the threshold twice in a row is a massive blow to our members and it boosts the confidence of the employers to impose another year of cuts.”
As well as a disaggregated ballot, he suggested other options such as overtime bans by civilian workers in the Met police, and a work to rule by borders workers.
Others said a national ballot meant sections of the union that had breached the threshold were effectively blocked from striking without disaggregated ballots.
But supporters of a national ballot argued that sectional action with group-specific demands attached could end up dividing the campaign. Each section would end up in negotiations with their own employer—under pressure to accept different offers, leaving others isolated.
Lynn Tyler from Wirral said, “We are stronger and have more power if we do not allow ourselves to be divided.
“We will not achieve our goals on pay, a proper rise for our members, or a return to national pay bargaining if we add shopping list to every individual demand that allows employers to deal with individual groups.”
Others pointed out that action after a disaggregated ballot wouldn’t have included some of the largest sections of the union, which didn’t breach the threshold. They argued that only national strikes could force the Treasury into funding a pay rise in all departments.
Dave Owens from DWP North Merseyside said the argument shouldn’t just be about whether it’s possible to take action, “But what do you need to do to win.”
“What we need is national strike action,” he said.
And Martin Kavanagh from the national executive committee said the fight had to be about “attacking the heart of the problem which is the government and the treasury”.
The debate now has to be about how to increase the turnout in the next ballot—by building up rank and file workplace organisation, drawing in new workplace activists.
Breakdowns of the ballot results showed that 60 percent of people who had voted had had personal contact with PCS reps—and that contact with reps produced a higher turnout.
Speaking in the debate Sarah Ensor from IOPC described how campaigning meant, “We drew in really wide layers of new people into activity. We reached way beyond our usual activists and active workplaces. We now have a functioning town committee. This is a real step forward.
“We need to build on what we’ve achieved so far and come up with an audacious strategy that builds on this serious step forward. There’s no reason this union cannot achieve another 3,000 votes.”
Debates over the fight against oppression
Delegates also passed motions on fighting racism and the far right, supporting trans rights, and on the environment.
One motion backed the PCS’s support for Stand Up To Racism, Hope Not Hate, Barac UK, Bame lawyers for justice and Show Racism the Red Card. It also called on the PCS to mobilise members for anti-racist and anti-fascist demonstrations.
Another successful motion called on the TUC to call a “jobs and homes not racism” national demonstration.
Some speakers called for trade unions to organise a stewards group to protect anti-fascist demonstrations.
Candy Udwin from the national executive committee (NEC) said, “I’ve been a steward on many demonstrations against the far right over the years. It’s important that we have stewards---it’s important that we have more trade union stewards.
“What can guarantee our safety and encourage more people to come on these demonstrations is when we have more of us than there are of them. It’s numbers that we need—it’s more trade union members that we need in these demonstrations, not just stewards.”
The conference also passed a motion calling for improving awareness of trans rights in the union, and welcoming potential improvements to the gender recognition act.
Another motion censured the NEC after a letter signed by general secretary Mark Serwotka last year. Delegates criticised the letter, published in the Morning Star newspaper, for appearing to blame only trans people for intimidation and violence in recent debates.
They also said the NEC had been too slow to respond by clarifying their support for trans rights.
And the delegates unanimously passed a motion that included a call for support for school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion XR. It included encouraging members and branches to support and take banners to protests, and a donation of £200 to XR.
Paul Williams from the NEC said, “The climate change movement is opening up debates about what kind of society we really need. It’s a political movement.”
He added, “As a left-led, member-led union we cannot be on the sidelines. We should be at the heart of it. This is a class issue and that means our support is needed.”