Socialist Worker

A coup against union democracy in the PCS

40,000 PCS union members elected socialist Mark Serwotka as general secretary... 1,000 conference delegates confirmed the decision... Now a handful of right wingers have sacked him

Issue No. 1802

THE RIGHT in the PCS civil servants' union have launched one of the most disgusting assaults on union democracy for years. They have carried out a coup and sacked the elected general secretary of the union. In December 2000 socialist candidate Mark Serwotka received 40,740 votes to win the election for PCS general secretary. He beat Blairite candidate Hugh Lanning by 7,000 votes.

The previous general secretary, right winger Barry Reamsbottom, did not think he could get 50 nominations from the 1,200 branches to get on the ballot paper. Before the close of nominations he made a legal agreement to leave on 31 May this year.

Since Mark Serwotka was elected, Reamsbottom has hung on grimly for as long as possible. But he was due to leave office at the end of this week, a timetable confirmed overwhelmingly by delegates to the recent PCS national conference. Instead of accepting the decisions clearly made by the members in a ballot and the elected delegates at conference, Reamsbottom organised a national executive meeting at short notice.

At the meeting his 'Moderate' faction manoeuvred to push Mark aside and keep Reamsbottom on as general secretary for another two years. Reamsbottom said that Mark Serwotka's election was 'unlawful'.

The so called Moderates who claim to be 'defending' the union from the 'undemocratic left' have shown their contempt for the feelings of the members.

'It's an attempted coup to overturn a whole sequence of membership decisions which haven't gone its way,' says Steve Cawkwell, one of the newly elected vice-presidents of the union.

Janice Godrich, PCS president, told Socialist Worker, 'This is a travesty of justice and democracy. The meeting was completely unconstitutional. We don't recognise its authority. Members overwhelmingly backed Mark in his election.' The right wing's assault on democracy shows how terrified they are of a new spirit among trade unionists.

Mark Serwotka's election sent a shock through the union movement. It was a revolt by ordinary members sick of the right wing leadership's failure to challenge management and the government. His victory increased the confidence of the rank and file to take action. Reamsbottom's actions now may be the last desperate throw of a bitter right wing bureaucrat.

But there is a wider context. The Blairites and right wing leadership of the trade union movement are fearful of losing control of the unions. They know there is deep anger against many government policies and desperately want to stop it turning into confrontation with Labour.

The right in the unions and the Labour government were jubilant at Mark's sacking. 'Tony Blair was said to be delighted when the news reached Downing Street,' said the Sun.

Socialist Worker revealed in January this year that a senior TUC official, Mike Power, had been involved in trying to stop left wingers being elected in the RMT rail union and CWU communication workers' union.

Mike Power met Barry Reamsbottom before the general secretary election. Even before the latest outrage Reamsbottom's cronies have worked to undermine Mark Serwotka.

They gagged him from speaking out against the war in Afghanistan and wanted to keep Reamsbottom on as the union's delegate to the TUC general council. Mark Serwotka's case is important for every trade unionist.

It has implications, for example, for the general secretary election in the AEEU section of Amicus. If left winger Derek Simpson is elected, what are Ken Jackson and Tony Blair going to do?

Anger spreads widely

THE RIGHT'S assault on democracy can and should be defeated. It has caused fury across Britain. Branch committees, many elected officials and ordinary members have exploded in anger. Close to 150 branches have sent messages protesting at what has happened. Many people who did not vote for Mark Serwotka are outraged by what has happened.

When left winger John Macreadie was elected general secretary in 1986 in the then CPSA civil servants' union the right wing went to the courts to stop him taking up the position.

They were successful. But it is an entirely different political situation now. At that time, soon after the defeat of the 1984-5 miners' strike, the right was on the ascendancy in the unions. Now the mood is far more to the left. A broad united campaign has already been set up to defend Mark Serwotka and make sure Barry Reamsbottom goes.

'The news became known on Thursday at lunchtime,' says PCS vice-president Steve Cawkwell. 'By the end of the day 60 faxes condemning what had happened had arrived at union headquarters. It was the same the next day. Lots of people who wouldn't normally touch anything to do with the left are pledging to campaign to defend the union's democratic structures.'

'We've got to make Reamsbottom feel like he's a trespasser, not Mark,' says Val Pearman, a British Library worker and a new national executive member. We have to put these people on the spot-why have they overturned a valid election result?'

'I urge all the activists, members and branches to condemn the actions of Barry Reamsbottom and support the campaign to make sure that Mark Serwotka takes up office,' says Janice Godrich. 'We have to restore democracy to the PCS.'

Mark Serwotka calls for support and action

'THIS IS the most outrageous affront to democracy in our union. It's an attempted coup by a tiny bunch who have no support in the union. They're trying to rip up my contract, and ignore the members' ballot and Reamsbottom's legal contract to leave.

They've also ignored the overwhelming decision of the union's conference. But I'm still at my desk doing what I was elected to do-fight against privatisation and for decent pay.

I've been virtually doing the job of general secretary for the last year and a half, including leading disputes, which Reamsbottom's had nothing to do with. I've had 200 messages of support since last Thursday from the labour and trade union movement.

I'm confident that the support I've had and the outrageous nature of what they're doing means they will not get away with it. I hope members will keep flooding messages of support to me. I hope they sign petitions and at the right time call a special delegate conference. Some people are so angry and disgusted that they say they're going to resign from the union.

Leaving the union would only benefit the employer. I want a strong union. Reamsbottom doesn't care about that, but I do. I have brought a high court action on behalf of the members against Reamsbottom. We are the union, not him.'

You can help beat the right

  • Call a union branch meeting now.
  • Get your union branch to discuss the issue and condemn the attacks on union democracy.
  • Get your PCS branch to pass a resolution calling for a special union conference to discuss Mark's sacking.
  • Get the petition supporting Mark signed by every PCS union member in your office. Return it to PCS President, Janice Godrich, 160 Falcon Road, London SW11 2LN.
  • Fax a message of condemnation of the right wing's actions to PCS headquarters on 020 7924 1847.
  • Order stickers and posters to defend Mark.
  • For more information, model motions and petitions go to or

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Article information

Sat 1 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1802
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