THE CONFERENCE of the PCS civil servants' union last week saw complete opposition to the New Labour government's plans for pay, job cuts and pensions. Over the last year the union has grown to 310,000 members from 292,000 last July. That's because we have fought over issues such as pay. The left overwhelmingly won recent elections to the national executive.
The union faces a number of serious challenges in the coming months. Underpinning many of the motions at conference was the need for strengthening rank and file organisation in the union. There was a mood of determination to make PCS a strong, campaigning union. There was huge support for standing up to the government.
One of the major debates was over pay, where the union has been involved in a serious confrontation with management. It is in the departments involved in the fight where the union has been growing. The mood was there to keep fighting. People were saying the campaign has been brilliant, but we have got to find a way of coordinating better.
Conference unanimously called for stepping up the 2004 pay campaign. A motion was carried saying that if the Treasury doesn't lift its cap on pay remits-the reason why the union is having to take industrial action-the union will have a civil service wide ballot on strike action.
This is subject to legal advice. The union is currently split up into 229 bargaining units. It has been campaigning for a return to national pay bargaining. Delegates voted unanimously to reject the Gershon report and Gordon Brown's plans to sack tens of thousands of civil servants. A motion was passed calling for a national demonstration over this issue.
General secretary Mark Serwotka told the conference, 'As more details emerge and the government brings forward proposals we stand ready and willing to listen, to talk and negotiate.
'But if those negotiations result in the government saying there will be 20,000 job losses in this or that department regardless, we will be vigorous in our campaigning to protect those services and jobs. Campaigning, using everything in our armoury including the very last resort of industrial action.'
The government also wants to move 20,000 jobs out of London. This shows its hypocrisy when ministers talk about equality, because it will hit ethnic minority workers, who make up much of the London workforce. The conference voted for complete opposition to the Lyons report, which first proposed these plans. This will be supported with a campaign for industrial action.
The union was committed to fighting privatisation in the Ministry of Defence, where loads of areas are threatened. In the debate on pensions members were encouraged to ensure the maximum turnout on the TUC pensions demonstration this Saturday.
The union plans to step up its campaign against the increase in the public sector pension age. It is determined to keep the right for civil servants to retire at 60.
One delegate slammed the government for doing nothing to address poverty for women in old age. The union is setting up a national levy and a hardship fund to help members taking part in industrial action or those suspended. The union is also set to ballot over establishing a political fund. A motion calling for an end to the military occupation of Iraq was passed overwhelmingly. The union will campaign for this alongside the Stop the War Coalition.
There was an excellent debate on defending asylum seekers, which was massively supported. The left completely swept the board in all the elections at the conference-for the TUC conference, Women's TUC, the Youth TUC, the Scottish TUC and other bodies.
The possibility for a new left in the union was seen by the magnificent turnout at the Respect fringe meeting. Exactly 117 people came to hear PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, firefighter Linda Smith and journalist Paul Foot set out the case for a left alternative to New Labour.
It was a lively and very positive meeting. I think it was the biggest fringe meeting at the conference. Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney and Weyman Bennett from Unite Against Fascism addressed the conference about the threat of the Nazi BNP. They both received standing ovations.
Hundreds of delegates went out into Brighton on Wednesday evening and leafleted the station, the beach, pubs and residential areas to make sure people used their vote against the BNP on 10 June. The national leadership of the union now has to carry through the motions passed at conference as a matter of urgency.
Escalation needed, sooner or later
PCS UNION members in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) also met last week in their group conference. The key debate was around the future of the long-running dispute over low pay and management's imposition of a discriminatory pay assessment scheme. This has seen members strike for two days in both February and April, and take part in a number of unofficial wildcat strikes.
There is a lot of discontent with the current strategy for the dispute. One motion calling for an emphasis on selective action was almost carried. I don't agree with that strategy. It is looking for an easy option. It means a small minority of members fighting for everyone else. It induces passivity among the rest of the members.
It also means the employer can wrest control of the dispute from the union by easily switching work around. But the level of support for the motion shows the unhappiness among members. The strategy that was put forward calling for escalation of the dispute, with three days of action at the beginning of July and at least two days of action each month, won little support from delegates.
This is a sign of the conservatism at every level of the union. I believe that the delegates and the union leadership are some way behind the members.
The leadership's plan, which was narrowly carried at the conference, to leave industrial action to late July without any escalation, is not a strategy to win. But activists have to go out and build for this action. This dispute is now going to be a long haul. There are no indications that the resolve of members is weakening.
But the action that is being called needs to be stepped up, if not now, later.
PHIL PARDOE, DWP group executive (personal capacity)