By Nick Clark in Brighton
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PCS union conference opposes ‘competing powers’ intervening in Ukraine

The leadership's motion on Ukraine to the PCS union conference was a shift in its position
Issue 2806
A crowd shot of PCS union conference

Delegates debate at the PCS union conference

Civil service workers at the PCS union conference voted on Tuesday to oppose “the involvement of competing powers in Ukraine.” The motion—proposed by the union’s leadership—also condemned Britain and the US’s war aims as “escalating interventions by the UK and US governments.” 

Yet delegates at the conference also rejected a motion—backed by Socialist Worker supporters—that went further and explicitly criticised the West’s military alliance Nato.  

It branded the war “a proxy conflict between Nato and Russia,” adding, “Nato is not a ‘defensive’ alliance, as it claims, but a vehicle for securing US and Western interests.” Its resolutions included calling for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine, to campaign against Nato expansion, and to support protests by the Stop the War Coalition.

The votes came after a debate on three motions, where the main argument focussed on whether it’s right to criticise and campaign against Nato. Introducing the anti-Nato motion to conference, Pete Jackson from DWP Birmingham South branch said, “For our government this is a proxy war.

“Nato leaders see the chance to wear down the Russian military machine, to wear down the Russian economy and to really score a major victory here in their battle to control the world’s resources. That’s part of the agenda when our government says that it’s decided it’s going to support the Ukrainian people.”

The union’s assistant general secretary John Moloney said the leadership’s decision to include condemnation of the US and Britain in its motion reflected a shift. He said the motion addresses the concern that “for reasons of their own Western powers, in particular the US, will seek to pressurise the Ukrainian government and people”. And the pressure on Ukraine would be to “adopt war aims that are not of their choice”. 

But general secretary Mark Serwotka argued it was still wrong to target Nato. He argued that the union’s focus should be on solidarity with Ukrainian people and opposing Russia’s invasion.

Union leaders across the trade union movement have recoiled from criticism of Nato after Labour leader Keir Starmer threatened left wing MPs for doing so.

Serwotka said, “If we call for people to protest in our country against the role of Nato it is not sending the unequivocal message we need to send.” He said it was “that we stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”

“There’s plenty of time for people to discuss the role of Nato including whether Britain should be a member of it,” he said. “But now is the time to stand with those people who occupied, being murdered and being besieged.”

His argument echoed that from left wing MP John McDonnell. After Starmer’s threat, he backed out of a Stop the War Coalition meeting claiming that it would “distract” from support for Ukraine.

In the debate from the floor, Chris Marks from DWPLondon headquarters went further and criticised the anti-Nato motion because it opposed sending arms to Ukraine. Mohammed Shafiq seemed to reflect the view of more delegates when he said the leadership’s motion was a “balanced position”.

Pete replied, “Our ruling class very enthusiastically wants to send arms to Ukraine. You have to ask yourself, is there a reason for that? Do they have another agenda? The agenda is the way the world is partitioned and continues to be partitioned. I don’t think it’s the case that as a trade union we can’t take a position on that.

“Nato is not a defensive body. Nato is an aggressive, imperialist body just as much as Putin’s Russia is. We need to support protests that oppose the war, but we need to be prepared to support protests that oppose the war and Nato’s attempt to shape that war.”

He added that delegates could support all the motions if they wanted to be balanced. But “only one of them talks about Nato, and only one of them therefore really puts the finger on our ruling class.”

Delegates back strike vote over pay 

Delegates at the conference also voted to have a national strike ballot over pay, pensions and redundancy payments, starting in September this year. Government bosses have offered civil service workers pay rises of only 2 percent for 2022. Moving the motion, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka called on union activists to “get back to your branches, organise, mobilise, and send Boris Johnson a message.”

But Serwotka also warned that activists had to do a lot of campaigning to ensure a ballot beats the 50 percent turnout threshold in Tory anti-union laws. PCS members voted by 97 percent to support strikes on a 45 percent turnout in a survey earlier this year. They also backed strikes in two previous national ballots, which fell agonisingly short of the 50 percent turnout threshold.

Another motion, which was defeated, called on the union to hold the ballot no later than 1 July. It also said the union should “draw up plans for disaggregated ballots.”

But Serwotka and some delegates from the floor argued this wouldn’t be enough time to campaign for a ballot that beats the turnout threshold. Serwotka also said the decision on whether to hold disaggregated ballots should be made at a later date.

One delegate, Julian Sharp, said, “We need the time to organise to make sure we get the turnout in a legal ballot.” He added, “Coming from a small branch, I want to see as much unity as possible in any industrial action we take. And therefore I’m instinctively in favour of aggregated ballots. But I think this is a tactical question that needs to be debated and decided at length.

“We need to explain our strategy to every member and every person who participates in the ballot. Action wins. If we want to win a proper pay rise, if we want to oppose the job cuts, if we want to oppose the cuts in our pension, we need to take industrial action.

“It needs to be hard hitting industrial action, not token action, but action that really hits this government.”

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