THE PCS civil servants’ union conference in Blackpool last week revealed the depth of anger that the people who are forced to implement government policy feel towards New Labour.
The conference was held only a few days after the historic victory of the left in national executive elections. A mood of change has swept through the union. The socialist Left Unity group now has 25 out of 43 seats on the executive. The centre-left PCS Democrats, Left Unity’s allies, have nine seats. The misnamed Moderates, the right wing union faction that has dominated civil service unions for decades, are reduced to a rump with only four seats.
The Moderates, led by discredited former general secretary Barry Reamsbottom, attempted a coup against elected general secretary Mark Serwotka in May last year.
Serwotka is a member of the group of new left wing trade union leaders the media have dubbed ‘the awkward squad’. The PCS is one of the fastest growing unions, with 292,000 members – up from 260,000 when he was elected in December 2000. There was celebration at the conference at the defeat of the right. But there was also a determined mood to challenge the government over the three main issues that affect union members – low pay, pensions and privatisation. ‘The forces of reaction have been defeated in our union,’ Mark Serwotka told the conference. Now we can concentrate solely on the issues that affect our members. Some 25 percent of our members are still earning below £13,250. What kind of society do we have that cannot afford decent healthcare, pensions and education, but can spend billions of pounds on an illegal war in the Middle East? I’m delighted that we have a new national executive committee committed to putting members first. We have to march together in unity.’
Virtually every delegate criticised New Labour’s failure to represent working class people. ‘There is increasing anger at the disparity of wealth in Britain,’ said Tom Taylor from central London during the debate about pay. ‘Gordon Brown does nothing to stop top bosses awarding themselves outrageous rises. The civil service is a low pay zone. We need to demonstrate our seriousness in words and deeds to gain the confidence of the members and launch a united campaign to secure fair pay for all.’
‘Tony Blair’s message is ‘partnership’ with the private sector,’ said incoming national executive member Martin John from Sheffield. ‘Because of this the social security system is facing a crisis. The grip of profits gets tighter.
Privatisation doesn’t work. Members are at the sharp end, carrying the can for worse services and the botched tax credits scheme. ‘The whole way that Blair wants to deliver public services is based on this rubbish. We have to change that.’
‘The government has decided to privatise all the Department of Work and Pensions file stores,’ said Stella Dennis from Manchester. ‘This affects 900 staff in 56 workplaces. It is a slap in the face to staff. It’s the largest privatisation in the department since the Tories were in power. The full weight of the union must be put behind the fight to defeat privatisation. If they get away with this none of our jobs are safe.’
‘We don’t have a union-friendly government,’ said incoming vice-president Sue Bond from Manchester. ‘It restricts workers’ rights, kowtows to its friends in the bosses’ CBI.
‘We are facing an employers’ offensive on union facility time across the civil service. We need a proactive approach to ensure branches get the support they need from members.’ The government wants to increase the age when civil servants can retire on full pensions from 60 to 65.
Members face reductions in their pensions after 2006, and members in the private sector are threatened with the abolition of their final salary schemes.
Mark Serwotka and delegates pledged to fight these attacks. ‘We will have to have a mass campaign, including industrial action,’ Serwotka told the conference. ‘There is going to be a TUC-coordinated meeting of all private and public sector unions. We are not going to let the government make our members pay for the crisis.’
‘All this is happening under a Labour government,’ said Dave Sparlow. ‘It’s time the unions fought back. It’s time we got off our knees in this country. If workers in other European countries can do it, why can’t we?’
Motions were passed to improve the democracy of the union by electing full time officials. The right wing leadership faced humiliation after humiliation. Everything that they opposed went through automatically. The victory for democracy means union activists are now gearing up to confront the government over all the issues discussed at the conference.
But rank and file activists need to build at the base of the union to ensure the necessary confrontation takes place.
THE PCS became the thirteenth national union to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition. Delegates overwhelmingly voted to back the coalition and oppose other ‘pre-emptive’ wars against regimes the US dislikes. ‘Bush and Brown are planning to wage wars on other countries – Iran and North Korea could be next,’ said Dave Vincent from Manchester.
‘The Stop the War Coalition is organising a national demonstration in London on 27 September demanding that the troops get out of Iraq. Everyone should attend that.’ One reason the outgoing executive did not support affiliation to the coalition was that it ‘calls for civil disobedience’, as right winger Pauline Abrams put it.
But as Dave Vincent said, ‘The union movement would not be here if it wasn’t for civil disobedience. Let’s have a lot more of it, especially when civilians are still being killed in Iraq.’
THE conference reaffirmed the union’s commitment to opposing the Nazi British National Party (BNP) and defending the rights of asylum seekers. ‘The BNP are violent racists who admire Hitler,’ said Tanzy Feltis from London. ‘Labour are legitimising racism with comments about ‘swamping’. Home secretary David Blunkett is making the BNP respectable. The PCS should start to build links in the communities affected by racist lies and hatred. We should continue to support anti-racist events and educate members in how to resist racism.’ ‘I come from Burnley,’ said Gavin Hartley. ‘We have fascists in the town hall. The trade union movement fights for working class unity. The BNP are rats in the sewers. The responsibility lies with the Labour council which has presided over privatisation, cuts in jobs, lack of resources. We have to drive the BNP off the streets. We have to take up the issues. We need a national TUC demonstration in Burnley.’
‘We’re told we live in a safe, just and tolerant society,’ Mike Bowman, who works in the immigration service, told the conference. ‘The reality is hysterical e-mails and circulars put out by the Home Office. We asked for a wider debate about the issues. In response the government tried to get rid of the PCS because we were prepared to stand up against government policy. Immigrants are ordinary people like you and me. The only policy that exists is to get rid of people. They see immigrants as numbers – to us they’re individuals.’
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