Wednesday, July 05, 2006

PCS Conference June 2006

PCS stands firm

by an observer

PUBLIC and Commercial Services (PCS) union members gathered in Brighton inJune for group and annual conference to take stock of the work done inresisting the sweeping attack on their pay, pensions and conditions by theGovernment that is their main employer.

The majority of civil service workers are organised by PCS, an amalgamation,whose final form took shape in 1998, consisting of four major civil serviceunions whose divisions and traditions are mirrored in the highly factional politics of the union today.

Though the new union was originally dominated by right-wing blocs the left won sweeping victories in 2003. Annual conference was restored and the reactionary heart of the rule book torn out and democratic controls restored. Membership confidence in the new leadership has continued underthe leadership of general secretary Mark Serwotka and the Left Unity led “Democratic Alliance” bloc.

This was confirmed in this year’s national elections. The right wing was left with just one seat on the new executive and the left held its vote inmost of the groups. But there were no grounds for complacency. Overall the turn-out in the group and national elections was down on last year –significantly in the giant Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) which has faced the brunt of the Government’s offensive. Though over half the workers have walked out repeatedly in protest stoppages against the cut, just over a tenth bothered to vote in the DWP group elections.

The right-wing’s problem is that they regard themselves as New Labour “Brownites” but the Chancellor is the architect and chief advocate in the campaign to cut the work-force by 100,000 across the board. The left bloc is dominated by former Militant Tendency supporters now in the Socialist Party and the Scottish Socialist Party and a galaxy of Trotskyist, revisionist and social-democratic groupings within and outside the Labour Party. It’s an uneasy alliance and the divisions were reflected on the debates on pay,pensions and the cuts.

General secretary Mark Serwotka stressed the need for the restoration ofnational pay bargaining. In his key-note address opening main conference hecalled on Government to take responsibility for its policies, rather than engaging in crude scapegoating.

“The scapegoating by the Government of hard working civil servants who are battered by job cuts and bruised by privatisation is nothing short of passing the buck,” he said. “This attack, combined with the latest blamegame in the Home Office, botched privatisations and failing private sector IT contracts, is leading to a wave of discontent emerging across the civilservice, which even the Tories are trying to capitalise on.”

Mark told delegates that the Government should remember that PCS members were low paid people; half the civil service earn less than £20,000 per year and retire on an average pension of £4,500 and he praised the 100,000 PCS members who had taken strike action this year in defence of jobs, pay and conditions, as he moved the annual report.

Some of the left factions were critical of the tactics in DWP and the pension settlement reached this year, which preserved the civil servant’s existing rights but accepted the Government’s changes for new entrants. This clearly wasn’t the view of the leadership. PCS President Janice Godrich told conference that the union’s achievements over the last year were a cause for celebration.

“We are bigger, better known and even more well respected,” she declared.“Members have stood together and we have secured some important concessions including a Government back-down on our members’ pension retirement age.”

Guest speakers included Labour MP John McDonnell, who chairs the PCS parliamentary group and is the leader of the Labour Representation Committeeas well as Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison.

McDonnell denounced the Government’s offensive against civil servants which he said reflected an “abiding and deep-seated prejudice” and the“belligerent prejudice of the bar-room bully and the Sun editorial”. And he slated the Blair/Brown Labour leadership for its attacks on civil and public servants and said it was “surreal” that Tory leader David Cameron was now apparently the “defender” of the public sector. But he pointed out thatCameron had supported every single Tory policy and statement attacking thepublic sector.

Prentis, whose local government members are also under the Government’scosh, warned the Blair government that public sector workers “will take action to defend our members facing cuts and privatisation”.

On the fringe the biggest turn-out at around 200 was undoubtedly for Tony Benn at a Stop the War Coalition meeting but almost as many went to hear George Galloway MP speak against the Iraq war at the Respect rally. Meetings in support of the Venezuelan revolution and in solidarity with Cuba were well attended as well as those called by the unions many pressure groups and factions.

The debates in the conference hall reflected the trends within the union and ultimately the decisions, like the elections, were overall a vote of confidence in the left-led leadership while the fringe meetings, probably the largest number seen so far, mirrored what is going on throughout the peace and labour movement.