First of all, I agree with the view that PCS is a broken union and that there is no realistic chance of reversing the tide. And this is why.
I first became active in CPSA at local level in the 1970s and in the late 1980s, amidst a chaotic brief marriage then divorce, found myself on the DSS SEC.
I was probably little more than voting fodder on the SEC when the Charter, an alliance of BL ’84 (ask your parents, kids), Moderates and various independents, swept to power in the then DSS but as I gained more experience and ability, I realised that the union was a disaster waiting to happen.
I was brought up in the Bristol Branch, run mainly on non-political lines by relative giants in the trade union movement, certainly compared to those today who are driving the union to destruction. The branch was so strong, people who went on to hold senior lay positions in the union struggled to acquire positions on the Branch Committee.
The Area, which was the South West, was run on similar lines, but by the 1980s management took the decision to merge the South West Region with Wales and within a few years the Area was firmly in the hands of Socialist Organiser and a Regional Committee that worshipped – and I mean worshipped - a witty, fire-and-brimstone orator from the valleys.
Although most of the branches were nominally independent, the reality is that in classic Trotskyist style they knew who they had to vote for. A Broad Left caucus met before each meeting to ensure voting went the right way and for anyone who didn’t support them it was a miserable time.
Bristol remained free of the ultra left, but it was a constant battle. Various SWP, Anarcho Syndicalists, fellow travellers and the partner of the local Militant tendency organiser, who was herself a formidable and very able operator made life increasingly difficult, and ultimately untenable. (She was, later, on the victim of a ruthless Socialist Organiser cull – and that’s how they treat their friends!)
I hated going to AGMs after a while because a few Trots could cause an awful lot of damage in a room full of 150 and more members.
We would end up having ghastly guest speakers, ultra left nominations for elections and barmy motions being submitted to Conference.
At Branch meetings, the Trots were always obstructive, almost always choosing at least two areas on which to attack and general slow things down. The Committee, formed mainly of ordinary members trying to help out, tired as much as I did.
Regional meetings were a nightmare for me. Serwotka and co would have the comrades primed to question the two SEC members, myself and the late Lyndon Pullin in enormous depth on issues about which we knew little or nothing about. We would regularly be pulled apart and were subject to merciless mocking when we didn’t have the answers they wanted. These are the sort of people they were.
I shall never forget one Conference - 1987, I seem to remember - when as a delegate I was called to speak to oppose an emergency motion to call an all out strike on pay.
As I walked to the rostrum, I was heckled and abused by Serwotka and his cronies. When I was called, a series of points of order were raised to try and wreck my speech and Serwotka himself called a point of order to say I had been mandated to support motions on all out strike action.
In a sense this was true. Our mandating meeting, attended by a handful of members but a majority of Trots and their allies, had indeed tried to tie the delegates into supporting a policy of all out strikes.
But you cannot mandate a delegate on an emergency motion (or at least you couldn’t back then).
After the Conference session ended, I went to leave the hall and as I did so Serwotka and co were haranguing me with all manner of abuse. In short, he looked totally mad.
I kept going until 1991, primarily because I was still on the SEC and I felt it was the right thing to do for the members. I was still a Branch official and owed to it ordinary people, who cared not for the politics.
The branch changed in 1989 when a husband and wife team from Socialist Organiser joined.
By 1991, I had had enough.
The Charter lost the DSS elections, the constant battle in the Branch was wearing me out and the Region was more firmly in the hands of the lunatic fringe than ever.
My conclusion was that it was time to move on, to leave the branch to those who had desired it for so long and watch them drive it into the ground.
And didn’t they ever.
I still watched what was going on from a distance, attending my final Conference in 1992 as a steward at the rostrum, looking after the microphone for the Newcastle Eight who the Moderates had tried to expel from the union. Conference voted not to expel them and I felt that would be a turning point for the Moderates and other non Trots in the union.
Reamsbottom’s catastrophic attempts to remain in power as General Secretary after losing to Serwotka all but destroyed the credibility of anyone who opposed the Trots and changed the state of the new PCS union forever.
When I last attended Conference, there was a mix of Trots (the largest group), BL’84 (a sizeable and significant left of centre group) and a few Mods. I know from speaking with old friends that it’s mainly Trots now.
Branches too have swung to the far left. At one time, there were people who would turn out to vote for candidates or to oppose others. My experience locally is that the AGMs of the 1980s, where 150 would regularly attend, there are normally around 20 these days.
All the local branches are run by the ultra left, usually Militant tendency with the assistance of well-meaning folk who don’t realise what Militant are really about. It is hard to explain to an office rep the intricacies of transitional demands!
Because of the way PCS branches are structured; because of the grip the ultra left has on branches (and add to that the dramatically reduced facility time which will benefit only the basket case ultra left whose lives are already consumed with Militant et al); because of the way Conference is organised; because of the grip the ultra left has on the union’s HQ (yes, I know ‘we’ did it too but I will always argue our people had no political motives although some did just fancy a job at the union!) and because members have become detached from their union in so many areas of the country (look at AGM attendances, votes in all ballots) I honestly think there is no possibility that PCS can be rescued, let alone changed.
20 years ago, members would have been mortified at the prospect of their union operating as a bona fide far left political party but that’s precisely what is happening today.
The PCS website, and many of the links that stem from it, bears no relationship to the lives of bruised and battered public servants whose pay and conditions have been ravaged in recent years to the extent that any enthusiasm they might have had for ‘the fight’ has been banished.
PCS has lost on pay, pensions and just about every other major – and minor – issue in recent times. As staff leave the civil service, voluntarily or not, the union’s membership plunges, it fails to adequately represent members other than by a diminishing small army of local lay officials, PCS laughably still claims it is leading the fight in the trade union movement.
Apathy has certainly won at every level but it’s not just that.
People used to belong to the union because if nothing else it was a bit of insurance in case things went wrong.
They are now realising that PCS is a busted flush and can’t even do that properly, certainly not in a good many areas (and I work in the branch which includes a senior VP).
As the old song goes, the party’s over, it’s time to call it a day.
PCS is finished and for me it may come down to Prospect or nothing.
Another PCS Member adds:
I will always be a member of a union for the safety blanket if anything untoward happened to me as an individual. But I would rather be a member of any union other than PCS, with the possible exception of RMT.
If the option was there for me to join Prospect as an alternative I would join immediately. From speaking to others with similar feelings about the direction PCS is taking I feel this would probably be a very popular move. This is also something that a large number of the wholly apathetic masses would more than likely do as well. For them the politics is very much secondary to simply having representation. The number of people who crossed picket lines during those moronic regional walkouts last year is evidence of that.
The only viable alternative IMHO is to hang fire and see if PCS gets swallowed up by Unite. However seeing how close the equally as Trot Jerry Hicks came to becoming General Secretary there (living in Bristol we get to see his activities first hand) without the potential support of Serwotka, Godrich etc. is a very scary prospect. Trust me, he makes John McInally seem like a pussy cat!!
Come April / May voting for 50 shades of hard Left in the NEC elections is a very depressing prospect. The silent majority need to have a voice somehow.