Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Bristol PCS members speak out!

Guest post by Rick Johansen

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:

All my working life I have been a passionate supporter, and member, of unions. This is in the family genes, as my dad was an EETPU rep and until retirement two years ago a Unite rep in the National Blood Service.

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.


  1. I do recognise a lot of what has been said in the posts above but there are a lot of branches that are not politically motivated. We could do more and each it to those branches that don't nominate too gec and nec elections. I do feel that those branches are an extension of our struggle which is to bring common sense and negotiating changes that can benefit members. The union is broken but there are people like us in the wings waiting for the chance to return our employers back into what they were.

  2. I have a free moment to add my 2p worth of comments.

    I am worried about the Hard Left in PCS who have an unhealthy grip. I do think that this Unite Merger talks would be the death of PCS I know times chance PTC and CPSA etc but a Merger with UNITE or Takeover would not help PCS either.

    Members need to vote low turnouts do not help PCS elections. Despite a lot of leadership against the Labour Party I do think we need to forge better ties with the Labour Party such as the Labour Link with UNISON Union has. To quote a old saying. Even the worst Labour Government is better than a Tory Government or in our case Today a Tory/Lib Dem Government.

    I do hope PCS members vote. We as TU Reps are facing the worst attacks now for a generation.

  3. I really think that you guys need to get a little perspective and balance.

    A bit about me. I'm a former PCS and SP member. I left the latter because of concerns over democracy and the former because I thankfully found something outside the CS a few months ago. I still consider myself a socialist but am currently evaluating what I mean by that. I was a fairly active rep for a couple of years before I left.

    However, I pop onto this blog quite often. I find the posts regarding union matters extremely misleading and quite frankly dishonest. From reading between the lines, you would imagine that none of the Trotskyists or other 'lefts' bother with the day to day union work. That isn't the case. Whether you agree with their politics or not, the SP and other groups do contain plenty of sincere working people who aren't just in the union to push a political agenda and do put the effort in for their members. Conversely, I've known 'non political' reps who were quite authoritarian.

    This has been an extremely difficult few years for unions full stop. While its easy to blame the PCS leadership for the battering members have taken, we also have to ask ourselves: would a more 'moderate' approach have yielded better results? The state of local councils suggests not. You may argue that UNISONS stance led to a few more concessions on pensions. However I would argue that if all the unions had stood together and called further coordinated action, we could have defeated the changes altogether.

    A couple of years ago my branch had its AGM. I moved a LU motion on solidarity with the Greek workers and an alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism. Did the members (over 200 in attendance) complain that this was irrelevant to them? Well, a few kicked off, but the majority of the room enthusiastically voted in favour. After the meeting, I received numerous compliments for the passion I had shown. This suggests that these ideas resonant more with members than you seem to think.

    This isn't to say that Leninism is necessarily the answer or to deny the hideous crimes of the Stalinist regimes. However, it is hardly democracy when the FTSE 100 companies and the financial houses have such a grip on the UK political system. I see precious little condemnation of big business on this blog, or tax avoidance/evasion for that matter. This is an issue on which PCS have played a real role in raising awareness, and is very relevant to members, as tax ultimately pays their wages and for the services they provide!

    On the question of facilities time and blaming PCS for the governments attacks on it, this is a complete distortion. The Tories were planning such a move anyway. I very much doubt they needed a reason to make cutting FT politically acceptable. It isn't something the public really care about. A majority of those who voted in the UKBA ballot were in favour of strike action. Using the low turnout is precisely what the right wing rags do to undermine trade unions. If the same logic applied to General Elections and especially council elections, no government would ever be legitimate. Plus, 1000 jobs were won from the threat of strike action.

    Finally, and most importantly, PCS hasn't suffered 'destruction'. Some gains have been won, and conditions, despite being awful, are better than they would have been if the union hadn't take a stand against the government. Also, unions have always been political.

    Thanks for reading and I look forward to a response.

  4. Since you have left the Civil Service you won't be aware that the "extra 1,000 jobs that were won have been overshadowed 2,000 extra redundancies, with more to come not just in the DW{ but other Departments as well. So much for "militiancy" I'm afraid.

    Problem is that many, if not most of our immediate problems come from the way the PCS leadership (who the posts on this blog are generally aimed at) behave.

    The Border Agency strike ballot on the eve of the Olympics was just one example. We all knew the Government wanted to cut trade union facilities, so what a way to give them an excuse on a plate. Most other Public Sector unions were furious with Serwotka as a result. The relations between PCS and the other unions can be somewhat strained at times and trying to push a dispute at a nationally sensitive time on the back of an 11% turnout was not only never going to win us any friends, it undoubtedly cost us much public and political sympathy allowing for even harsher cuts tha Maude thought he could get away with.

    The problem with PCS is that it has so obviously been hijacked for the use of the collected far left sects in Left Unity under the direction of the Socialist Party.

    If PCS wanted to defend the agreements on Pensions we should have been active in wanting the return of a Labour Government (always preferable to the Tories no matter what the ultra-lefts might say). But no, the main PCS leaders threw their weight behind the TUSC which attracted a grand ).004% of the vote, wasting so much time and energy in yet another hopeless cause.

    I'm happy for you in that you have managed to escape the Civil Service, but but most of us have to continue and PCS simply isn't working for us.

    For the record I have made it clear PCS is still able to deal with Personal Case work and that's why members remain in the union, but once outside the Branches everything is frankly away with the fairies.

    Shrill calls for a 24 hour "General Strike" from the likes of PCS President Janice Godrich have continued to fall on deaf ears and provides no answer.

    PCS is in clear trouble both financially (now noticed by the members as they were all complaining about not getting diaries this year) and politically.

    The union has no future under the current leadership and many of us think its' far to late to do anything about it and are seriously considering other options which allows us to be trade unionists not pawns for a failed cause.