The Left Unity led NEC met on 8th July to discuss a number of key issues currently facing PCS.
This was one of a series of fortnightly meetings held by Zoom since lockdown began. This report provides an overview but if you would like more information about any of the issues covered, you are encouraged to contact any Left Unity NEC member, who will be able to provide more detail.
Coronavirus Crisis still the Biggest issue
The Coronavirus Crisis remains the biggest issue facing members right now, serious activists understand this, and the efforts of all group and national negotiators have been rightly focused on keeping our members safe, and returning to work only when it is safe to do so. Our PCS 5 tests are being used as a basis to develop robust strategies for safe working at branch and group level.
The Left Unity-led NEC have made a number of gains in talks with the Cabinet Office, and these have been publicised to group negotiators, and in areas where we believe that there is still more to achieve, we have highlighted to groups where they are urged to push for better and further gains. HMRC Group’s LU leadership secured a Departmental agreement to protect members safety having had some terrible member fatalities from the virus.
BAME issues have been an important part of these discussions and a series of meetings with the Cabinet Office have taken place to discuss the COVID-19 impact on BAME groups.
PCS are pushing for more, and better, data, with priority given to early positive actions, bearing in mind the danger of a second wave of the virus.
We received the welcome news that LU negotiators in DWP group have negotiated a BAME-specific risk assessment, the first of its kind, which can be used to gain improvements elsewhere within PCS. HMRC have also now agreed to rollout mandatory anti-racism training for all staff, following strong representations from our PCS representatives.
Whilst the Cabinet Office maintain that their position remains that workers should stay at home, and stay safe, there are moves to return members, in both DFT, where the employer wants to reintroduce driving tests and DWP, where they seek to reopen jobcentres and reintroduce conditionality and sanctions, both of which cause concern for the safety of our members and the public.
Groups really come to the fore during the crisis
Group negotiators have done a fantastic job, working around the clock, alongside full-time officers, to provide help and support to affected members, negotiating tirelessly with the employer, and working closely with branches to get proper safety measures in place. Local health and safety reps have really come to the fore, holding management to account and ensuring adequate PPE and full risk assessments are in place before signing off agreements to get members back into work.
We are getting numerous reports of reps challenging poor practice and refusing to reopen workplaces without full risk assessments and proper PPE.
Building the Union
The importance of being a union member has really been spelled out during this period and membership has taken an upturn, with many groups seeing a net rise in membership during the first 6 months of 2020.
8938 new members have joined PCS during the first 6 months of 2020 and we are seeing many new volunteers get involved in PCS through our call hub work, with more than 2000 Advocates registered.
This increased activism is one of the benefits of our work during the crisis and with departments like DWP promising in excess of 13,500 additional staff, with 4,500 expected by October, our work around recruitment and induction is really high profile.
Bargaining and Campaigning successes during the crisis, alongside increased activism at branch level, with several departments launching staff recruitment exercises, give us the opportunity, alongside the launch of the National Campaign, to conduct focused recruitment activity and raise the profile of PCS in every workplace.
Whilst our opponents in the Socialist Party-led Broad Left Network (BLN) make cheap political attacks, despite presiding over areas with membership density of less than 20%, Left Unity recognises that a combination of effective bargaining, campaigning and good workplace organisation is what recruits new members to PCS.
The figures never tell the whole story, but they don’t lie either, and give us the ability to measure where we are doing well and where to target resources. Much of the technology that has been developed during lockdown has given us new methods of refining our Organising strategies and reaching out to members and reps to develop new and better engagement.
Members stated clearly in PCS’s recent survey that they are angry over low pay and when surveyed back in May, 87% of those currently in the workplace, still wanted us to campaign for more.
In February, PCS put in our demand for 10% which reflected the years of poverty pay and stagnation suffered by PCS members. In March, when the Coronavirus crisis hit, we immediately put in our interim demand, as a means to get an above inflation increase to all members in the absence of delegated negotiations. This had been adopted by Scottish government, who paid 3% across the board as an interim payment in advance of pay negotiations after the crisis.
Of course, once again, SP’s Broad Left Network attempted to paint this as a ‘sell out’ where we would settle for a couple of percent instead of campaigning for our demand of 10% – the word interim seemed to be lost on them and when surveyed, members expressed high levels of support for these demands.
When the government refused to negotiate over our interim demands on pay, as detailed in the Letter from Lord Agnew, they immediately published their remit, a measly 1.5-2.5%. Whilst some had predicted a further 1% pay cap, this remit was wholly inadequate, even lower than the award that had just been rejected in Local Government.
The NEC agreed to launch a national petition as a vehicle for building mass support for our pay demands and as a vehicle for organising. It allows us to use high profile campaign methods, alongside local, workplace and work-based organising in branches. It allows us to engage with members and activists, including our new layer of volunteers who have said that they want to get more involved in the campaign, at a time when large swathes of our membership are not in the workplace,. and to build support for a campaign of action later in the year.
The petition is in two stages, the first to get to 10,000 signatures by 30th July to generate a response from government, and then to get to our 100,000 target by 30 October in order to generate a parliamentary debate.
Whilst nobody believes that a petition alone will shift government policy on pay, it is clear that the ability to beat the threshold in a later pay ballot will depend on our ability to engage members and secure their buy-in to our campaign and that this methodical work, combining tried and tested organising and campaigning methods with new technology and the ability to engage and secure buy-in at a time when not everyone is in the workplace, and learning from our analysis so far, Left Unity NEC members believe it is our best chance of being able to win a ballot when the time comes.
Our opponents in BLN have tried to rubbish this campaign from the outset, using the worst sectarian methods aimed at undermining every debate at the NEC (unsuccessfully) and publishing articles dooming the campaign to failure from the outset, whilst offering little in the way of constructive suggestions, just endless amendments where they seek to ‘out-left’ Left Unity.
The level of support that they have at the NEC is now pitiful. They have yet to successfully win an argument at the NEC, instead choosing to use the time at the meeting to challenge rulings and delay proceedings with pointless amendments, and then complain when meetings run out of time before all of the business has been taken, as if this is some sort of coincidence.
Left Unity NEC members are committed to fighting for fair pay for our members. The same members who have earned the warm words and praise of ministers and the public, must now be rewarded by recognition in their pay packets.
To dismiss every campaign as doomed to failure from the outset is an abdication of responsibility and really shows our opponents up for what they are.
The petition will be widely publicised and should be live from this week on the gov.uk website. We urge every Left Unity member to campaign amongst members to make it a success.
Tough decisions to make
Having originally taken the difficult decision three months ago not to go ahead with Annual Delegate Conference in May, and not to go ahead with our annual elections at group and national level due to the Coronavirus crisis, both decisions were to be continually reviewed, and the Senior Officers and then the NEC have agreed that now is the time to review both decisions.
In March the NEC noted that whilst it was technically possible to go ahead with the national and group elections, we faced an unprecedented situation in which our members’ workplaces and working practices were in a state of extreme disruption. The NEC at the time agreed that no elections should proceed.
On reviewing this, it was considered that the reasons for not going ahead in March had not significantly changed. The pandemic is still dominating the lives of reps and members, and a second wave is now predicted, with lockdown already reintroduced in Leicester.
Knowing that elections would bring with them a degree of campaign activity, and the mixed messages this would send to members and the employer, and knowing that some members would still not be in the workplace, and may therefore not have access to ballot papers (for those with a workplace ballot address) it was decided that, whilst there is always a need to be as democratic as possible, this has to be balanced with the need to prioritise members’ safety.
Both Independent Left (IL) and BLN were in favour of going ahead, citing examples of elections that had recently taken place in other unions, but it was pointed out that these were for a three year term in the case of Unite’s Executive Council and for the General Secretary election of Equity, where an election for the post hasn’t taken place for 15 years an election is required as the current incumbent retires in October.
There is no membership demand for PCS elections to take place now in order for those elected to serve a term of less than 6 months, when the regulations for the 2021 elections would need to be signed off before the results could be announced. It would be a costly and resource-intensive exercise at a time when FTO and reps efforts are correctly focused on dealing with the crisis.
Left Unity members argued that this was not a sensible use of resource and that national elections for 2020 should not be held, this was overwhelmingly carried with IL and BLN voting against the recommendation.
Group and National Conferences
Again, both IL and BLN argued that these should now go ahead, with IL submitting a motion saying that they should take place in October/ November.
The Left Unity majority were in favour of a more nuanced position, and the possibility of some sort of virtual event to take place later in the year should be examined, whether that could be a decision-making conference with all of the issues that entails, and that a report should be brought back to the NEC for decision. This was overwhelmingly carried with IL and BLN voting against.
It is still against the law to gather in groups larger than 30, with no indication of when that might change. Venues such as the Brighton Centre are closed until further notice and so only a virtual conference is possible at this stage, and with ADC receiving an average of 600 motions, the way that it could work remotely, either by Zoom or a similar medium, is hard to envisage, not least because of the way Standing Orders would operate, and the ability to engage branches in order to obtain a mandate means that the democracy argument is not straightforward.
As a comparison, TUC Congress is taking place virtually, not as a delegate conference but as a virtual extended General Council meeting using a system of weighted electronic voting on affiliate union motions.
If policy making is the purpose of such an event, there are a number of factors that would need to be considered in terms of their practicability. These included – different types of policy proposals, adequate member involvement for mandating, basis of delegate entitlement, ways of debating, the availability of electronic voting systems, potential for rep participation, equality impact assessments to maximise participation, particularly for our disabled members.
Left Unity members wanted all of the facts in front of them before making a knee-jerk decision being favoured by others that there must be a conference irrespective of all of the other considerations. The recommendation by the General Secretary was overwhelmingly carried.
Motions to TUC
We are entitled to submit two motions to the virtual TUC and these were agreed. One on Coronavirus: economic recovery in the public sector and one on Pay: public sector pay campaign.
The deadline for these is 20 July so they were discussed and agreed at this NEC.
Time constraints and the number of amendments submitted by our opponents to change wording of recommendations in every paper meant that some important business wasn’t heard and will be picked up at the next meeting.
These included Strategic Objectives and BAME issues/ Black Lives Matter protests.
A further Left Unity report updating on both issues, with a detailed PCS Black Members report, will be provided after the NEC has met again to discuss these issues.
In terms of the Strategic Objectives though, it is worth noting the following:
- In 2018 the union set itself a target to build the union to reach 200,000 members by the end of 2020
- It is now clear that we are not going to meet that target. Membership is currently 177,554.
- There are a number of reasons for this and the National Organising Committee has been tasked with providing a detailed analysis of the reasons that we have not met these objectives, and reporting to a special NEC in September.
- This doesn’t mean that we are in crisis, it does mean that we need to look at how PCS operates with the aim of securing a sustainable future and our ability to advance members’ interests.
- We also need to look at how we have done things differently during the pandemic and see if there are lessons PCS can learn for the future.
- We are trying everything possible to return PCS to growth and recent indications are that there are modest signs of growth in some departments.
- Our recent experience tells us however, that increased organising activity has not been enough to overcome the hostile environment of the UK government and related employers, in order to turn the membership figures around.
- It would be irresponsible to just carry on as if the difficulties we face do not exist, or just hope to overcome our challenges. We have to take steps to address all of this, and that is why the left-led NEC has already agreed two options to explore further:
- The first is to radically restructure PCS involving significantly reduced employment costs, inevitably meaning radical changes to the way we do things, a more streamlined, restructured organisation, very different to how PCS looks now.
- The second option is to merge with another union, we have existing policy to explore merging with Unite dating back from 2014/15, as a means of creating a stronger union force in the public sector. Any merger discussions would need to be based on increasing our industrial strength, taking into account economies of scale, increased resources and our strong, democratic, lay-led traditions.
- The next NEC will seek to commission scoping papers on both options to be considered at a further meeting in September. These papers would set out processes for considering all possibilities in a transparent democratic way with the widest possible debate and consultation with branches and members.
- Our BLN opponents have written an article, where they attempt to make this out as somehow underhand, and that they hadn’t realised at the NEC when they heard the financial reports or the organising reports what the implications are. In fact, Left Unity want the widest and fullest consultation possible about the future of PCS and we need Left Unity members to be a part of it.
There is a lot happening in PCS right now, and we want to keep Left Unity members updated on everything.
We hope that you have found the updates contained in this report useful and we will continue to update you as issues develop. The Left Unity National Committee are discussing ways of keeping in touch with you all.
Please get in touch if you are reading this but are not currently a Left Unity member. We are the Socialist Group within PCS. Together we are stronger.