The Future of PCS

Fran Heathcote, Left Unity PCS President, looks at the issues facing PCS reps and activists in the period ahead.

By now, most PCS activists will have attended a ‘Future of PCS’ briefing. They have been held in every group, region, nation and equality forum at the start of a process to engage everyone at the earliest stage in what will be an ongoing discussion, in order to get as much input as possible.

This is taking place at a time when PCS has been involved in a number of campaigns and disputes which the Left Unity-led NEC are fully supporting, and asking Left Unity members to show their support too.

Whether it’s the ISS Cleaners in HMRC striking for fair pay, the Tate workers in the Culture Sector striking against redundancy, the Southbank workers balloting over redundancies, the consultative ballot that was held in DWP over safety in 21 Universal Credit service centres and associated jobcentres, or Driving Examiners in DFT group being consulted over safety concerns, it is clear that there is a lot going on right now within PCS.

Alongside all of this, we are in a continuous round of meetings with Cabinet Office and ministers around all things COVID-19 related, including our ongoing efforts to keep our members safe, and stopping them being forced back into the workplace before it is safe to do so, our default position being safety first.

The pay petition still needs more signatures. We hit 50,000 relatively quickly and it now needs a push to get over the 100,000 mark to generate a debate in parliament, not because anyone claims that a petition alone will smash the government’s pay policy, but because it allows us to engage members around the complex picture of delegated pay across the civil service, taking account of developments in departments like HMRC as those talks progress.

On pensions, the government are seeking to re-evaluate the scheme in order to make our members pay for their illegality. There is a public consultation running until 11th October which PCS has publicised on the PCS website and we are pursuing a legal challenge, alongside a number of other unions, including the FBU.

During the crisis many things have been done differently, in terms of digital technology, virtual meetings have become the norm, which included the NEC meeting fortnightly initially and now meeting monthly. Our regular cycle of conference and elections have not taken place and there have been virtually no T&S costs throughout this period.

PCS, like the Civil Service, is having to learn lessons from the crisis and consider how we might do things differently in future.

Over the last few months, the NEC has been discussing the future of PCS and our ability to campaign based on our organising principles of Building, Growing and Winning.

There have been two national briefings issued BB/37/20 and BB/42/20 and LU members are encouraged to familiarise themselves, in particular, with BB/42/20 which includes a lot of background information, including a timeline of events that have affected PCS, going right back to 2004 when Gordon Brown announced his 100,000 civil service jobcuts, and the impact on PCS throughout this whole period to date.

ADC 2018, following the 3 year strategic review, agreed a number of objectives and targets, following the brilliant work of reps and activists during the removal of check-off to secure the future of PCS against what was an existential threat.

We have been successful in achieving many of these targets but it is now clear that we are not going to hit our key objective, which was to grow PCS to 200,000 members by the end of 2020.

In fact, when we began this work, membership stood at 181,764, now it is nearly 3,000 less, so although we are seeing some really good organising initiatives, in terms of recruitment, increased digital use and during the crisis in particular, a large increase in reps, advocates and members, and an increase in participation, the fact is that PCS membership is not increasing at anything like the required rate, despite the civil service growing.

We have seen some parts of PCS beat their recruitment targets set within our strategy, areas such as Home Office and Scottish Government have grown and continue to grow, but in other parts of PCS, including our two biggest groups, membership has fallen.

Recently that has changed and in DWP and HMRC, we are seeing more joiners than leavers and a net increase in membership which is to be welcomed. Of course, this is not all traditional civil service recruitment either. Many new entrants are coming in on agency or fixed-term contracts, with the challenges around recognition that brings.

We need to turn civil service recruitment into PCS recruitment and look at each group and area in detail.

The union need to fully understand the scale of the recruitment challenge and have tasked the National Organising Committee to provide detailed analysis to the NEC on 30/09 which will then be shared widely.

It is against this backdrop that the NEC agreed that just maintaining the status quo is not an option. PCS could of course, sit back and hope that our organising strategies continue to bare fruit, and in our two biggest departments there is some evidence of that, but the Left Unity-led leadership concluded that if we don’t embrace the need for change now, and just wait, in a few years things will have got worse.

We need the ability to take on the employer, in both the public and the private sector, with the resources to campaign and organise effectively.

The NEC agreed that any discussions must be fully informed, with the full engagement of reps and activists, and discussions should be transparent, which is why groups, regions, nations and equality fora have all just been invited to hold meetings with either myself or the general secretary as the speaker, not at the end of the discussion, but at the very start of the process.

We are all proud of PCS, of what we’ve built together, in terms of our campaigns and our democracy, and so we feel strongly that we need it not only to survive, but to be available and fit for purpose in the future. If we want to be ahead of the game, we need to start developing a strategy in advance and prepare for the battles ahead.

The Left Unity NEC is very clear that the union is not on the financial brink, or in some form of crisis, having worked very hard to stabilise PCS throughout what has been a period of massive challenges. Reps and activists have done some great work together.

We are getting through and we are stabilising, but we are not yet where we need to be.

Our fighting fund now stands at over £1.7million, built up using a combination of a proportion of the money won from DWP, when we took them to court and won, over their removal of check-off, and the donations that many members now make to build up a ‘war chest’ to support groups of members taking strike action.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been an influx of new members saying that they want to be more involved in their union, and have put themselves forward to play a more active role.

All of this is to be welcomed but let’s be clear, we are going to need every single one of them, given the scale of the attacks we are facing in the period ahead. The detailed membership and recruitment analysis is going to be vital in understanding where we are recruiting, where we aren’t and why that is.

Although we now yield a rental income of over £1 million per annum by renting out parts of PCS HQ, it is a fact that if membership drops, then so does our available income.

It is very clear that a large factor in the financial quandary we face is because less membership subscriptions, coupled with a deficit in the PCS staff pension scheme, mean less available resource available for campaigning. This year, as staff have left the organisation, they have been replaced from within it.

Despite there being 20% less staff now, the truth is that although we have an effective recovery plan in place to address the staff pension deficit, it is a 10 year plan, meaning that staffing costs are unlikely to reduce significantly any time soon. At it’s peak, membership in PCS stood at 327,000 members in 2004, now it stands at approximately 178,000, and so it is inevitable that we will need to take steps to put in place a staffing structure commensurate with our size.

PCS values the fantastic staff we have, and the NEC are determined to ensure that they are protected by the no compulsory redundancy/ no compulsory transfer guarantee and that we maintain good relations with the staff union, the GMB, and everything is taken forward in full consultation with them.

We are currently spending too much on internal structures, staffing and administration costs, and these costs, as a proportion of income are getting greater.

Five years ago staffing costs were approximately 58% of income, now these costs are 62% of income. The aim is to generate at least 50% of income towards campaigning (more would be welcome obviously), and we are some way off that, this is an issue that we need to address.

So the quandary that faces all of us who care about the future of PCS is this – How do we campaign effectively and support our reps, if we don’t have the same level of funds to direct towards that? This isn’t a question for the NEC alone, but for all of us working together to shape the future of PCS. Left Unity needs to be at the forefront of that discussion.

That does not mean that we are giving up on building PCS, and as stated previously, we are seeing some really encouraging signs of the strategies we have put in place taking effect, but the truth is, if we don’t recruit massively, in the face of a hostile government, a future recession and job cuts, together with all of the attacks that we face, we won’t be able to mount effective campaigns to defend ourselves.

The NEC has agreed to look at two ‘visions’, both about radical change, but for a healthier PCS allowing us to build, grow and win. Both set against some guiding principles:

  • Any decision to change must be lay-led, open, democratic and put members at the centre of any change. Everything needs to be transparent, democratic and any decisions will be made by Annual Delegate Conference, or a special conference held for this specific purpose.

  • We must keep Equality at the heart of everything we do.

  • Honour our commitments to staff, guaranteeing no compulsory transfers, no compulsory relocations and all done in full consultation with GMB.

We want to consider two options:-

A complete restructuring of the union, with less employment costs, less servicing costs and more resource into frontline organising and campaigning. Develop further the use of digital technology, recognising that things cannot just remain as they always have done and focusing on whether the structures we put in place when PCS was formed, are still the best ones.

Looking at every level of PCS; What do branches do? What do groups do? What do our staff do? And how does PCS function?

Recognising that we are not asking anyone to work harder, but many may be asked to work differently.

A possible merger, engaging everyone in the discussion at the earliest stage and based on our set of key principles, which are that any merger being considered should:

  • Increase industrial strength and bargaining power

  • Maintain or enhance lay-led democracy through membership participation

  • maintain the role of conference and our commitment that it continues to be our policy-makling body, to which all branches are entitled to elect delegates.

  • Strengthen workplace organisation

  • Secure the union’s finances and maximise resources for building the union and fighting to win

  • Increase diversity of representation on the union’s structures and enhance our ability to organise on equality issues.

It may be that we end up with an amalgamation of the two options.

The clear view of the Left Unity majority on the NEC was that at this stage we should rule nothing in, and rule nothing out. We should gather the information from the membership analysis, the Financial analysis and from the scoping documents and then following an initial discussion of the NEC on 30/09, we should immediately conduct another round of meetings with regions, nations, groups and equality fora, to continue the consultation.

The timescale we are setting will allow for the maximum further discussion, and any proposals to ADC 2021 are likely to be ‘broadbrush, direction of travel’ motions, as opposed to motions for radical change.

During the initial round of discussions, one rep questioned why these meetings were taking place, as they weren’t being asked to decide anything yet, but that is the whole point of the process, recognising that change is necessary but making it a shared discussion and not one decided on behind closed doors. We want to involve as many reps and activists as possible in developing our strategy.

Rather than engage constructively in this debate, Left Unity’s embittered political opponents in the Socialist Party front, Broad Left Network (BLN), seek to spread division and instablity for electoral and factional advantage. Cynically distorting the union’s position as a rushed approach, with changes to be forced on reps, when they know quite well the exact opposite is true.

The timescale allows for extensive discussion and debate at every stage, so that anything that is debated will come as no surprise to anyone, because it will have been discussed and talked through far in advance, before any proposals for change are made.

Left Unity are clear that this open and transparent approach is what our activists and members would expect of us. BLN’s incredible falsehood that the union’s assessment of staffing costs is a myth, shows an appalling level of recklessness, ignorance and a failure to grasp the challenge posed by the staff pension deficit.

Once viewed with respect in PCS, the Socialist Party is now increasingly detached from reality, putting forward a series of bizarre assertions and arguing for positions that gain little or no traction with NEC members, activists or their shrinking group of supporters. Their destructive actions in PCS are now evident in other unions too; rather than seeking to build unity on the left, they pursue their own selfish agenda to try and win influence, regardless of the interests of members and activists alike.

BLN NEC members need to engage with members in their own branches and workplaces, by attending their BECs and understanding the issues that members face.

These are not theoretical, university-style debates, they are the very real concerns of our members, and at stake are their jobs and livelihoods; It is members, and their reps, that must be listened to first and foremost.

The Left Unity majority on the NEC are determined to keep our members and supporters informed of the facts, and involved in the discussion, and urge everyone to play an active part in the consultation taking place at every stage, to ensure that all options and views are heard, and that the decisions we take in the future fully reflect the needs of our members and activists.

Please feed in your views and make sure that together we agree a strategy for a stronger, campaign-focused PCS, that can continue to deliver for its members in the future.