PCS Left Unity Conference Report 2020

This year’s Left Unity Annual Delegate Conference took place on Saturday 5th December from 12 noon to 4.00pm online.

Left Unity has a long political history in PCS, uniting the left and liberating PCS from a vicious right-wing bureaucracy led by Barry Reamsbottom who traded off many of the national bargaining areas that we are working hard to regain to empower PCS members at a national level against an extremely hostile employer in a fighting democratic Union.

Chairs Opening Remarks

The Conference started on a respectfully sombre note with Martin Cavanagh LUNC Vice Chair, Chairing Conference and making delegates aware of comrade Dave Bean’s (former President Revenue & Customs Group) passing during the night, where he commented on Dave’s and Simon Boniface’s contributions to Left Unity and called for a minute silence to be observed.

Martin’s introductions were brief recognising the change brought about by the restrictions imposed because of Covid-19 and welcoming delegates to the first online PCS Left Unity Conference.

Agreement of the Agenda

Conference Agreed the Agenda and Standing Orders for the meeting, which was different from hitherto, physical conferences with Statements from the LUNC on policy areas, but policy motions coming from the LU Regions.

It was agreed that there would be LUNC Statements on: –

  1. Coronavirus – Martin Cavanagh
  2. Future of PCS – Fran Heathcote
  3. National Campaign – John Jamieson
  4. Equality – Hector Wesley

The motions can be found here

Financial Report and Adoption of Left Unity Accounts

Mark Baker gave the Financial Report.

“Conference also took the financial report and agreed the statement of accounts for the year. This had been circulated to all members in advance of the Conference.

The account details have been fully updated and regular and close contact between the Organiser and Treasurer throughout the year had ensured we are keeping on top of accurate membership records and the regular payment of subs.

A big increase in the balance since the beginning of the year was noted and this is mainly attributable to the fact that we have not had to pay out T&S for most of the year or any major costs for ADC or for LU Conference itself. ADC is usually a good recruitment opportunity and also when some annual cash paying members renew their subs so although we lost out a little on that this year it has meant we have been focused on a steady recruitment process over the whole year.  The main items of expenditure were the printing costs of the LU conference and election papers, but we have also covered the costs of setting up the new website and our ability to hold zoom accounts for the purpose of continuing to meet when it is necessary to do so.   

Hopefully next year’s financial report will be more comprehensive. For now the finances are in a very healthy state and provide a strong base for our activities in the coming months and year ahead”

Left Unity NEC Work

The Convenor of the Left Unity NEC Caucus, John Jamieson, gave the NEC Report.

John briefly referred to the split, which had taken place very shortly after LU Conference 2019, that formed the Socialist Party led Broad Left Network (BLN) who had stood in opposition – in many cases for the sake of it, in that they opposed many of the policies hitherto held by themselves. John indicated that attempting to drive the NEC to a grinding halt with Covid-19, the National Campaign, Pensions and the Civil Service Compensation scheme in a “very different industrial landscape” would not serve members well.

John indicated that the LU NEC and LUNC wanted PCS to be a “fighting, campaigning, democratic union” and many of our previous strongest suites in organising such as face to face discussions with members or workplace leaflet drops were under the current restrictions denied us. Additionally, running a National Campaign on Pay, where Covid-19 caused a shift in members priorities, added to the fact that the only way to create leverage with the Government would be to win a legal National Ballot of members, still governed by a postal ballot – with many of our members having workplace ballot addresses – but not being in their offices, had a significant effect on our campaigning ability. The LU NEC therefore had to press ahead with organisational and communication change that better engaged the wider union membership: –

“The NEC have gone back to basic principles, finding ways to engage with members with members and bring them with us.

We are now adapting to this new industrial landscape, where the unfair and in these circumstances, outdated postal balloting system still presents a difficult hurdle we must clear to fight our employer, which is now necessary on Pay, Jobs, Terms and Conditions where Westminster has made it clear that members and public services will have to pay for their tragic handling of Covid-19 and the economic disaster of Brexit…

If there is one thing that recent events have proved is that the stakes are raised. This LU NEC needs to increase our campaigning capacity and push back, fight back and turn things around with socialist alternatives wielded by a strong socialist leadership.”

Section 1. Coronavirus

LUNC Statement

Martin Cavanagh in his LUNC statement indicated that “The challenges we have faced during 2020 have been amongst the most difficult, we could ever imagine. Whether personally affected by the pandemic or its’ impact is work related, not many of us will have escaped untouched by Covd-19. Of course, the nature of the crisis we have faced has meant a number of you have lost loved ones or colleagues to this terrible virus, and our deepest condolences go to all affected in this way.

The pandemic has forced PCS to adapt in how we represent members, and to re-assess our priorities when consulting with employers. With many of our members not in the workplace throughout the year, the union has introduced new ways of engaging remotely, has had to find workarounds to deal with members personal cases, all with the same aim of ensuring we provide members with the best representation possible in this unique environment. It is Left Unity activists that have been at the heart of these struggles…

When society has needed PCS members and the services we provide like never before, we have delivered alongside other public sector workers, despite the risk to personal safety. 

That risk has been a focus of the union, with the policies negotiated and decisions we have taken seeking to mitigate and, where possible, remove the risk to members…

The overwhelming view, that limiting social interaction is a key factor in reducing the spread of Covid, above all else, influenced our demand for all of our members to be able to work from home as the safest way of providing services to the public. Left Unity negotiators understand that isn’t always be possible, due to nature of the important roles our members carry out, and equally accepting working from home isn’t right for many members, there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach to protecting each of our members during these difficult times. 

Despite the hurdles we have faced, membership engagement has been strengthened during the year. We have more members now than we had at the beginning of 2020, having recently gone over 180,000 members, and have held a number of well attended members events digitally. Branches too have found new ways of keeping in touch with members and reported good levels of participation.

The challenges the pandemic will throw up in the year ahead are not lost on Left Unity, and our many activists that provide leadership at branch, regional, group and national levels.

We will continue to prioritise your safety during the difficult period ahead and come up with new ways of engaging with members and campaigning, that reflect the times we are in. Our negotiators will focus their attention on what delivers the best outcomes for members and the policies we agree today will be at the forefront of our response to this deadly virus.”

Motions 1-5 discussed Coronavirus

Section 2. The Future of PCS

In the Left Unity statement, which Fran Heathcote tied in with her moving speech for Motion 6 from her regional Left Unity, she set out the principles underlying the Future of PCS Consultation.

In her statement, Fran emphasised that the extended timescales for the consultation are intended to maximise participation and maximise input from all interested parties, and that the Left Unity led NEC wants every group, Region, Nation and Equality forum to play as much of a role as possible. This is in no way a ‘rushed job’, as has been suggested by those seeking to make political mischief, but is in-fact intended to allow for as much debate and discussion as possible. Fran indicated that the NEC will consider all feedback before it meets in January in order to consult further before deciding what, if any, motions should be submitted for debate at ADC 2021.

Fran took the opportunity to dispel a number of myths circulated by our opponents, that this was somehow:

  • the end of groups
  • the end of GECs
  • the end of departmental bargaining
  • the end of departmental branches

and spent some time outlining the current thinking behind the concept of PCS Locals, drawing on experiences in her own branch, which is in the process of setting up a PCS Local working with the neighbouring HMRC branch, as a means of enhancing health and safety work and campaigning using cross-departmental working. Fran also talked about how we can strengthen our ability to deliver successful strike action if we take responsibility for building PCS across locations, whilst recognising that there will always be a need for bargaining to remain within departmental structures.

Fran concluded by stating that the consultation, and opportunity to review our structures across PCS, gives us the opportunity to shape the sort of union we want and need, in order to build, grow and win. 

Motions 6-7 discussed the future of the union

Section 3. National Campaign

Comrades, John Jamieson for the LUNC making our statement on the National Campaign,

At the last LU Conference, we had a very clear campaign outline, for a campaign that reached into our membership base, engaging them to participate. Also using the lessons and information from previous ballots to turn out the umbers required to win a legal ballot and take action overcoming the hurdle of the unfair anti-union balloting legislation.

However, early in the year, the impact of Covid-19 had a major effect on members priorities, on our organisational capability, on our balloting process – with many workers having workplace ballot addresses and being away from work and also our ability to communicate with members.

I have not been in my workplace since February. There are sizable numbers of our members have not been in the office since March. Many of the ways we had hitherto effectively communicated and engaged with members such as face to face and workplace leaflet drops, could not be deployed with the restrictions leading to a very different industrial landscape.

Unions are based on collectivism usually built around fixed workplaces. Now we are a collective organisation with a more diffuse membership.

In an age of Covid-19 and antibiotics reaching the twilight of their effectiveness – many of these changes that have taken place – will be with us for years to come.

Of course, when you are trying to run a campaign on pay , when members are concerned about their lives, their families, their jobs, walking down the street to pick up groceries – it dd drastically change things !

Therefore the LUNC via the NEC have been busy on a number of fronts dealing with the impact of Covid-19, but not losing sight of the National Campaign, which is still very much focussed on Pay Justice and more laterally, Pensions. The only possibility of a positive outcome is directly related t our ability to campaign, win a legal ballot and exert industrial leverage on the employer in the shape of action.

This is exactly what the LUNC have in sight as our objective, for an industrial campaign on pay and pensions. It has become absolutely clear that the Government are now going to attempt to make public sector workers including Civil Servants, the real heroes of the Covid-19 medical emergency, they want us to pay for their tragic handling of the crisis with blood still dripping from their hands. They expect us to pay for their flawed responses including gifting serious sums of money to individual supporters and companies who have backed the conservative party and individual Tory MP’s.

In the face of this, we have increased our organisational capacity using our new IT software. We are improving communications with members piloting chatter. We are actively engaging with members, because the pay petition and a debate in parliament or getting new PCS ambassadors involved in supporting foodbanks was never the be all and end all – although having a debate in Parliament is useful in the context of the current Governments attitudes on Civil Service Pay. This is engagement at ground floor level, getting members to participate, getting 100,000 signatories, getting new activists into activity. You want to know what poverty is – help at a foodbank! Considering in Scottish Government, a PCS survey indicated that some civil servants had to visit foodbanks to get by very relevant and exactly the links we are making. Engagement that brings members with us ! That’s what we need to keep building and maintain if we are to fight and win on pay and pensions.

Of course, pensions is a significant mobiliser for our longer term members. The McCloud judgment has been useful, getting a remedy is helpful, but in itself, the law will not be the decisive factor in pensions justice for our members when it is becoming clear that the Government are going to try to use our pensions overpayment as part of that remedy for their unlawful changes to our pension schemes. It’s also not too much of a stretch to conceive that their expenditure on Covid-19 will be used as an excuse for increased pensions contributions ! There is no doubt that revelations about the Government using our overpayments will be a source of anger to our members and our job in the context of the national campaign is to channel that anger into action.

The LU led NEC were using the pay petition as a stress test for members engagement. The stats from our use o phone banking indicating very positive results from more targeted phone to phone communications with members and activists. We have now achieved 103,000 signatories, passed that test – but the real hurdle is ballot readiness which will only be achieved on the basis of hard work. Therefore, the NEC will run a further stress test for ballot readiness prior to the pay remit in 2021. We will use improved communications and any mean necessary to engage members and take them with us. The events of the last year have taken some of the momentum out of our campaign, but the battle for hearts and minds is still on because of the callous actions of the Johnson Government more recently are sure to provoke a reaction amongst public service workers and in particular our members in the Civil Service. Comrades, let’s take this fight to the Government. The LUNC supports the Emergency Motion and the motions in this section.

The emergency motion below and motion 8 discussed the National Strategy

Emergency motion – Fight the pay freeze

By freezing public sector pay, Rishi Sunak has given a clear signal the Tories plan to make workers pay for the crisis – while at the same time their friends benefit from multi billion pound Covid contracts and £16.5 billion given to defence.  

This is a slap in the face for those who have worked to keep services going during pandemic. 

We can’t let the Tories use the tactics of divide rule – trying to pit NHS workers against other public sector workers, and public and private sector workers against each other.

The government is on the attack but it is weak.  It has been forced to make U-turns over the furlough scheme, free school meals and exams. Johnson lost  chief advisor Cummings, faces disquiet over his support for Priti Patel and from his own back benchers over the handling of Covid restrictions. 

Trade unions need to rise to this challenge and need a collective, united response. 

We know that PCS led the way in trying to build coordinated action during the economic crisis 10 years ago, and we need to do the same again.

This means 

1) Following up the success of reaching the pay petition target by arguing for the maximum possible protest action as an immediate response to the pay freeze announcement. 

2) Step up the arguments within the union for united national action over pay tackling the political arguments for why public sector workers deserve a pay rise despite the crisis.

3) Continue the process of working from the ground up to overcome our organisational weaknesses.

4) Argue for a coordinated action campaign across trade unions to include coordinated strike action, organising a joint meeting of sympathetic unions as soon as possible.

Section 4.

Equality Statement by Hector Wesley

I start by saying that I don’t believe that there is any other trade union that has a greater commitment to equality than PCS. I say that in recent months I and others have had to defend PCS from accusations that the union is equally culpable along with the employer for discrimination within the workplace because we haven’t been vigorous enough in challenging it. I fundamentally reject some accusations.

The suggestion has also been made that for many on Left, Racism is a function of Capitalism and if you cure the latter you will also cure the former. I also disagree with that for a number of reasons, but mainly because I believe in the principle of self-organisation. The heart of self-organisation is the right of any group facing oppression to be able to define themselves the issues they face rather than others doing that for them.

All that said we can’t complacent and we always have to consider areas where we can improve. I am glad for example that PCS is rolling out training for reps on tackling racism in the workplace. That has been done in response to requests.

During a recent discussion I had with a Thompsons Solicitor they told me that PCS isn’t different to other unions in that by the time discrimination claims are submitted to them for consideration many of them are out of time.

While the results of the 2020 Civil Service People Survey have yet to be published externally, a number of departments have published their results internally. I have cautioned my own department not to congratulate itself over a fall in Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination from 14% to 9%.

Jonathan Slater tweeted Black Lives Matter during the Summer. He was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education then. He isn’t now. I’m not saying that there is a link here. However in light the recent note from Rupert McNeil – Civil Service Chief People Officer – to Civil Service Staff Network Heads stressing the need to maintain political neutrality and observe the Civil Service Code it is clear that senior civil servants will be reluctant to repeat such statements in future.

Intersectionality is another area where we have a job of work to get departments to improve. I still vividly remember sitting in a room in Whitehall just over 2 years ago with a Director General leading on race issues within their department and their Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. I asked whether they recognized that Black Women faced a double disadvantage in the workplace. Their response was that neither of them had thought about that as an issue. To be fair to both these officials they did thank me afterwards for sending them a list of books I recommended they read.

Within Left Unity I recognise that we do need to engage more with our members on Equality. I know many people feel Zoomed out at the moment. However I do think that we should be organising meetings for Left Unity members to discuss equality issues where we can share experiences and ideas in a safe space. That can only strengthen us as an organisation.

Thanks for listening.

Motions 9-11 discussed Equality

Emergency Motion Pakistan Solidarity

This conference notes:

  • That on the 8th of November, Amar Fayaz – a young socialist and student organiser with the Progressive Youth Alliance Pakistan – was kidnapped by members of the Pakistani state’s security services and police while sitting outside Liaqat Medical University in the city of Jamshoro, Sindh.
  • That many such kidnappings have occurred over the last few years, primarily at the hands of a paramilitary organisation known as the Sindh Rangers. Individuals kidnapped are often trade unionists, socialist journalists, lawyers and other politically active layers who the state authorities see as a threat.
  • That Amar likely faces torture at the hands of his captors, and that his family are being deliberately kept unaware of his current whereabouts.

This conference believes:

  • That the lives of Amar Fayaz and all others who have been kidnapped in this period remain in the most severe danger so long as they remain in the hands of their captors.
  • That Amar’s kidnapping directly results from the work that he has done in trying to restore the right of students to be represented by student unions in Pakistan, as well as his socialist political beliefs.
  • That the wave of repression currently ongoing in Pakistan, which includes the use of kidnappings like this as a tactic, is based on a desire to crush both movements and people who speak out against the Pakistani state.

This conference therefore resolves:

  • To call upon the union to send a letter of protest to the Pakistan High Commission, demanding the immediate release of Amar Fayaz and for an end to forced disappearances of activists.
  • To send a message of solidarity from PCS Left Unity to Amar Fayaz’ family and comrades, addressed to the Pakistani Trade Union Solidarity Campaign at contact@pakistanisolidarity.org, and to call upon the wider union to do the same

Motions 12-19 discussed other issues

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