Sunday, 27 May 2012

PCS leadership forces continued reductive pensions strategy on Annual Delegate Conference

Last week, I was in Brighton as a delegate to the PCS Annual Delegate Conference. There are, in such an event, many subjects covered and many debates had. But the centre-piece of Conference - the debate on the pensions dispute, and what actually came out of it.

We always knew what would be said of it. The union reported on Tuesday that delegates "will be looking to steer the union through a period of unprecedented attacks" and "step up [the] pension campaign." Once the debate had been done, the Socialist Worker told us how the "defiant" PCS had called for "more united pensions strikes," and the Morning Star that we "threw down the gauntlet to the Con-Dem government."

PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka addresses delegates to Conference - picture copyright Pete Grubb
In reality, the motion that passed was simply a re-affirmation of the same reductive strategy that I have previously outlined as marking a managing down of the dispute. The union still offers up fighting talk, as it has to for a membership who are under attack and rightly worried about their future. But there is no genuine block of rank-and-file militants demanding an effective fightback, and so action matching the rhetoric can safely be somewhat lacking without upsetting anybody but the ultra-leftists (that being everyone who's neither a scab, a moderate or a cheerleader for the current leadership).

Hence what passed on that first morning of national conference. There were eight motions in general debate, the National Executive Committee's at the head of the pile (unsurprisingly, despite the standing orders committee supposedly being a body independent of the NEC) and all after it falling if it passed. Passing being almost a formality, given a number of factors - from the order to the general secretary being the one moving the motion.

Urging conference to support the motion, Mark Serwotka said that "we are clear on the NEC that we cannot win on our own" because "even though we would rather move faster and quicker you have to accept that other unions make decisions and we have to work with them." Which underlines my own view that they are now fighting to manage expectations. Hence the key instruction in the motion being "to argue for further national industrial [action] on pensions at the end of June with as many unions as possible and to take final decisions once the position of other unions becomes clear [my emphasis]."

This gives two get out clauses. The first being that they are simply arguing for industrial action rather than taking the initiative and calling it, so of course if it doesn't happen they have simply not won the argument. The second being that the position of other unions is their foil - as when March 28 never happened, they can simply turn around and blame it on someone else that they do nothing.

The other instructions are even more wet. They call on the TUC to demand that the government enter central negotiations, again something which if it doesn't happen doesn't fall on their shoulders. A number of instructions simply reaffirm the need for "joint campaigning" and "coordination" without adding anything except an extra bullet point. "Community campaigns, protests and peaceful civil disobedience" get an honorary mention, whilst we'll try and get lots of people to the TUC's October 20 exercise in letting off steam.

"PCS Groups and Branches [...] taking industrial action" is declared "an essential part of our programme of action." However, at a campaign briefing in the PCS North West Regional Office a while back, I actually challenged NEC member Paula Brown on this. I pointed out that the disputes provoking such action were already happening and action around them separate to the national campaign - in essence, allowing PCS to declare it had a "programme of action" whilst offering absolutely nothing new. She effectively conceded this point, only arguing that there was "nothing wrong with that" since all the disputes should be linked. Not actually a point I was disagreeing with.

So, in essence, the motion gives the NEC a mandate to carry on with pretty much the same reductive strategy as before with periodic one day protest strikes, adding only that it can use other unions as a foil for inaction. Or, as Serwotka put it, "not potentially going it alone and being defeated."

This isn't to say that other motions in the debate necessarily provided an effective alternative to this. Some of them were extremely limited, from a motion to "name the day" for the next strike to one that simply said "find other forms" of action "instead of spasmodic 1 day strikes." One motion called for PCS to take out members in HM Revenue & Customs indefinitely with a levy of other members, though its intention of limiting "the government's ability to collect revenue" was somewhat ill-thought out given that most tax is taken automatically through Pay as You Earn.

The main effective rival to the winning motions was one which called for "national, regional and paid selective action" and "seek[ing] to take action with as many unions as possible" whilst being willing to "go it alone" if necessary. This motion and the NEC motion effectively underlined the difference of strategy between the Independent Left and the ruling Left Unity faction. Neither necessarily contains enough to win, but the former (perhaps mostly because it doesn't hold power) is willing to recognise the pitfalls of the existing strategy even whilst the latter winds us down to a managed defeat and remains baffled by the possibility that it as the "fighting left leadership" could face criticism from the left.

The debate took a number of turns, with as many opposition speakers as supporting ones. Safe to say, however, nobody took the position that the NEC strategy was too militant or radical - which is apt when it was neither of those things in any sense of the word. However, the problem outlined above of nobody offering an alternative strategy which didn't come with its own pitfalls, was what won it rather than the NEC motion offering the perfect strategy.

It is almost certainly true that action with less unions in this dispute will be less effective. That was always going to be the case after building up to a strike as big as that on November 30. But this doesn't mean that all action should be suspended if there is no "coalition" of unions - after all, if a strike by one union marks a significant downturn in the dispute from what went before, what is it when absolutely no unions take strike action? Rather, the question at hand becomes one of going beyond one day strikes, of being more imaginative with industrial action, and of utilising other forms of direct action alongside them such as occupations, economic blockades, et al.

But that only brings us back to the glaring point that there is no effective rank-and-file movement in this dispute. If we want to see one, it will have to be built from scratch and such a process will be painstakingly slow. The union tops, meanwhile, have an interest in keeping their strategies limited and reductive for a number of reasons. This goes for the IL faction if they were in power as much as LU, since their strategy  removes the limitations imposed by an opposition to going it alone but not those that are inherent in the union as a legal entity which needs to maintain its own existence.

This all makes the situation sound rather bleak, but for the simple reason that it is. The PCS NEC is pursuing a reductive strategy that will ultimately end in managed defeat and this needs to be recognised. But there is no magic formula that will change this or secure victory. The vital ingredient for such - a militant, self-organised rank-and-file pushing to control its own struggles - remains non-existent in the public sector.