The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, representing civil servants and outsourced workers, met in Brighton last week, from 22-25 May, for its annual group and national delegate conferences.
This year’s gathering took place amidst the tremendous industrial struggles that the union has fought in the recent months. This was reflected in the mood amongst many delegates, who were visibly enthusiastic for the fight and keen to discuss the way forward.
Notably, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka gave his farewell speech to conference, having announced his retirement for the end of 2023.
Alongside others on the left, Serwotka has helped to transform PCS into a fighting, democratic, left-wing union, taking it out of the hands of the old right-wing leadership.
The upcoming election to replace him therefore has great significance, and will be a big factor in deciding the path that the union takes in the future.
There is still much to be done in the battle against the Tories. But PCS has remained a stalwart of the fight. And our union and its members are continuing to show the way forward in the current strike wave.
Since November, PCS has delivered two successful national ballots. These have led to a mixture of national walkouts and intense, prolonged targeted action in high-impact areas, such as the DVLA and the Passport Office.
Tens of thousands of members have joined PCS as a result. New reps have come on board to help organise the fight. And picket lines have even been organised in places where there was no prior union presence.
The government has shifted on a number of demands. This includes a new pay rise offer of 4.5%. At the time of writing, the Tories have even offered to open negotiations, despite their previous silence.
Nobody at conference thought that this was enough. But PCS activists could sense the government’s weakness, which has forced them to budge.
All this, and more, meant that the conference was filled with first-time delegates. Many were younger workers who have become involved in the union on the back of the recent action. The speeches they gave were militant and full of anger. Everybody agreed that escalation is needed.
It is no surprise that PCS members are keen to fight against this decrepit government. Civil servants are subject to savage Tory attacks.
PCS estimates that 179,000 civil servants are having to skip meals; 40,000 must resort to food banks to feed themselves and their families.
Thousands of those who work for the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), administering the Universal Credit system, are paid so little that they have to claim benefits themselves.
No wonder, then, that conference overwhelmingly carried a motion calling for a complete overhaul of the welfare system, with many DWP workers expressing their disgust at the Tories’ policy of penalising the poor.
Nor will members be fooled by the recent offer of government negotiations. We have been here before, after all, with ministers demanding the suspension of strikes in return for the mere promise of ‘talks’.
As such, motions calling for a militant fightback against austerity and against Tory anti-trade union laws, and for co-ordinated action with other unions – including a one-day general strike – were passed overwhelmingly or unanimously. Members recognise the need to fight.
Motions opposing the government’s Rwanda deportation policy were also passed unanimously. Mark Serwotka noted that, thanks to PCS and the actions of union reps in the Home Office, no such deportations have taken place so far.
The conference debated all sorts of other topics: from international solidarity to finance. The speeches were inspiring, and the leadership encouraged new reps to come on board.
There were some bitter moments in the conference. These primarily came from members of sectarian organisations such as the Socialist Party (SP) and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), who decisively lost in the recent NEC elections.
Socialist Appeal activists are part of PCS Left Unity. We call for a comradely discussion, based on facts and figures, in order to patiently explain our ideas, and to present our suggestions and demands.
So while we do not agree with the majority of Left Unity on some important issues (for example, on the question of the Ukraine war), we recognise the importance of genuine socialists working together in the interests of PCS members.
By contrast, sectarian activists at conference resorted to insults and pessimism, offering no coherent strategy regarding the way forward for the union’s struggles. They lost many of the votes that they contested on the conference floor.
Above all, it was evident that these groups prioritise their own narrow interests over those of the labour movement. Consequently, many first-time delegates expressed disgust at their behaviour.
Socialist Appeal supporters in PCS reject these methods entirely. Instead of putting off newly-involved workers, we aim to educate them and organise them in the fight for socialism.
Time to organise
The potential of our movement is enormous. The mood across society is shifting, as workers in all industries begin to flex their muscles. Layer after layer are learning the lessons of the class struggle in practice.
PCS members have a key role to play in this process. We organise in the belly of the beast: the capitalist state, which exists to help make the rich richer at the expense of the working class, through austerity, privatisation, anti-union laws, and outright repression.
This apparatus is a giant with feet of clay, however. A determined fightback would expose its real weakness – and our class’ strength.
Our union can show the way forward for the whole movement, as we organise and mobilise in the coming weeks and months.
But this movement also needs ideas and perspectives, like a sword needs a blade. This is what the Marxists in the trade unions – organised in Socialist Appeal – aim to provide. But to do this, we must first build up our presence in every workplace and union branch.
We will fight tooth and nail for every win, calling for militant coordinated action and bold socialist policies to defeat the Tories and their austerity agenda.
As long as we live under capitalism, however, the ruling class will continue to chip away at our working and living conditions. Only a socialist society, planned and organised by the working class, can end these attacks once and for all.
If you agree, join us today, and help us organise a Marxist tendency in PCS – and across the labour movement – in order to kick out the Tories and kick out capitalism.