Since the start of the Con-Dem Coalition, the Public and Civil Service Trade Union (PCS) has been at the forefront of the trade union fight back against austerity and attacks on the wider welfare state. Now, however, the Tories are attacking the union’s very existence – by attempting to restrict the lifeblood of its members’ subscriptions.
Over recent years, workers in public services have suffered from swingeing job cuts, pay freezes and restrictions on and loss of incremental pay rates, together with broken pension promises. These attacks have been justified by the government as necessary austerity to cure the country’s financial deficit.
Throughout this time, the Public and Civil Service Trade Union (PCS) has been at the forefront of the fight back in defending members’ jobs, terms and conditions and the wider welfare state.
However, the latest challenge for PCS is an attack on the union’s very existence – by restricting the lifeblood of its members’ subscriptions. For many years these have been collected by a system called ‘check-off’, whereby they are paid directly from salaries – along with a number of other deductions like charitable donations, etc. This arrangement is now being stopped…but only for the collection of union dues. The government’s intention is clear, to starve the union of funds.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude wrote to all government departments in December 2013 asking them to review the “check-off” arrangements they had with civil service unions.
Maude has said: “It is not desirable for Civil Service employers to provide an unnecessary service on behalf of the trade unions.”
While hinting that the system is too costly to run, he has also said that it “epitomises a cosy and unhealthy relationship between the unions and the state.”
In fact, it requires the princely sum of £350. The union had even offered to pay for the service, so that the government would not have to cover the cost. However, the government has declined the offer.
In a briefing by the trade union research centre, CLASS, they note that the government lost a court case over check-off in 2013 when Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles tried to impose the withdrawal in his department.
The High Court ruled it to be illegal and £90,000 legal costs were incurred at the taxpayers’ expense. This also proves that questions of cost are not a priority when it suits the government.
Attempting to break the union
The Home Office were first in the firing line in September 2014 when PCS were given just three months to move 15,000 members onto direct debits.
Mike Jones, Home Office group secretary, said: “There has been a monumental effort on the part of PCS reps and members to tackle these challenges head on. The employer has failed to break the union. We have now moved 76% of our members over to direct debit payments and at the same time recruited an additional 1,292 members to the union.”
By January 2015, six government departments had already given notice of ending check-off arrangements and HMRC became the seventh.
As a result, the existing arrangements are due to end imminently, at the end of March for DWP and the end of April for HMRC, where the government has also reneged on its pledge given only last August that check-off would be retained.
The withdrawal has a potentially huge effect on union income, as those two departments together account for 153,000 members, representing about two-thirds of the union’s membership.
Desperate times; desperate measures
This called for desperate measures – putting finances on a ‘war-time’ footing to ensure the union’s survival. PCS has been forced to sell its large headquarters building and has also suspended NEC elections for a year to save £600,000.
The loss of check-off in the civil service now means that the union has to re-organise so that all its members subscribe directly via direct debit. Working towards this is a huge organisational task, though the massive incentive is to secure the future of the union and to avoid bankruptcy.
The union announced on 16 February that it had so far signed up over 100,000 members during the campaign. The union has also secured support in an emergency motion passed at the 2014 TUC Congress last September. Emergency motion E2 “Check-off”, expresses concern about the withdrawal of check-off since it: “will give the green light to employers across the public sector, and private companies, to withdraw from check-off arrangements.”
It also notes that: “check-off is an important and well established trade union right, and notes that withdrawing check-off has been used by right-wing regimes as an attempt to undermine trade union membership and income.”
The resolution, which was moved by PCS and seconded by the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), further calls on the TUC to: “lobby the Labour Party to include in their election manifesto a statutory right to have union subscriptions deducted through salary by check-off.”
Preparing the ground for further cuts
The withdrawal will cause major disruption to the PCS’s funding and is widely seen as an attack motivated by the government’s real aim – to weaken union rights within the public sector ahead of further cuts. Without urgent action from PCS representatives, the union could have collapsed, leaving employees unrepresented and utterly vulnerable to job losses and deteriorating terms and conditions.
The union is under attack both for its strong defence of members’ terms and conditions and also because it has been a prominent critic of the government austerity programme.
Another attack on the union is over the provision of ‘facility time’ to allow their elected representatives to carry out their trade union duties, where the Cabinet Office imposed restrictions in October 2012.
The attacks are clearly being choreographed on the basis of anti-union sentiments, from the Tory right including Aiden Burley and the so-called Trade Union Reform Campaign to Priti Patel and her friends in the Taxpayers Alliance, who conduct what is described by TUC Political Officer, Matt Dykes, as: “a constant stream of inaccurate and misleading attacks on union organising, particularly in the public sector.”
In his resignation letter, dated 1 February 2015, when he announced that he was standing down at the next election, Francis Maude showed what he and the Tories really felt.
Maude boasted that since 2010 his civil service “reforms” have: “saved taxpayers £14.3 billion last year alone, compared to Labour’s last year in office. . . [and] shrunk the Civil Service by a fifth” [representing about 90,000 jobs] … and rather chillingly notes that there is still much to do “…to ensure that the reforms are irreversible.”
Rowena Mason in the Guardian quotes PCS that his comments showed the “cat is well and truly out of the bag on Maude’s enthusiasm for cutting jobs.” There is also “speculation that, given a peerage, he could serve in any future Conservative government that promises another swath of cuts.” (Guardian 1 Feb 2015)
United we stand
Mark Serwotka remains defiant. In an article he wrote for Civil Service World in Feb 2015 he says:
“With the backing of the TUC, we intend to make trade union rights an election issue.
“Attempts to break us will fail. Long after the last farewells have been said to today’s ministers, we will still be here, putting the positive case for a well-run, properly resourced civil service that values its staff instead of treating them as enemies.”
Other unions have a responsibility to rally in solidarity with the PCS. This attack has implications not only for the public sector but for the whole movement as the Tories seek to limit the power of the unions to fight back against austerity.