On Thursday 5 February, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka held a briefing for branches on the direct debit campaign and the struggle facing the union. Sarah Malone reports back on what was discussed.
The meeting was well attended by activists from branches across the North West.
It started with NEC member Lawrence Dunne talking about the intensive work going on to sign members up for direct debit. He talked about how important the “field teams” of NEC members and full time officials have been when visiting branches and stated that their help was available for any branch which would like more support in increasing its sign up percentage.
He also mentioned that reps had to lead by example and it was worrying that a third of activists are not yet signed up.
There was a question asked about facilities time for this. Lawrence replied that there is no one size fits all answer for this as some workplaces are more stringent than others. In the Home office they did not use facilities time. They asked members to help as well passing the message to their team.
The attacks on PCS
Mark then took over, explaining that the meeting was designed to make people aware of all the facts and get the message across about what the union is facing. He was clear that the issue is not just funding for the coming year but the future of PCS that is at stake.
The government are trying to wipe PCS out because of our opposition to austerity. This is why unions such as Prospect and Unison are not facing the same attacks.
People are literally struggling to make ends meet and this is unlikely to change regardless of the elections in May. The civil service is the smallest it has been since the Second World War and there will be more cuts this year to pensions and the compensation scheme. Performance Management is set to demoralise people further and the scale of attacks is making people think we can’t do anything about them.
Withdrawal of check off, the method of collecting union subscriptions through payroll is a massive threat. The union risks losing 95% of its income from ending check off. Projections show that income will drop by £6.5 million even with as many as 85% of current members signed up to pay by direct debit by the end of the year. The TUC have said that already we have signed up more than any other union in this space of time, yet 85% is still an optimistic target. This will be debilitating to the union.
The withdrawal of facilities time for reps, which is used to provide both individual and collective representation to members, comes from an American model of union busting.
There has also been a bogus organisation, a staff association dressed up as a rival trade union, working with management to help them undermine PCS in HMRC.
In the Home Office, an injunction was sought against a report of understaffing as management argued that this was deemed as enabling terrorists by exposing shortages. This shows the ludicrous lengths the employer will go to trying to stop the union highlighting mismanagement.
There has been encouragement by management for staff to join other unions such as Unison, Prospect, and FDA. Francis Maude is on record as saying Unison are a more sensible union who understand when deals need to be done. To illustrate this, they have already gone behind our back to sign up to a dilution of an agreement over redundancy, even though it affects many PCS members and few Unison members. This has cut us out of negotiations, to the detriment of our members.
The possible next step in the government’s attacks is de-recognition of the union, which becomes a very real threat if we fail to effectively re-recruit 50% of our current membership in the direct debit sign up campaign.
The suspension of elections
When discussing the decision of the NEC to suspend elections for the current year, Mark argued that this could and should be scrutinised by Conference. He said that there are a whole load of unions who wouldn’t question the decision to suspend elections and wouldn’t want to hold a conference for activists to tell them they were wrong. However, he stated that there has been mud-slinging on social media such as Facebook which is inappropriate.
Mark argued that to elevate an election over the survival of our union was pointless. By May PCS needs to make a saving of £332,000. The Union was not in debt this time last year, but successive departments withdrawing check off has put us in this situation.
Mark said that as we need to keep the budget cuts in proportion to spending, it will be split so that 55% comes from staffing costs and 45% from everything else. The plan is to make £3 million in savings from employment, so redundancies are inevitable. However, if the entirety of the savings came from staffing there would be 118 job losses, equating to nearly half of staff. The actual savings will take 3 years to implement so as to be sure all PCS staff get a fair deal just as we would expect from our employers.
However Mark reiterated that we have to deal with the debt straight away. Everything we spend now is putting us in further debt so they had to explore non-staffing costs. The elections cost £600,000. He said that there was no cheaper way to make the elections happen, though there may be scope for this to be looked into for next year. Annual elections will still go ahead in subsequent years regardless.
Expenditure will have to be reduced to keep union afloat. By 2017 the books should balance. By the end of this year we will still be in debt by £4.4 million. May or June is when we will take our biggest hit, financially.
The sale of PCS HQ at Clapham Junction does not cover everyday costs but will help plug the overall deficit. There is no intention to drop asking price. However the interested developers have offered £6-8 million less than they had previously bid due to there being another development plan that may affect how far they can dig into the foundations. Mark said that this couldn’t be agreed and that as it would have been foolish to assume the sale would have gone through quickly, the need remains to have a plan to fall back on for making savings elsewhere.
In summing up, Mark argued that it would be our biggest mistake to settle for a smaller union. We have already lost 15,000 members due to cuts. The prediction is that the way things are going we will be less than 200,000 strong.
We need to be better organised and gain more reps. This situation has made the union undertake its biggest health check to date. We need to have more participation from members and more activity to represent a tougher nut for the government to crack.
The meeting put a number of questions to Mark after his speech. They are listed below, along with the answers given.
Q. The Financial report at conference last year did not show this even though direct debit was not a surprise?
A. The report to conference was accurate at that stage. It was based solely on cuts. It would have been mad to prepare for the loss of check off when employer hadn’t confirmed it, so the report was completely accurate. Tons was being done behind the scenes for ages. Sign up was slow until employer was committed to withdrawal. None of this is a secret.
Q. When did you find out withdrawal of check off was coming?
A. There is no sense of urgency with members unless something is real. The union was accused of scare mongering in HMRC up to a month before decision to remove check off was made.
Q. Had the NEC done projections based on worst case scenarios by conference last year?
A. None given
Q. Why was there nothing in the public domain when this was mooted? So what were the plans?
A. Tactically and strategically we had to make a plan after it was mooted before we could respond. The essence of this question is this all came as a shock. The decision to suspend elections was taken at the last possible moment. It was recognised after looking at data in December and had to be made before we started the process of elections. This is where we are and you can make the decision at conference whether it is the wrong call. I hope the debate is done in the fullness of all facts. I believe all should be divulged as public record.
Q. Group campaigns have been suspended due to direct debit why is this?
A. No campaigns have been suspended. In terms of the HMRC Jobs & Staffing Campaign the current situation is not a factor. There is industrial action currently in the National Gallery. It would be harder to sign people up if we suspended campaigning. It was never a decision.
Q. It was a decision but it was a decision made by the GEC is that what you’re saying?
Q. In terms of priorities there are others lower on the list than elections, i.e. PCS view and TUC affiliation. Why have they not been considered for cuts?
A. They have. In January we received a line by line on expenditure. Everything you just mentioned we will be doing. We are seeking to make savings on affiliation but it is unlikely that the TUC will waive the fee. It will be a lower amount though with the reduction of members. You will see this when the full details are released. It is inconceivable not to look at conference, elections and campaigns as part of reductions. Having a conference will mean that we can still debate. Is a rulebook written by the right-wing something we want to keep following? We are also looking at moving out of London.
Debates and challenges ahead
The Bootle Taxes Branch position on the suspension of elections will be fully debated at our AGM at the end of this month. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, we will all be working hard to sign members up to direct debit and to take on attacks by the employer and the government.
Credit is due to everyone who has pitched in with the debate and the organising challenge regardless of whether they agree with the decisions made.
Protect your union membership – sign up to Direct Debit today.
18/02/2015: This article has been updated to reflect clarification from Mark Serwotka’s office since Mark’s point on staffing cuts had incorrectly implied that half of PCS staff would lose their jobs.