National Conference Report

2015-05-21 12.10.30

John Virtue moving a motion on Tax Justice

PCS held its National Conference in Brighton from 19-21 May 2015.

Every year, Conference is the opportunity for PCS members to dictate union policy for the coming year by passing motions through their branch’s AGMs and by using Mandate Meetings to instruct their delegates which way to vote on those motions at Conference.

Using our own time, either annual leave or flexi, the delegates from Bootle Taxes made sure as ever that we argued our branch’s corner. There were a great many debates, some more heated than others, and we didn’t always get our way. But we always voted in line with the branch’s mandate and policies and made sure that your voice was heard by the group and national executives.

A full record of decisions should be available soon. This report gives a flavour of the issues discussed.

The branch put four motions to National Conference this year – all passed at our AGM. Seven motions were also taken by the national president from the Group to the National Conference agenda on the grounds that they were more appropriate there.

Suspension of elections

The first debate of National was on the National Executive Committee’s (NEC) decision in December to suspend the union’s annual elections in 2015. Bootle Taxes was one of more than thirty branches who carried motions condemning this decision, while a slightly smaller number of branches as well as the NEC put forward motions to ratify the decision.

Mark Serwotka moves NEC motion A1 on suspension of elections

Mark Serwotka moves NEC motion A1 on suspension of elections

The debate on whether the decision was right or wrong has been covered in quite a lot of depth previously, and the points made at Conference tallied largely with what had been said on a number of websites and online forums previously.

What is worth noting is that, perhaps due to the decision now having been made six months prior, the fire and passion that defined last year’s debate on whether to pursue a merger with Unite wasn’t there and although the debate lasted an hour, support for the NEC ultimately passed on a show of hands.

This decision is concerning in that it sets a precedent for an NEC to break the rules if it perceives an ’emergency’ to justify such action. It also highlights the limitations of a Conference decision six months late as a way to hold the leadership to account. Nevertheless, the vote has been taken and even if we don’t like it, our organising priorities remain unchanged.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that the subject of a Unite merger did come up again this year, albeit briefly. When it did, Deputy President Kevin McHugh confirmed that although the Bootle Taxes motion to defeat the merger fell in 2014, no talks on a merger took place. This was because Unite’s paid officials walked out of the observers’ gallery affter witnessing the debate and the opposition to merging with them – as such, our branch can still claim credit for pouring water on any attempt to absorb PCS into a much larger (and far less democratic) union.

Support for victimised trade union reps

The victimisation of trade union reps came up at Conference more than once. As well it might – in the five years of coalition government, there were a spate of cases where PCS reps were targeted and ousted by their employers. With five years of majority Tory rule ahead, more cases are highly likely.

A standing ovation for the National Gallery strikers who were sat in the Conference observers' gallery

A standing ovation for the National Gallery strikers who were sat in the Conference observers’ gallery

The first such case was Candy Udwin, a rep at the National Gallery in London who was sacked almost immediately after the election. Candy had been suspended by bosses on the eve of the Gallery’s first strike against privatisation in a clear and vindictive act of union busting. Despite this, the workers at the Gallery engaged in five weeks of strikes against privatisation whilst PCS and a great many others rallied in defence of Candy and demanded her reinstatement.

As delegates gathered at Conference, the Gallery was heading out on strike once more and both Candy and the strikers received a stirring welcome from everyone. Motions in support of the action and of Candy carried overwhelmingly and donations to the strike fund continue to roll in.

Unfortunately, Candy’s case was sharply contrasted by that of John Pearson, a PCS rep at Hewlett Packard who was sacked under similar auspices to Candy back in 2013. Bootle Taxes moved a motion in support of John, who was unfairly dismissed for his trade union activity but who had to fight and win the tribunal without the backing of the PCS leadership.

Phil Dickens moving motion A37 in support of John Pearson

Phil Dickens moving motion A37 in support of John Pearson

The motion and the campaign for John received widespread support and interest, despite the NEC using misinformation and partial truths in order to defend its abandonment of John. This included, on a similar motion last year, a rep from John’s own branch acting without a mandate to oppose the motion and to spread falsehoods which were in fact the exact opposite of the testimony they would later give to John’s tribunal. The NEC stood behind those falsehoods and reiterated them in a briefing to all branches ahead of this year’s Conference.

This meant that, unfortunately, our motion in defence of John fell by a margin of just 100 votes. A number of delegates approached us after this to voice their disgust at the decision and the behaviour that led to it. There has also been some talk of setting up an independent defence fund by those who believe, with justification, that as a result of this vote the NEC can no longer be trusted to back all reps who face victimisation.

The whole point of trade union organisation is collective organisation, strength in numbers and solidarity. PCS members will continue to uphold those ideas even where we feel that the union leadership does not.

The battles ahead

A great many of the motions heard at National concerned the fights that the union faces not only to defend members’ rights but also to defend the union itself from a government intent on breaking it.

The government’s union busting efforts have long been apparent.

The removal of members’ rights to pay their union subscriptions through their wages was clearly conceived as a way to financially cripple the union. However, this attempt has not been successful due to the herculean efforts of reps across the country who worked to effectively re-recruit over half the union’s membership (the figure raises to three quarters in HMRC and four fifths in Bootle Taxes)) in a matter of months. And we’re not done yet.

Less apparent, but equally concerning, are the government’s attempts to isolate PCS from other unions. It is telling that while PCS delegates attended Conference in their own time (with attendance 1.5% up on last year, underlining the dedication of those delegates to represent members), delegates for the Prospect union were still granted full facility time to attend. This only emphasises that facility time cuts are squarely aimed at the union which most vexes the government in pursuit of its cuts agenda, while those perceived as more compliant are left alone.

Just how compliant Prospect and the senior management union FDA are was highlighted when PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka told Conference of writing to all other unions asking for support in the face of government union busting. The Unite Union responded by waiving all of the rent PCS would otherwise pay this year for occupying buildings it owns – an effective donation of several hundred thousand pounds. Prospect and FDA, by contrast, not only refused support but claimed PCS was to blame for its own predicament because it opposed the government!

On top of this appalling lack of solidarity, Conference also heard that the FDA has chosen to open its membership to HO and SO grades – a clear attempt to poach PCS members.

At the same time Unison, a union which dominates local governmet but has hardly any members in the civil service, has gone to Francis Maude to gain recognition to negotiate on behalf of civil servants. This contravenes a previous memorandum of understanding between the two unions whereby neither would seek to organise and recruit in the other’s ‘sphere of influence’ – health and local government for Unison, the civil service for PCS. It also allowed Unison to endorse the dilution of a jobs protocol agreement which primarily affects PCS members.

Conference resolved to challenge these efforts to undermine and compete with PCS, reaffirming the point that division amongst workers only aids the bosses. More broadly, Conference voted to challenge union busting as well as to take forward clear industrial demands, backed up with action if necessary, to defend and hopefully advance our pay and conditions.

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