There has been an extraordinary development in the Public and Commercial Services Union, (PCS), where the position of Assistant General Secretary is being contested by two candidates of the same political party and the same union faction, Left Unity (LU). Janice Godrich, the current President and member of the Socialist Party (SP) is standing against Chris Baugh, the incumbent AGS, who is also a long standing SP member. Godrich has received public backing from the General Secretary Mark Serwotka.

Martin Ralph and Matt Prittlewell

Janice announced this on the eve of the union’s annual conference in May and following the recent national ballot on pay the issue has now seemingly flared up again as two wings of the union bureaucracy slug it out in the run up to next year’s election. The Socialist Workers Party that are also part of LU is supporting Janice Godrich.

LU are yet to take a decision on who their candidate will be. Chris has the official backing of the SP who have now published a lengthy article calling on Janice and her supporters to reconsider.

Meanwhile Janice Godrich’s supporters have set up a new grouping – ‘Socialist View’ – which will operate within Left Unity but could be a precursor to a likely split following LU conference should Chris get LU backing.

The left opposition within PCS, the Independent Left (IL), established in 2007 to fight for a genuine rank and file approach, has announced that it will also stand a candidate as an alternative.

What do the candidates stand for?

In short, apart from a continuation of the status quo, it is difficult to tell!

The SP have published a lengthy article defending Chris and their role in leading the union since breaking the old right-wing stranglehold in 2002. The SP state that, “after the left won control of the union, there have been important moves to democratise and transform PCS.” But in what way? They do not say.

The SP have made much of their leading role in LU and in the leadership of the union, and their recent article is no exception, so they need to be asking themselves why they failed to inspire enough members to vote in the recent national strike ballot. Despite receiving a massive Yes vote on a historic turnout (legal) strike action is not possible. This is due to falling short of the new legal requirement, introduced by the Tories, to secure at least 51% in ballots for action.

But rather than trying to find the way forward – that is, showing leadership in the face of the set back – the focus for them has now turned to the split in LU and in the SP.

SP is part of the bureaucracy

We do agree with the SP when they say, “the dispute within the left of Britain’s largest civil service union raises key issues for the whole labour movement.”[i] But their article does not provide the answers. The SP have worked for many years with Mark Serwotka and they talk about him as a left leader with whom they simply have some differences. They explain that these differences have arisen due to the “general retreat” of the movement i.e. the working class.

Serwotka continues to take his £108k salary. When first elected he was widely reported that he was donating £1k a month back to the union following his election pledges to only take a worker’s wage but this now appears to have dwindled to almost nothing. Baugh has a £90k salary and it is not clear how much, if anything, he donates back.

While Serwotka is the head of the union bureaucracy, the SP is happy to play an auxiliary role and to enjoy the material privileges usurped from the membership. That two SP/LU members are contesting the one position is a sign of how far the SP have become enmeshed in the union bureaucracy, it is a symptom of their degeneration.

The PCS Independent Left says, “Full time officers (FTOs) are paid wages that many PCS members can only dream of, there are no elections of FTOs beyond those required by law and there is top down organisation…Most conference motions passed remain unactioned…”[ii]

“In contrast we want all FTOs on wages that are the same of those they serve; all FTOs who represent members to be elected; for PCS to be really a membership lead union; for the union to back members and activists who want to fight, rather than act as a brake; for the union to be open so members are told in detail what the union is doing; for lay officials to lead all negotiations and for democracy to be more than just annual elections and conferences.”

We agree. So what have the SP and their junior partners in LU been doing while leading the union for the past decade and a half to address this?

Hannah Sell and Rob Williams, part of the SP leadership, say nothing in their analysis about the need for all elected union leaders to receive an average workers wage, which is of course a central demand for Marxists inside the unions, as it is for those elected to be subject to the right of recall and annual elections. The SP make no mention of these socialist demands to build a democratic union, despite long claiming to hold these principles.

In fact the SP/LU controlled NEC has consistently opposed motions to conference to move the union towards a wage structure more in line with the pay received by the majority of the members it represents and has not used its influence to push for an extension of elections to bargaining officers employed by the union.

And two years ago the SP/LU controlled NEC cancelled the annual elections as an emergency measure citing a financial crisis brought about by attacks on the government on the union. The apparent parlous state of the union’s finances were of course no fault of the leadership and there were claims that they had shown bravery in taking the unprecedented step of cancelling the elections!

The SP reason that the recent crisis in the PCS has been caused by the advance of capitalism and the Tories, and the betrayals by the TUC leadership. Referring to the one day public sector general strike in 2011, they point out that “almost 1.4 million days were lost in strike action, the highest since 1990, as public-sector unions took coordinated action in defence of pension rights’ with enthusiasm and mass participation of hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, many taking action for the first time, particularly in the strike day demonstrations.” They go onto explain that the TUC leadership capitulated.

Of course it did, it was always going to do that. But the SP have, for example, consistently supported Len McCluskey in two elections for leadership of Britain’s biggest union, Unite, against two well-known working class left candidates who got good votes, and McCluskey spoke at the SP’s National Shop Stewards Network conference in 2017. So, the very leaders they accuse of selling out the pensions dispute in 2011, and who held back many other disputes such as in the car and oil industry they support.

The role of the SWP

The SWP in their recent article on the subject attempt to burnish their rank and file credentials: “Many workplaces no longer hold members meetings and only leaflet members from outside the building. Activists become overwhelmed, don’t have a strategy for their workplace or branch and consequently miss out on involving new people who would be prepared to get involved”. The SWP also say that the leadership, failed “to develop a national campaign over office closures” and accepted “the Employee Deal in DWP when there was so much opposition to it.”

The SWP, like the SP, claim that control has been removed from lay representatives and handed to full time officers. But LU has been a dominant part of the PCS leadership for well over a decade so the criticism has to be levelled against the SWP as well as the SP.

The SWP also say nothing in their article about workers’ representatives on a workers’ wage, elections or right of recall. While they may have verbally opposed the NEC’s line on these things over the years they’ve been happy to keep their place on the LU slates over the years, and also despite the failures to develop the fightback needed that they hint at in their article. They truly are the ‘loyal opposition’.

It’s clear why they are backing Godrich and that has more to do with her backing from Serwotka than the actual candidate and her politics, whatever that may be. Their article makes this clear. They have decided to back who they see as the potential winner in a battle between two wings of the PCS bureaucracy. Added to this Serwotka is a favourite speaker for their ‘labour movement events’ and they need his profile.

SWP same as SP on Corbyn

The SWP criticise Left Unity for focusing on elections, and in their analysis they say, “it is necessary to renew the left in the union based on relating to the political movements outside of the union, combating racism and all forms of discrimination, and at the same time re-building workplace based organisation…”[iii]

On the question of relating to political movements outside of the PCS they have the same position as the SP i.e. awe of Jeremy Corbyn, even while saying they want to remain organisationally independent of the Labour Party. They both place great of faith in a future Labour government, they both focus on elections rather than fighting to create a mass movement on the streets that would have to fight a Labour’s policies. They are sowing illusions in reformism to the extent that parliamentary change can lead to socialism. It is an old argument that has failed in practice every time.

The SWP say, “The challenge for PCS and the trade union movement as a whole is not only to build the kind of campaigning movement that can ensure that Corbyn is elected, but also to connect with these activists and involve them in our union.” Of course union members who are in Labour should be part of the fight for strike action and mobilisations. But Labour are not calling for mass mobilisations linked to strikes and they have helped to bury the anti-cuts struggle that developed before Corbyn became the leader.

The main question for the ISL is that unions must build a fighting alliance based in the rank and file and “relate” that to the struggle of the working class inside and outside of the unions, and to the international struggle of the class. This must be based on the need to fight capitalism with a programme that can unite workers in struggle.

The SP perspective joins that of the SWP, when they say, “The role of the workers’ movement should be to fight for the transformation of Labour into a workers’ party.” They place their faith in Corbyn.

A union programme against capitalism

Despite the self-aggrandising rhetoric of the SP (and SWP) PCS remains a fairly typical TUC union. It is bureaucratic, top-down, and slow to react to the attacks by the ruling class on its members.

When the rank and file begin to organise independently and start wanting explanations the reformists always experience a crisis. It is necessary to organise the membership around an alternative, the Independent Left, and for it to become their fighting voice. It’s necessary to defeat the bureaucracy entrenched in the Union and implement a real working class democracy.

Trotskyism i.e. the modern expression of Marxism raises the need for an independent programme of the working class and not one that lets the leadership of unions off the hook. The problems of the last seven years and before that are due to the retreats of the leaders of the TUC and the individual union leaderships.

Not all unions are in retreat. The new independent unions mainly based in London that have organised cleaners, porters, security guards, taxi drivers and couriers are on the offensive and are scoring victories against their bosses. The recent militancy of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) on pensions and the subsequent rank and file rebellion against the leadership sell out show the possibilities in the older TUC unions, but the overwhelming vote to strike was organised consistently from below.

We must build on this and this must be based on a conscious programme for a new militant trade union struggle.  The SP and SWP have to decide on which side they will be: with the bureaucracy or with the rank and file.

We suggest a fighting programme for the PCS along the following lines:

For members’ control over the leadership of the PCS: all officials on workers’ wages, subject to election and right of recall

End all anti-union laws

For the right of full union recognition in the work place

The pay cap remains – end the pay freeze and performance related pay

Build a national movement against office closures

End oppression, equal pay and rights for all

Equal and full pension scheme for all

End the target-driven culture in Job Centres, DWP offices and call centres

Fight for permanent jobs

Build a fighting alliance with all workers and unions involved in running government offices whoever their employer

Support all strikes including the new unions