In its dying days, the Coalition government desperately spews out anti-union bile against the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, the union representing the government’s own workers. Labour MP, Ian Lavery, former NUM president, described the Tories’ attack on PCS as the most serious on any union since the 1980s. He is not joking!
Personally coordinated by Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, the Tories aim to bankrupt our union through withdrawal of check-off subscriptions deducted at source from members’ wages. This is all part of the unremitting determination to take back gains won by the working class through generations of struggle, including the NHS and welfare state. They want to remove union and human rights and to institutionalise inequality.
It’s clear the attacks are because PCS has dared to stand up for our members against the erosion of pay, pensions and jobs in the civil and public services that the Tories seek to run down and hand over to profiteers. PCS has also dared to advocate and popularise an alternative to austerity economics, rich-club tax favours and welfare misery. The first PCS pamphlet post-financial crash was simply entitled, ‘There is an alternative’, and it was in research for PCS that tax justice expert, Richard Murphy, exposed the £120bn annual loss to our nation’s coffers through tax avoidance and evasion.
PCS may be the target today but this attack is part of a wider anti-democratic strategy to eliminate effective, campaigning unions. The Tories want free rein to plunder and destroy the public sector and unions stand in the way of that.
Attacks on jobs, conditions and services all stem from the same ideological source and class interest, and will only be defeated by the joint, coordinated industrial might of our movement acting together. With the manifestos pledges of all main parties containing only austerity-lite or austerity-max policies, it is only the union movement that can make any effective challenge to the political consensus that there is no alternative.
What PCS is up against today is a government that, as an employer, refuses to negotiate at national level while implementing a clear national cuts strategy. It won’t negotiate national agreements but try to diminish or rip up those already existing by driving through disadvantageous conditions wherever they can and remove bargaining rights on a piecemeal basis. Union facility time has been slashed in an attempt to weaken the union’s ability to defend and represent members.
A leaked document from inside the second biggest civil service employer, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), revealed vicious union-busting proposals including ‘proactive measures targeted at key union activists’ and ‘degradation of PCS’s organising capability by permanently reducing the influence of union leaders’. HMRC has refused to negotiate on legitimate industrial grievances and has attempted to marginalise and isolate the union.
HMRC HR has comfortably accommodated a staff association (RCTU), a scab outfit designed to undermine effective trade unionism in the department. It has summarily removed facilities from legitimate union representatives, deliberately targeting lead representatives.
HMRC chief executive, Lyn Homer, presides over a government agency treated as a standing joke by the tax-dodging corporate elite. But rather than concentrate on tackling tax evasion and avoidance she presses ahead with cuts that further compromise tax collecting efficiency, while giving top priority to smashing PCS. While chief executives in other departments, albeit lamely, cite pressure by ministers to carry out Maude’s union-busting edicts to end check-off, the decision to withdraw it in HMRC was entirely hers.
Homer neatly epitomises the new breed of highly politicised civil service executives, slavishly loyal to the cuts and privatisation agenda in the sure knowledge that a grateful corporate elite will never forget their services. Is it any surprise, therefore, that Maude has appointed HMRC HR director and would-be union-buster, Jonathan Donovan, to oversee a Cabinet Office project on ‘Responsible Trade Unionism’ to root out campaigning trade unionism in the public sector. That senior civil servants are being instructed to engage in this politically contentious activity is in itself a disgrace.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre and sinister over-reaction to a PCS survey on staffing, the Home Office secured a secret injunction against the union and ITV News on the grounds of endangering national security. It is not the identification of staff shortages that advantage terrorist organisations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Surely, the fact they exist is of more worrying concern.
Although PCS is efficiently organised and administered, it will take a tremendous effort to sign over all current members to direct debit. We learn from other unions who faced check-off withdrawal that it can take upwards of three years to recover subs-paying membership levels. It is clear that the Tories’ intention is to seek to exploit potential lower union density levels in the short term as a pretext to denying union recognition altogether. Alongside their threats to further tighten anti-union laws, this attack is part of a plan to effectively outlaw industrial action.
The Tories are wreaking their havoc now, before the general election, and if returned will seek to turn their bile on the rest of our movement, starting with the other public sector areas, where trade unionism is strongest. Also, the haste to crush PCS is clear that even under a Labour government committed to maintaining check off, much of the damage will have been done.
In Scotland, a third of PCS members work in the devolved Scottish Government sector. We expect better from a Scottish Government prepared to commission the Working Together Report with the STUC and to set up a Fair Work Convention. That the SNP administration hasn’t cut facility time for PCS reps nor removed check off is positive. Yet, we remain vigilant against an austerity pay policy and any attempt by either Ministers or employers to undercut long held union agreements, partnerships or principles.
At this time, it is important that our movement stands together. PCS calls on the solidarity of our union brothers and sisters in our struggle against the most hostile industrial conditions that have ever been faced in the public sector.
Lynn Henderson is PCS Scottish Secretary and National Officer for Northern Ireland