The head of the UK’s biggest civil service union has urged members to do “everything” possible to back Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, as the organisation prepared to debate establishing formal ties with the opposition. Unlike some major unions, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union — which has just under 200,000 members working across the civil service and private sector — is currently unaffiliated with any political party.
But general secretary Mark Serwotka has given strong hints since the election of Jeremy Corbyn last year that the union could rethink that position. Serwotka himself has rejoined Labour, while the union has made shadow chancellor John McDonnell the life chair of its parliamentary group. Both Corbyn and McDonnell are due to address the PCS’s annual delegate conference in Brighton this week.
Speaking at conference on Tuesday, Serwotka said PCS had, over the last fifteen years, come to believe that politicians of all stripes were “useless”.
“Whether it’s the Brown-Blair government slashing 100,000 jobs of PCS members, the Cameron-Coalition government slashing our pensions, or now this Tory government, frankly they have not acted in the interests of working people and our communities,” he said.
But the PCS chief said the elevation of Corbyn and McDonnell to the top of the party meant the union now had to have “very important debates” about its future direction.
“I hope, like me, you will agree that we should try and do everything we can. You know it was easy to be in a comfort zone and say to ourselves we knew we were against all the mainstream political parties,” Serwotka told delegates.
“But now when you have a party that opposes the Trade Union Act at the despatch box, that supports the National Gallery strikers in Jeremy’s first speech on taking up office, a party that now is led by someone that opposes cuts in the [civil service] compensation scheme, wants more jobs in the civil service and wants an end to the pay freeze, it is a time for us, I think to say, this is a fantastic opportunity and what we have to do this week is ensure we don’t let this moment pass us by.”
Serwotka said members needed to consider how to support Corbyn and McDonnell, arguing that “every single member of PCS” would benefit from the anti-austerity policy platform adopted by the opposition.
“Conference, wouldn’t it be strange if, after we have supported Jeremy and John more than any other MP in the last 15 years when they were backbenchers, somehow our support now became lukewarm when they are actually in positions of influence? I look forward to that debate this week and I hope that we will all agree to do what we can.”
One motion up for general debate at this week’s conference calls on the union to agree “in principle to affiliate to the Labour Party”, and says PCS’s national executive committee should take “all necessary actions to ensure this happens including any constitutional requirements to ballot members”.
Elsewhere in his conference address, Serwotka struck a bullish tone over the government’s recent u-turn on its plans to end the automatic deduction of union fees — known as check-off — from civil servants' pay packets as part of the Trade Union Bill.
PCS was heavily reliant on check-off, and saw the plan to end automatic deduction of union dues — which ministers argued would modernise the relationship between unions and their members — as an attack on its finances.
The check-off plans were ultimately dropped from the Trade Union Bill after opposition in the Lords, and CSW’s sister site PoliticsHome reported that the move came in exchange for union support in campaign to keep Britain in the European Union.
However, some departments had already ended the practice in the previous parliament, and PCS launched a campaign to get members to switch to direct debits in a bid to counter the move.
Serwotka on Tuesday said PCS was “still standing” in spite of a policy he blamed on former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.
“There were those that helped that PCS would fade away,” the PCS general secretary said. “One of our greatest achievements is we are still here this week, still strong and vibrant and fighting back. We are still here and Francis Maude is not.”
PCS’s latest financial report shows the scale of the challenge facing the union as it seeks to steady its membership and finances.
According to the report, membership fell by 37,000 in 2015, a 16% drop which has led to a fall in funding of more than £3m a year.
The union is therefore seeking to reduce its spending by £6.5m, and has cut its full-time, permanent staff numbers by 40% in the past five years.
But Serwotka told members there were reasons for optimism, saying that, “despite everything”, PCS’s monthly recruitment figures were now “at their highest levels since 2011”.
PCS also won a legal victory on check-off this month, after the High Court ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) ending of the practice without the agreement of staff was unlawful, following a challenge by the union.
The DWP has said it is considering the court’s judgement and its position, but Serwotka on Thursday said the verdict should put other government departments who had ended the practice on notice.