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Is a Unite takeover of PCS desirable? Not if it divides the Labour movement

TUC day of actionDiscussions are, we hear, proceeding apace between Unite and civil service union, PCS, about what has until now been described within PCS as a merger but at the recent Unite executive (at which Len McCluskey got its backing for formal talks) was described as a “transfer of engagements“, aka “a takeover“. Many details remain to be discussed, but what has already been agreed is that, if it happens, PCS would in January 2015 become part of Unite, under the existing Unite rulebook, with its current Labour Party affiliation arrangements.

It is clear that both Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka are personally very committed to it. As an active Unite member, I’ve been a strong supporter of Len McCluskey in both elections he has fought for General Secretary. I also admire Mark Serwotka, who is an excellent communicator, with progressive and non-sectarian politics, and who is clearly popular with a very large section of his members. But I’m unconvinced of the case for bringing the two unions together, for which there seems to be little industrial logic.

The main motivation for merger talks, according to the pre-conference briefing recently produced for PCS members, is “the creation of a new, powerful force in the public sector adapted to today’s changing industrial circumstances that can deliver more for members.” But Unite is predominantly a private sector union. Whilst it has important groups of workers in health, local government and education, it is a relatively small player in those sectors. The vast majority of PCS members would join Unite’s relatively tiny number of civil service members (mainly in the MoD) in a new civil service sector. But Len McCluskey, interviewed in the same briefing, says:

If you did decide to join us, you would bring invaluable experience. In my opinion it could be the catalyst to creating a very powerful public sector force, linking central and local government, health, and education, to build a much stronger coalition.”

My interpretation of this is that there is no pretence that there is necessarily an industrial logic for a merger today. But creating “the second largest public sector union” today, “a fighting-back union” unafraid of backing workers prepared to take strike action to defend pubic services and their jobs, could be a “catalyst” to becoming the largest public sector union sometime soon.

Certainly, that’s the way some people in Unison see it. It is “a statement of intent to launch a competitive challenge to UNISON in the public services” says the Unison Active website. Some may see that as sour grapes for failing to achieve what Unison Active describes as the”impeccable trade union industrial logic” for the creation of “a single public service union” with the merger of PCS and Unison (never mind Unite & the GMB, but did they forget the teachers? – Ed). Others argue that Unison has brought it upon itself. Jon Rogers, left member of Unison’s executive, argues that “friends in UNISON need to reflect upon why no other union … ever wants to consider merging with us“.

Criticisms of Unison, at least as far as recent coordination with PCS is concerned, go back to the public-sector pensions dispute of 2011. PCS had taken joint strike action with teaching unions ATL, UCU and NUT on 30 June. The TUC co-ordinated action on 30 November saw unprecedented unity including Unison, Unite and the GMB, but by the new year the government’s divide and rule tactics paid off. As Andrew Fisher argued on Left Futures, once the unions agreed scheme-specific talks, that was likely to happen but Mark Serwotka also blamed a “defeatist” mentality among some senior figures within the labour movement” which presumably referred to Unison and the GMB.

Criticisms of Unison are to be expected. They are made within Unison, by its own members, with the usual (but not always wrong) allegations about the failures of leadership. And on various issues, they will be made about Unison within other unions. No doubt accusations are also made about Unite, fairly or otherwise. They certainly were in recent months over the Falkirk allegations and over the Collins review.

What would not help public sector workers, nor the people who depend on public services, nor the interests of the working class movement in general, is a recruitment war between the TUC’s two biggest affiliates at a time when trade unions are weak, and public services face the biggest attack in history.

If there was such a recruitment war, I do not believe that Unite would make much progress. Although there clearly is some movement of membership between unions, it almost never involves significant numbers and it never will. The left within Unison, however you define it, is not about to up and leave.

Dividing the TUC along political lines, in the manner of France and several other European countries is the last thing Britain needs. The beneficiaries would be the employers and the advocates of austerity whose task would be made easier. This is a time for working class unity not political adventurism. It makes no sense, neither industrially nor politically.

At a time when the Labour union link remains under threat in the wake of the Collins report and the likely move by Labour’s leadership to introduce a massive increase in state funding of political parties, trade unions need to stand together. We need to act collectively to ensure that Labour adopts a union-friendly expansionary redistributing programme, and that democracy is restored in its internal workings.

There is no viable alternative to this approach which can defeat austerity after 2015 and save the NHS. And if there ever was to be a case for founding a “new workers party” (a situation we should be doing our utmost to avoid), Unite walking away from the Labour Party, leaving behind other union affiliates, is absolutely guaranteed to ensure that the project would fail.

Supporting all this, of course, may well be as far away from the minds of Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka as it is from mine. If so, the proposed takeover by Unite of the PCS may not be such a bad thing. But there are other reasons why, perhaps, it shouldn’t or won’t happen.

If there is no great industrial logic, why does Unite need another “merger”? Wasn’t it hard enough getting over the last one? Wouldn’t a period of consolidation be in order? And what is the state of the union it is proposing to take over?

PCS has been severely damaged by the cuts and privatisation of this government (and the last), having lost almost a quarter of its members since 2005. If Labour does not win in 2015, further job losses and the attack on facility time will further encroach on its ability to function effectively.

According to its most recent financial report, it failed to meet the target it set itself of  keeping employment costs, before employer’s NI and superannuation contributions, at approximately one third of members’ subscription income by quite some way – they currently stand at 41.7%. No doubt the task has been difficult whilst losing members rapidly. That means that Unite from January 2015 would have to trim staff costs by almost a third (more if membership continues to fall). This is somewhat surprising given that the report to Unite’s executive on 17 April said (subject to the need to carry out ‘due diligence’):

Subject to the resolution of pensions issues (our link – Ed) between PCS and the Pensions Regulator, there are no obvious financial issues that would obstruct a transfer.”

In the absence of clear industrial logic, why should Unite take on this difficult and risky exercise?

Of course, when PCS meets at its Brighton conference in 10 days time, its enthusiasm for the merger may have waned. There was already plenty of opposition from the right in the union and from sections of the left. Now they see it as a “takeover”, plenty of people on the left may sooner go it alone. Why should they give up their autonomy for an industrial sector subject to the ruling of Unite’s conference, executive (and even General Secretary).

And who will follow Len McCluskey? They mightn’t be so happy with Gerard Coyne. Would the United Left, bolstered by the mass ranks of the Socialist Party PCS fraction, be able to see him off?

What are the arguments Mark Serwotka can make against these? He can’t argue it’s financially necessary without making it harder for Len McCluskey to win the executive’s backing (though he is good at that). He can’t argue that there is any conventional industrial logic as he might have done with Unison with whom he signed a joint-working agreement back in the happier days of 2010, promising:

working together to fight cuts and promote public services. This will involve campaigning, co-ordinating and, where possible, taking action in unity and support of each other.

He could of course argue for a new “fighting-back union“, the “the second largest public sector union“, in which case…. (see above).

And what of Labour Party affiliation. Mark does not speak much of this, for obvious reasons. PCS members will be able to opt out of the single political fund. Just like Unite members can now. Shame though, since they certainly need a political voice. Or they accpt affiliated membership of Labour until they’re required to opt-in to that when they can choose not to. But you can bet that quite a few members will question the wisdom of Labor affiliation for supposedly neutral civil servants who may well face a Labour government cutting their jobs from 2015.

We shall be keeping a close watch on developments at the PCS conference in Brighton!

UPDATE: You can view an updated Briefing to PCS conference delegates here, and motions A21-3 in the PCS Motions booklet deal with the possible “merger” with Unite.


  1. Ian Pope says:

    I believe the industrial case for the PCS/UNITE merger will become more apparent in the longer term. You have alluded to the threat of privatisation to the PCS and its membership. If following the General Election, the Tories are returned with a majority huge swathes of the traditional functions Civil Service face being hived off to the private sector. Therefore the expertise of UNITE organising in the private sector comes into play. If if Labour win, sadly the threat of privatisation and outsourcing will remain.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Ian: If the Tories are re-elected, you may be right, although such an outcome could be devastating to union organisation with the end of check-off and facility time, not to mention the end of the NHS as we know it and many other areas of public service. I am not necessarily against a Unite-PCS ‘merger’ (though I remain to be convinced) – I am in favour of the unity of the working class movement. It is the strategy that lies behind the proposed ‘merger’ that concerns me rather than the ‘merger’ itself.

  2. James Martin says:

    As a former PCS activist (who worked with, and likes, Serwotka) I’m not at all convinced with this move.

    From PCS’s perspective a burning issue appeared to be the serious deficit in the pension fund. That may have now lessened though given the recent continued growth of the equities it will be invested in. From Unite’s side I am less certain.

    But once you strip away the various internal political and factional issues in both unions, you are not left with much industrial logic. As a syndicalist in outlook I’m all for the logic of one industry, one union. But that in turn does not equate to supporting super unions who tend to be less than the sum of their parts when push comes to shove.

    Unison is a good example of just how bad a super union can be, utterly useless in many areas, dominated by a right wing do nothing executive and with an inward looking full time official layer – most of who have been internally recruited – who keep a lid on things and attack branches that get too lippy.

    But here’s the thing. Francis Maud who regularly attacks PCS recently gave Unison recognition rights across the civil service because (as he openly admitted) he wanted a ‘sensible’ (i.e., weak) union to talk to and clearly believed that a union poaching war in various government department would be a good thing for the government. If (and it’s a big if) the added strength, finances and muscle of Unite can more effectively block Unison expansion in the civil service than that would be no bad thing in itself.

    Finally, there is regular speculation that Serwotka would be lined up to stand for Unite GS at the end of McCluskey’s current term. This may be the case (and would be no bad thing incidentally), although Mark’s health has been problematic in recent years having suffered at least one heart attack.

    As to PCS conference, it remains to be seen just what that will consist of this year. The government has been busily blocking traditional rights to facility time for delegates to attend meaning many if not most will need to take A/L to do so. As this means the days of annual PCS conference having a thousand plus delegates (and great conferences they were too!) are long gone, there is likely to be far more weight and power than in the past from the top table, so potentially this could be nodded through for that reason alone – whether the government will then live to regret blocking facility time for delegates this year remains to be seen!

  3. Jim Denham says:

    A good analysis of what seems to be going on. Like you, John, I’ve been a supporter of Len McCluskey and the United left, but fail to see any industrial logic in this “transfer of engagements”.

    It appears to be a move towards a French-style division in the trade union movement, with Unite/PCS positioning itself as the “left” focus. McCluskey’s hints (echoed by the CP’s Robert Griffiths in the ‘Morning Star’ recently) about breaking with Labour after the next election, are also a symptom of this. It is, as you say, the last thing the British trade union movement needs at the moment.

    This merger should be opposed, and the Labour link defended.

    1. Rod says:

      Jim Denham: “the Labour link [should be] defended.”

      It’s a bit late for that now the LP has voted at the Special Conference to drop the link.

      If Miliband wins in 2015 there will be nothing stopping him from bringing his plan to fruition.

      However, if Labour lose in 2015 there will be an opportunity to replace anti-trade union Miliband with a more inclusive leader.

  4. Ian Allinson says:

    You say “And what of Labour Party affiliation. Mark does not speak much of this, for obvious reasons. PCS members will be able to opt out of the single political fund. Just like Unite members can now”.

    This doesn’t match the PCS briefing that you link to, which says “PCS members would only contribute to the Labour Party if they had individually consented. Discussions will take place on the involvement of non-Labour Party
    members in Unite’s political structures, and the continuance of PCS’s regional Make Your Vote Count (MYVC) activities”.

    What PCS describe isn’t what happens in UNITE now – members contribute to the political fund unless they opt out and the affiliation is collective rather individual. It is more akin to what we expect might happen as a result of the Collins review.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Ian: I accept that the post-Collins arrangements would ensure that new members (into which category I assume PCS members would fall provided that they are introduced by 1 January 2015) can decline to opt-in to affiliated supporter status which means that their contributions to the single political fund would not be paid to Labour as affiliation fees. However, any further expenditure in support of the Labour Party including donations to the election fund could come from the contributions of those who decline to ‘opt-in’. Perhaps you could ring-fence PCS members political fund contributions but not, presumably, for ever. No industrial sector “autonomy” can last forever in a single union. The authority of the union’s conference and executive must surely eventually apply.

      Also, I don’t think you can guarantee that the Collins arrangements will work out as originally envisaged. Many unions (quite rightly in my opinion) want to minimise the effect of the changes.

      I accept, by the way, that your sector is one where ‘merger’ with PCS does make some industrial sense, as of course it does for Unite’s members in the civil service.

  5. Andy Roach says:

    Unfortunately I am not sure there is sufficient interest from members (PCS) in this issue. Facilities time has been under attack for sometime yet this has not resulted in any sustained resistance from the ground. My concern is a low turnout in the ballot that is likely to ensure it happens.

  6. James Martin says:

    In terms of the labour affiliation issue specifically, I very much expect a ‘Unison solution’ to this where the current Unison collective LP affiliation is based on an individual new member opt-in which was itself the result of NUPE (of which I was a then member) and COHSE being affiliated unions, and NALGO not.

  7. Chris says:

    I don’t think a civil service union should be allowed to merge with a union that’s affiliated to a political party.

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