The Unite/PCS deal and the danger of a divided labour movement

May 9, 2014 at 6:56 pm (labour party, posted by JD, reblogged, socialism, unions, UNISON, Unite the union, workers)

We republish, below, an important article by long-standing Labour and Unite leftist, Jon Lansman, from the  Left Futures blog. Jon Seems to share my misgivings about the proposed merger/’transfer’ between PCS and Unite:

 Above: McCluskey and Serwotka discuss a new union … and party?

Discussions 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. justiceforkevinandjenveybaylis said,

  2. The Unite/PCS deal and the danger of a divided labour movement | OzHouse said,

    […] May 09 2014 by admin […]

  3. Jim Denham said,

    It’s worth noting that Robert Griffiths, Gen Sec of the CPB, writing in the Morning Star of 23rd April , also promotes this irresponsible fantasy:


    Should no such initiative be taken – or fail to make substantial headway and no such policies appear in the manifesto – Labour will disappoint rather than enthuse many supporters, either losing the election or subsequently governing with neoliberal policies.

    Under these conditions, the labour movement and the left will have no option but to take the necessary steps to re-establish a mass party of labour.

    It could be argued that trade unions not prepared to fight to reclaim the party to which they are affiliated are even less likely to leave it to undertake a much more politically advanced task.

    This will no doubt be the case with many of the 15 unions currently affiliated to the Labour Party.

    But sticking with a party which no longer represents working-class interests – and where the prospects of it doing so have all but vanished – is a recipe for permanent defeat and despair.

    It may well be the case that the initial moves towards re-establishing a labour party will have to come from a minority of unions, including non-affiliated ones.

    The vital necessity is for the forces involved to include at least one or two of the big battalions of the labour movement.

    This scenario might not be as distant as it once appeared. In March and April this year, McCluskey warned that his members might disaffiliate the union and help form a new workers’ party if Labour doesn’t reject austerity and adopt a pro-worker election manifesto.

    Other unions currently outside the Labour Party might also be prepared to consider participating in such a project.

  4. Howard Fuller said,

    Now that explains why the Socialist Party are in such haste to end the independence of PCS.

    Do people forget history so easily. The so-called most left wing Manifesto of Labour in 1983 made the party unelectable and led to rampant Thatcherism from which we still suffer the consequences.

    Having just read (twice) Coatseys article on Left Unity the futility of “alternatives” to Labour are obvious and the need tp to get rid of Cameron & Clegg to urgent.

    What serious individuals need to do is change the way the left thinks, ditch the religious attachment to dead ideologues (Marx, Lenin, Trotsky) and look to a pluralist, democratic and human rights (with responsabilities) based future.

    Meanwhile PCS activists should reject the merger.

  5. Andrew Coates said,

    This is a relevant point

    (from Left Unity and its Future. : )

    “Of one alternative strategy, that of the Socialist Party (SP) which is the principal force in the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Andrew Murray is also criticial. He notes that they have many “fine and self-sacrificing comrades”. However, the SP insists on “trying to create a shadow labour movement around itself, with its own electoral front, its own shop stewards’ network etc.” (32)

  6. Howard Fuller said,

    An update on the PCS (internal elections now over):

    Yet while the Tories continue their “slash and burn” policy of trade union rights the PCS leadership look to the tiny and irrelevant Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition for a political alternative, which happens to be themselves.

    PCS destroyed by arrogant self interest of a political cult.

  7. finbar said,

    Is it not just about the continuity of the understanding.Educate all you want and expoit those that do not pass the riguer of your test..

    The education of our humanity,how cruel they treat it.

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