“If we achieve anything higher than a 70% turnout I honestly think we won’t need to strike. The government will know we’re prepared to take sustained action and they will talk to us”. That was, as workplace representatives drumming up support for our trade union’s national ballot on pay, the message to Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) members in our office and across our branch in north west England. A modern-day trade unionist must have, above all else, an abundance of optimism and thick-skinned resilience to handle regular disappointments. I would have been disappointed with just limping over the government-imposed 50% turnout line, but at least we would have been across it and have a legal mandate to take industrial action and strive to achieve a respectable pay rise after nearly a decade of a 1% pay cap.
There were nearly 150,000 of us in this fight and after hours-on-end of campaigning, convincing and chasing members over a six-weep period, the results of our ballot were due to be published at tea-time yesterday. We as a branch had done what was necessary: we’d achieved well in excess of a 50% turnout (our figures, if members have been honest with us, suggest close to a 80% turnout). I logged on to the union’s website and saw the words:
“Huge strike vote – but anti-union strike laws will prevent action.”
I hesitated to click on the article, that undeniable sense of disappointment flowing through my body. After throwing the lot at hurdling over the threshold dictated in the government’s 2016 Trade Union Act, we’d caught our leg and fell flat to the ground. All that limbering and geeing up at the start line and we’d managed to turnout just 41.6% of those eligible to cast a vote.
The now-to-be-expected spin was already in operation from the union leadership: the constant blaming of the Tories’ anti-union legislation and the “historic” vote lines. There can be no running away from the brutal truth of this result. It is, in my view, a disaster and failure of the union leadership to motivate and fire up thousands of members across the country. Yes, the anti-union laws passed a couple of years ago are undemocratic and restrictive – they have been since Edward Heath’s first attempt to ruin trade unions in the 1970s. Barely an hour had passed before TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, waded in by demanding modern voting methods. Perhaps O’Grady will need reminding of two things. Firstly, the union’s consultative ballot achieved a 49% turnout and that included three methods of voting: postal, by telephone and, crucially, online (e-balloting). Secondly, how were other trade unions able to move their membership to vote in such numbers above the 50% threshold – the main one being the Communication Workers Union, who achieved a 73% turnout of 110,000 members and went on to achieve a pay rise, a pension deal and a reduced working week – that their respective employers could not ignore their demands?
Instead of engaging in deflection tactics, it is time the PCS leadership – general secretary, Mark Serwotka, and president, Janice Goodrich – started to answer questions, especially about their suitability to continue in their current roles. We must never forget how they effectively saved this union nearly 20 years ago during a time of turbulence and treachery, but how longer are activists willing to allow them to trade on this? They continue to play an influential role in their support for union factionalism that stitches an obedient National Executive Committee and for that are complicit in these years of failure. Our 185,000 members desperately need a radical and transformative leadership that is going to achieve for them.
We have belatedly arrived on the internet, attempting to use digital communication techniques but there is no comparison with the success of the CWU’s campaigning style and effectiveness. We also need to encourage branches who are successful in campaigning and achieving high turnouts to lead the training of current and new workplace representatives instead of relying on the tired and often cliche-riddled material presently used.
Fresh ideas are needed and, despite being a supporter up to now, I now doubt if the current group are able to provide them. For now, our members will head into work tomorrow with their pay restricted and their terms and conditions under attack and, to their mind, with no end in sight.
Serwotka will have more time to implement ideas that will attract the thousands more votes required to reach the 50% target. My thoughts, although mostly committed to helping to achieve this objective, are shifting to the general secretary elections in 2019.
Results of the ballot:
Number of Individuals who were entitled to vote in the ballot 142,673
Number of voting papers returned 59,285
Yes 50,726 85.6%
No 8,528 14.4%