By Matt Ross

18 Dec 2014

Facing the coalition, the civil service’s labour movement is split between outright opposition and constructive engagement. Matt Ross examines the tensions between – and within – Whitehall’s unions. llustration by John Levers

When the PCS published a leaked HMRC document last month, it revealed just how dysfunctional the union’s relationship with the agency’s leadership has become. The paper concluded that “PCS believes that outright opposition to everything serves members’ interests more strongly than achievement of change in a way which, as far as is possible, protects the legitimate interests of people impacted by change.” And its author Jonathan Donovan, HMRC’s deputy director for employee relations, argued that if negotiations don’t resolve the current dispute over job losses and organisational changes, then the agency should “aim to marginalise PCS by maintaining dialogue only to meet statutory minimum requirements.”

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka was furious, saying that this “orchestrated plot to undermine a union that represents three quarters of HMRC staff is further evidence of the creeping politicisation of the civil service.” But then, Serwotka has been furious ever since 2010 – during which time his hardline stance has itself attracted the ire of other civil service unions and, indeed, many of his own members. Faced with an austerity strategy, the unions have reacted in various ways – from downright confrontation to pure pragmatism. The resulting conflicts within the labour movement have both weakened collective action, and created resentments that could prompt substantial change across the civil service union landscape.

This pattern of conflicting union strategies was set early in this Parliament, when the PCS brought a judicial review to challenge a reformed Civil Service Compensation Scheme negotiated between the previous Labour administration and the other civil service unions. The PCS won in court – so Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude used the big stick of legislative change to force reforms through, resulting in a still less generous package. “We went to court to support the contractual rights of our members, and the government moved the goalposts and changed the law,” complains Paul O’Connor, the PCS’s head of bargaining. “It was an act of larceny.”

Maude has said, though, that had it not been for the judicial review he’d have let the original agreement stand: doesn’t O’Connor worry that the PCS’s action resulted in thousands of civil servants receiving smaller redundancy payments? “Do you see any evidence that the government would have been willing to take a more generous line, no matter what deals had been struck with the previous administration?”, O’Connor replies. “We think there’s an agenda to dismantle the public sector and that includes cutting jobs, slashing pay, and ripening the public sector to sell it off to the Tories’ friends in the City.”

The PCS, says O’Connor, isn’t opposed to talking to employers about “the so-called reform programme, but we want to have an open conversation about the effects of their policies on service delivery. If we were convinced that we could do the work with less people and there would be no detrimental impact on service delivery, we’d get involved in a discussion with the employer about how that could be done”. However, he adds, the union won’t help employers “to deliver something that we think is fundamentally wrong.” O’Connor appears to be saying that the government must persuade the PCS that planned cuts won’t have negative outcomes before the union will negotiate on how to implement them.

The HMRC document, O’Connor argues, reveals that “the employer doesn’t want to engage and wants to marginalise the union, and in so doing its own workforce”. But Francis Maude insists that “I have a completely open door to all the union leaders. We have regular conversations with most union leaders, without any difficulty. I’m always happy to meet, but Mark Serwotka doesn’t want to show up.”

It’s true, Maude tells CSW, that he’s declined to meet more junior PCS representatives, because “what tends to happen is that Mark Serwotka will refuse to come to the meeting, and the [PCS] people who come along think they’ve reached an agreement – which he then reverses. That’s why I’ve said I won’t have meetings with PCS unless he’s there: there’s no point in doing so, because it will be reversed.”

“Some unions put their political beliefs before the interests of their members” Francis Maude

The PCS is convinced that its tough stance produces results: O’Connor argues that industrial action – including its threat to call a strike among immigration staff on the eve of the Olympics – has forced departments to reverse job cuts, with both the passport service and Border Force recruiting hundreds of staff. An alternative explanation is that departments have simply found themselves too short-staffed to maintain services, resulting in embarrassing debacles like this summer’s delays in issuing passports; but O’Connor suggests that sticking with negotiations is less effective than challenging employers directly. “We’re ready to engage in talks whenever they want to, but we don’t believe that taking a more pliable line is going to get you any further than having a dispute – and when we’ve taken industrial action we have managed to roll back austerity,” he says. “The other unions haven’t won any more concessions than us.”

Those other unions, however, see the PCS’s approach as counterproductive. The technical professionals’ union Prospect opposes austerity, its deputy general secretary Leslie Manasseh tells CSW: “We don’t accept that public sector workers should pay the price for a financial crisis brought about by recklessness and greed on the part of bankers,” he says, arguing that austerity has prolonged the recession and “hollowed out specialist skills in every department, reducing civil service capacity”. But Prospect’s response is one of “constructive engagement, to persuade on the basis of evidence. We are not opposed to change per se, so our objective is to reach agreement which protects our members as far as is possible.”

At the FDA Union, which represents senior officials, general secretary Dave Penman believes that “whichever party was in power in this Parliament, we’d have faced an approximation of what we’ve got just now.” Discussing the rights and wrongs of austerity, he says, is “meaningless in relation to what we have to do as a union – which is defend the interests of our members.” Like Prospect, he argues that “you have to find a way of influencing the employer, trying to shape what’s happening to your members – and that means you have to engage with them. Our experience is that continual confrontation does not influence.” As Manasseh puts it, “we think our members’ best interests are served by compromising, which is what negotiations are about.”

None of the unions support austerity, so the key dispute here is whether opposition or engagement produces better results – and both Prospect and the FDA believe it’s the latter. “Even though we didn’t accept all the arguments made for changes to the compensation scheme, it was much better to engage and negotiate because we got changes made and our members were better served by that,” says Manasseh. And Penman points to the pensions reforms: “Despite taking industrial action, we continued to negotiate, and in the civil service we now have the flattest and lowest pension contributions in the public sector,” he says. “We achieved that by engaging in a constructive way, and that’s very difficult. But the employer wants to reach agreement, and you have to know how to use that.”

At the Cabinet Office, Maude agrees that Prospect and the FDA did secure benefits for their members in those negotiations. “With the Civil Service Compensation Scheme and the reforms to public sector pensions, the unions which engaged – because they were able to go into detail about their concerns – had a better result for their members. There’s no question about it,” he says. “If a union won’t work out together with us what’s the best outcome, then the interests of their members won’t be taken in to account – not because we want to exclude them, but because you can’t negotiate with an empty chair.”

Lynden Melrose, a former PCS member now setting up a rival union – the Revenue & Customs Trade Union (RCTU) – in HMRC, argues that the PCS’s approach denies its own members intelligent representation. “The PCS doesn’t appear to have a strategy, other than extreme confrontation in the belief that will bring the employer back to the table. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case,” he says. “Some of the exchanges between Francis Maude and Mark Serwotka have not been helpful. You can signal your opposition whilst protecting the relationship with the individuals on the other side of the table. You can’t have this disrespectful public persona, and expect [employers] to say: ‘Yes, you’re right, we’ll do what you say!’.”

Asked how the PCS’s stance has affected its members’ interests, Maude replies: “I don’t think its’ been helpful for them.” Some union leaders, he adds, “put their political beliefs before the interests of their members, and some put that aside to focus on getting a result that works in their members’ interests. The lesson is to engage with and work with the employer – not in a patsy way, but in a robust way – to get a good outcome.”

Penman believes that some of Maude’s attacks on civil service support for union activity – including his squeezes on government-funded union representatives (‘facility time’) and automatic payroll membership deductions (‘check-off’) – represent a reaction to the PCS’s own aggression. “I think he’s got more confrontational on some issues, which was entirely predictable,” he says. “You should anticipate, if you create a dispute, how they’ll react; that should be part of your analysis of the likely outcomes.” The FDA, he adds, addressed this vulnerability by switching to direct debit decades ago.

Melrose too says he senses a “slightly more intransigent attitude.” But Manasseh believes Maude must bear responsibility for his own union reforms: the minister’s squeeze on check-off, he says, is “deliberately designed to make it difficult for unions to operate”. But at the PCS, O’Connor suggests the policy is specifically aimed at his union: “The government see PCS as an impediment to their agenda to dismantle the public sector,” he says. “It’s no coincidence that in response, Francis Maude is trying to destroy our union through the removal of check-off.”

Not surprisingly, Maude denies that his reforms are a response to union activism: he tells CSW that the taxpayer shouldn’t be funding full-time union reps, and in Parliament last month he called check-off an “archaic way of operating that predates the existence of bank accounts.” Have his experiences during this Parliament affected his views on union policy? “My attitude’s changed because I now know more about the union movement,” he says. “The movement is very diverse.”

“I have strong relationships with some senior union leaders,” he adds. “I was invited to make speeches at the retirement parties of three union leaders – and it’s been some time since a Conservative minister was invited to do that.”

Asked whether the current disunity within the labour movement has weakened its collective power, the PCS and Prospect emphasise their desire to seek common ground within their differing agendas. The FDA’s Penman, though, rues the 2011 break-up of the Council of Civil Service Unions: since then, he says, “our ability to engage strategically across the civil service has been hampered, and the lack of a credible single voice for civil service unions has damaged the influence of union members.” Penman blames PCS for the council’s collapse: as the bigger union, it wanted each council members’ votes weighted according to the size of their membership, he says, and “we wouldn’t agree to that change, so they withdrew their support and effectively abolished it.” Its loss, he says, has “made it easier for [employers] to circumvent the trade unions; it’s allowed the government to disengage.”

Melrose believes, the PCS’s intransigent opposition to any cuts has poisoned the relationship between the government and civil servants’ biggest union.

The PCS’s stance doesn’t only result in tensions with the other unions; many of its own members appear to be growing disillusioned with its strategy. At the National Crime Agency, for example, hundreds of PCS members – unhappy at the union’s refusal to sign a no-strike agreement – have left to form a staff association. The RCTU’s Lynden Melrose – who’s applied for formal recognition as an HMRC trade union – criticises the PCS’s preference for “perpetual opposition. We believe we gain more for the members by discussing things properly with the employer, and we want the ability to influence.” The PCS is losing support in HMRC, he says, mainly because of “an increased radicalisation of the PCS, to the point that it’s almost a political party in itself – and that’s not what a union should be about, in our view.”

A veteran of the union movement, Melrose believes that “there’s no room for change within the PCS. The grip that certain sections have on the union means that anybody who expresses different views is labelled as a right-winger or a scab.” The PCS’s tendency to use HMRC staff as a “political football”, the RCTU’s website warns, will “only increase when that union falls, as it will, to the larger Unite union. This is unacceptable and contrary to productive industrial relations”.

Asked about the RCTU, Maude comments that “there’s a market operating. If people feel their concerns aren’t being represented effectively by the union they were a member of, then they’re going to look elsewhere.” But O’Connor says the PCS’s stance won’t change – even if a Labour government’s elected in May. “We don’t believe that a Labour government will bring any massive change in approach to the civil service, and we’d continue to do exactly what we’ve done under the coalition regime,” he says. Here, for once, Penman agrees with him: “Even after this Parliament of austerity, nobody can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “So whatever the colour of the next government, industrial relations are going to get even worse.”

Under the coalition, Melrose believes, the PCS’s intransigent opposition to any cuts has poisoned the relationship between the government and civil servants’ biggest union. “Some things now appear to be tit for tat,” he comments. “There’s no evidence that check-off is onerous for the employer, but once you get into that spiral of confrontation, it’s hard for people to take a step back without being seen as weak.”

The solution, says Penman, is to “show the government that engaging with unions will make it easier for them to achieve their objectives, balancing the interests of employer and employee.” For unions, he argues, the question is “not can we confront the employer, but can we influence it. There’s no point saying we were pure and right if we can’t influence on behalf of our members. And only if we persuade employers that it’s worth engaging will we genuinely influence what they do.”

For nearly five years, the unions’ differing responses to the austerity agenda have damaged relationships both between them, and within them. With the cuts set to continue for years to come, those gaps in ideology and approach are likely to grow, further splitting civil service unions into two opposing camps; and the PCS will continue to lose moderate members as they break away or join new or existing rivals.

Under the coalition, the civil service has had a very hard time – but the PCS’s critics believe that its wholesale rejection of public spending cuts is only making things worse. “The really hard thing to do is sit down and negotiate,” says Melrose. “And negotiation isn’t a set of red lines; that’s brinksmanship.”

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