Mark Serwotka: attempts to break us will fail

The PCS general secretary on why his union is facing its greatest challenge yet

Owen Humphreys/PA Archive/Press Association Images

By Mark Serwotka

09 Feb 2015

In the dying days of the last Labour administration, I said if you judged a government by how it behaves as an employer, it was the worst we had ever known. But let there be no doubt, this current crop of ministers – who I hope, come May, will all be following in Francis Maude's footsteps, packing boxes and saying their goodbyes to staff – have far outdone their predecessors.

Look at their civil service record. Ninety thousand jobs gone; pay and pensions cut, causing living standards to fall by up to 20%; redundancy terms slashed; working conditions rolled back; a hated and discriminatory performance management system; and more politicisation of the senior ranks.

Inseparable from this is the treatment of trade unions. We know how much further the Tories would seek to restrict union rights if they are re-elected. They have already cut facility time – which we also know benefits employees, employers and the wider economy – and, since 2010, they have degraded industrial relations beyond recognition. In the name of austerity, budgets and remits are so tightly controlled that the fiction of delegated bargaining plays out as both comedy and tragedy.

But it is the move against my union's finances that is the real give-away. After Eric Pickles's failed and costly attempt in communities and local government in 2013, the Home Office was the first major department to confirm its withdrawal late last year, followed by the Department for Work and Pensions. These hasty removals only make logical sense in the context of the general election. Tory ministers, fearing defeat, want to do as much damage as possible while they still can.

Despite the fact many large UK companies still use check-off because they recognise it is efficient, Maude claims there is nothing untoward about his mission to remove it. And in a frankly bizarre twist of reality, he has cited the fact we are signing up our members to pay by direct debit – a Herculean task to effectively re-recruit at short notice tens of thousands of people – as evidence that we agree with him.

But if there is no political motive, there is no rush. If it is more appropriate for a union to collect its own subscriptions, we could reach an agreement for a smooth transition over time that would not leave us out of pocket. That is, quite obviously, not what is happening.

All of which casts a fascinating, but deeply troubling light on HM Revenue and Customs' recent decision to withdraw check-off at the end of April – after accusing us in a post on its staff intranet of being "alarmist" for suggesting it was a very real possibility. As a non ministerial department, HMRC will never be subject to the same degree of political pressure as, say, the DWP is under Iain Duncan Smith. Here, we believe the desire to undermine us is coming from politicised senior civil servants.

The check-off decision comes hot on the heels of the emergence of a memo, written for HMRC's executive committee, detailing plans to "marginalise" us and claiming the department's "business interests" are best served by an approach that "reduces the influence of the unions". As well as proposing more cuts to facility time, the document says "further proactive measures targeted at key union activists" would be considered and discusses encouraging staff away from PCS to "other workable alliances" and causing the "degradation of PCS's organising capability". It is chilling to see this in black and white from senior officials in the UK's second largest government department.

The memo suggests they should only talk to us on "an understanding...that their future engagement with HMRC is about working with us to achieve our change agenda". There is only one interpretation: that this represents an attempt to break an independent trade union when we continue to oppose the cuts that have damaged the civil service and caused misery around the country.

These disturbing developments, taken as a whole, present the greatest challenge our union has ever faced. Under a political attack from ministers and, it seems, some in the senior civil service, we have launched a new campaign against union busting at the heart of government. With the backing of the TUC, we intend to make trade union rights an election issue.

Attempts to break us will fail. Long after the last farewells have been said to today's ministers, we will still be here, putting the positive case for a well run, properly resourced civil service that values its staff instead of treating them as enemies.

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