Left Unity’s Trade Union Commission has recognised an increase in cases of victimisation of trade union activists by employers. This has been especially marked in the public sector, with members of the Universities and College Union, the National Union of Teachers, the local government union UNISON and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), being sacked by employers for their union activities.
This article looks at one such case within PCS, which exposed serious failings by the leadership of this union, which has the distinction of being the only British union whose National Executive Committee has a clear majority of members of two ostensibly revolutionary socialist groups, the Socialist Party (CWI) and the Socialist Workers Party.
PCS is best known as the civil servants’ union. However, it has members in the private sector due to privatisation and outsourcing. This includes workers for the US transnational corporation, Hewlett-Packard, which, by means of acquiring the IT services company, Electronic Data Systems, gained lucrative contracts in the Department of Work and Pensions, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence.
In May 2012, in a move to push up profit margins, HP announced 27,000 global job cuts. 15,000 of these cuts were to take place in Europe, with a disproportionate amount expected in Britain where employment protection laws are weaker than in other countries on the continent.
PCS members in HP had to this point had no compulsory redundancies for three years. This was following a 2009 strike campaign which led to a Job Security Agreement, a pay rise and the extension of collective bargaining rights to ‘second tier’ workers who had been employed after privatisation had taken place.
However, in 2013 HP made some workers compulsorily redundant. It also embarked on a project to relocate in the UK to two ‘strategic hubs’ with higher paid, unionised staff being replaced by lower paid, non-union recruits. This was a very clear attempt to break the union as it forced through cost-cutting and restructuring measures.
Unfortunately for the workers concerned, these attacks were compounded by the actions of PCS officials.
Workers voted for industrial action in the form of discontinuous strikes and an overtime and on call ban. However, in April 2013 the union’s HP Group Executive Committee – upon the insistence of the full-time official, CWI (Scotland) member, Alan Brown – decided to suspend this action. The reason stated was that time was needed to consider an offer from the employer before carrying on with industrial action.
While news reports often describe other unions engaging in ‘make or break’ talks right up to the onset of a strike, and the strike going ahead if any offer made isn’t good enough, all too often just the presence of talks, or of any offer – regardless of its content – are enough for PCS to put everything on hold, in some cases even for months, demobilising members as well as frustrating effective action.
In this case, the fudge was compounded by the fact that the GEC refused to report details of an earlier offer they had rejected. The reason given was that doing so could make HP unhappy enough to not produce the second offer, ignoring the very fact that these offers come about due to industrial strength rather than the ability of the union to make the employer happy!
John Pearson resigned his position as Group President at this point, as this turn of events went against his election platform policy of full report back and accountability to the membership. He declared his intent to fight the GEC’s betrayal from within the rank-and-file.
He was successful in this. It emerged that the offer included a measly (and subsequently imposed) 1.6 per cent pay award, as well as a flat refusal to guarantee no compulsory redundancies or end job cuts, off-shoring and the use of contractors. The rank-and-file of the union, through workplace meetings, overwhelmingly rejected the offer from management and forced the GEC to reinstate action.
HP responded to this by moving against John. He was suspended and invited to attend a disciplinary hearing on two charges. The first was of ‘breaching confidentiality,’ because he distributed to members of his branch a spreadsheet received by PCS from HP in accordance with statutory redundancy consultation requirements containing details of the job pools from which 584 job cuts were to take place. The second was a failure to follow HP policy regarding press interviews because he had talked to the media in a PCS capacity about the ongoing industrial dispute!
These trumped-up charges were to lead to John’s dismissal, though he continued to act as branch secretary in the North West while fighting for his job back. That is until PCS finally hung him out to dry.
HP had, unsurprisingly, rejected a written demand from the union’s full time official for John’s reinstatement. Following this, the union’s legal department advised against pursuing an employment tribunal because a claim of dismissal for the automatically unfair reason of trade union activity had “no reasonable prospect of success”. It took some time for John to establish the basis of this view, until finally a letter over the signature of PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka in January 2014, implied that the dismissal was justified since the document detailing the 584 job cuts was provided on a “negotiations in confidence” basis.
This revealed that PCS itself is wedded to the concept of negotiations in confidence. Such a state of affairs makes relations between union officials and bosses cosier, away from the pesky matter of accountability to members. The officials can represent the union as a ‘responsible’ negotiating partner, able to police its membership and offer industrial peace. Where this collides with the collective interest of workers to fight rather than mediate what the bosses are imposing, then a militant rep whose loyalty is to the members rather than the bureaucracy becomes an annoyance rather than someone to defend.
John’s union branch favoured combining the demand for his reinstatement with resolution of the ongoing dispute over pay and job cuts. Bizarrely, rather than provide support to this, the GEC insisted that industrial action for his reinstatement had to occur as a single issue. Therefore, even as a consultative ballot went on, the union’s full time official informed John that the union was no longer seeking redress for his case and therefore he was no longer eligible to be a union member.
The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, a left talker beloved of the SP and SWP, backed up this decision, calling the situation ‘regrettable’ but offering nothing further. Meanwhile, even though action short of strike continued, demoralisation set in amongst the workers, compounded by the official attitude of the union. With John out of the way, officials declared their commitment to a ‘dialogue’ with HP as jobs continued to be slashed and in due course all industrial action was called off. The assistant secretary of John’s branch and a senior branch caseworker were subsequently to join hundreds of union members who were selected for compulsory redundancy without any opposition from PCS.
In August 2014, John won a unanimous verdict of an Employment Tribunal of automatically unfair dismissal for trade union activity. Even then, Serwotka continued to refuse support. John had had to engage a private solicitor and, despite the verdict, he was left to pay the legal fees out of his pocket.
It is clear that John Pearson was singled out and victimised by Hewlett Packard for his role as a militant trade union representative. It is equally clear that PCS’s resistance to this and other union busting efforts was piecemeal at best and that they have been willing to hang him out to dry for supporting a rank-and-file led approach and going against the official line.
To read more of John’s struggle for justice see PCS Support Your Members blog