Civil Servants: A Very Uncivil Coup

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In the trade union equivalent of a right wing coup, Barry Reamsbottom and his 'moderate' cronies on the PCS union national executive (NEC) are attempting to sack the democratically elected general secretary, Mark Serwotka, and prevent the president, Janice Godrich, from carrying out her duties.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the events that led to Mark Serwotka being elected.

The 2000 PCS conference voted to hold an election for general secretary. This was endorsed both by the NEC and a ballot of all members. On a high poll the ballot recommendation was supported by 62,296 to 2,766. Reamsbottom, together with Blairite Hugh Lanning and Mark Serwotka, signalled their intention to stand. Unfortunately for Reamsbottom he failed to get the 50 branch nominations required to stand (he got a pathetic 19).

In the ballot for general secretary Mark Serwotka, a rank and file socialist working in a Sheffield benefits office, beat the career bureaucrat Lanning by a substantial majority. Nobody contested the result, least of all Reamsbottom. He came to an agreement with the NEC that he would retire in May 2002 with a six figure payoff, and Mark would take over from 1 June.

On 21 May Reamsbottom, the outgoing general secretary, demanded that a NEC meeting take place two days later. He failed to consult the president, as is required in the constitution, and refused to give details of why an NEC meeting needed to be called at such short notice. It is clear that right wingers on the NEC had known of his intentions to call the meeting at least seven days before 23 May. They had booked into hotels near to the union's Clapham Junction head office a week before. Other NEC members were given a maximum of 24 hours notice. On the day of the NEC Reamsbottom circulated a document, purporting to be based on legal advice, which recommended in effect that Mark Serwotka should be sacked and Reamsbottom carry on as general secretary until April 2004.

Ignoring Janice Godrich's ruling that the meeting was unconstitutional, the right wing continued with the meeting, removing her from the chair and replacing her with right wing vice-president Ted Euers. They proceeded to sack Mark Serwotka, remove all powers from Janice Godrich, and exclude all Left Unity members from sub-committees. So why the attempted coup now? Firstly the opportunity arose when the right wing won a small majority in the NEC elections. Secondly, Reamsbottom was due to retire on 31 May. Any plot to reinstate him had to be activated before that date.

However, this doesn't explain why Reamsbottom and the right wing would be willing to risk so much to get rid of Mark Serwotka. While there is little doubt that Reamsbottom's ego played a sizeable part in the decision, it is most unlikely that a smaller coup would have been launched against Lanning had he won. The real reason is that it had become clear that Mark could not be accommodated--he was not willing to accept the right wing agenda. This became crystal clear during the Jobcentre Plus dispute that Mark worked day and night to support, while Reamsbottom and his cronies reported internal union decisions to Alistair Darling and attempted to get the strike called off on numerous occasions.

The final straw for the right was the 2002 PCS conference in early May. It was the most left wing conference ever. A whole raft of motions were passed by an overwhelming majority--including a motion supporting Palestinians and calling for sanctions against Israel, a ban on arms sales, and a boycott of Israeli goods and for Sharon to stand trial as a war criminal. A motion supporting the Stop the War Coalition was also passed. The right meanwhile were humiliated on motion after motion. Policy agreed at the conference put PCS firmly on the hard left of the union movement. Conference also voted virtually unanimously to call on Reamsbottom to retire on 31 May.

There is no doubt that the stakes are tremendously high. Reamsbottom must know this is the last throw of the dice and that if he loses it will lead to disaster, not only for him, but for the right wing in PCS for the foreseeable future. And the initial signs cannot be encouraging for him. There has been a massive explosion of incredulity and outrage throughout PCS, and not just from the left. PCS head office has received hundreds of letters, faxes and e-mails from branches representing every part of the political spectrum condemning Reamsbottom and supporting Mark. This expression of anger from the rank and file has prompted the setting up of a campaign committee which has involved everyone from the centre-right leftwards. There is a national petition, leafleting of the branches of right wing NEC members, and a campaign for a special union conference. Activists are finding that there is no need even to argue with most members.

They know that Mark was democratically elected, they know that he stands up to our New Labour bosses, against attacks on our pay and conditions, against privatisation, and they know that Reamsbottom sides with New Labour against the membership. Pressure is building on the right. They have no base in the workplaces. A campaign based around rank and file activity can force the right to crumble.

Mark Serwotka and Janice Godrich have sought a high court ruling to endorse the election of Mark and the removal of Reamsbottom. There is no way of knowing whether that will be successful. In the meantime we need to step up the pressure. At the moment the NEC are due to meet on 10 June. If that meeting goes ahead we need to build for a mass lobby. All the signs are that it can be massive.

This is very serious not only for PCS but for all trade unionists. We have seen the elections of left wingers in an increasing number of unions. This is a crude attempt by the right to reverse this trend. New Labour and the TUC will take a sharp interest in the outcome.