Mark Leftly: Austerity and pension problems leave PCS facing a takeover, not a merger

Westminster Outlook The Public & Commercial Services Union was forged in trauma and will end in capitulation.

The PCS was the result of the merger of two civil service unions in 1998. But on day one, the joint general secretary Barry Reamsbottom warned that he had found documents proving that militant factions were planning to hijack the new 270,000-membership super-union. Mr Reamsbottom, a moderate, vowed that he would make it his "business to defend our new union" against the militants, who, he said, were "anti-New Labour" and detested the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Referring to the fact that left-wing unions had been crushed by Margaret Thatcher in only the previous decade, he added: "Once again they see the chance of this big union forming with all its membership. This is quite a prize for them."

Mr Reamsbottom failed. Mark Serwotka, a supporter of the Socialist Alliance umbrella group of the militant left, seized control in a vote that was disputed by Mr Reamsbottom's right-wing faction until he lost a court battle in 2002.

Mr Serwotka is still in charge, but not for much longer. By next year, the once-mighty PCS will be subsumed into the behemoth that is Unite, with its 1.1 million members.

After years of merger talks, Unite and PCS are on the precipice of a deal: the PCS is about to send out motion papers for its conference in Brighton next month that will include an update on those discussions; yesterday Unite's top brass were convening a special meeting to go through the heads of terms.

Under Mr Serwotka's leadership, the PCS has fallen into financial disarray. We have previously revealed the union's acute pension problems, with an estimated deficit of up to £65.5m against PCS's £27.6m annual income.

The PCS has campaigned hard against Coalition cuts to their public-sector members' pension terms, yet are even more draconian with their own staff. A lump sum will no longer be paid at 65 in most circumstances, and it will take 45 years of employment with the PCS for a person to receive a pension of half their pay in retirement, against just 30 years today.

The union is struggling with a steep membership decline, as civil servants axed by government austerity cuts move into the private sector. In 2005, the PCS had 313,000 members, turning a £1m surplus, against fewer than 245,000 and a £3.1m loss in 2012.

Critics argue that the PCS's left-wing has burnt through its money, with many even comparing the union's hard-left with Viv Nicholson, a semi-tragic figure from the 1960s. Mrs Nicholson and her husband, Keith, won £152,000 on the pools – worth £3m today – but within four years they had squandered half their fortune. Mrs Nicholson ended up performing "Big Spender" in a Manchester strip club. Her life was immortalised in the 1999 West End musical Spend, Spend, Spend.

Whether that comparison is fair or not, there is little doubt that this is not a merger of equals. What Unite likes the look of, sources claim, is the PCS's headquarters building on prime land in Clapham, south London. "That could easily be turned into yuppie flats worth tens of millions of pounds," says one senior trade unionist.

That money could plug the pension gap, meaning that Unite will have taken its membership to nearly 1.5 million members at little financial cost. If he's not already a serious political player, that certainly gives Unite's general secretary, Len McCluskey, the sort of clout to give the Coalition nightmares and put even more pressure on the Labour Party – to which it is affiliated – to write a public spending-orientated general election manifesto.

That affiliation is also problematic for a civil service union. Even though the PCS is run by the very left of what is already a left-wing movement, there has always been an ideal that the union should be politically neutral when dealing with governments of any hue.

PCS's civil service members have to be politically neutral in their jobs so that they can serve whichever party is in office. The PCS leadership dislikes all the parties of central government, which is a kind of neutrality.

Although Ed Miliband has drastically reformed Labour's links with the unions and Mr McCluskey has floated the idea of severing links with the party should it lose the election, Unite is far from politically neutral. As one unionist puts it, the civil service representatives might want to punch the Tory minister in front of them, but at least the PCS banner means that negotiations do not start off on a party political footing.

I'm told that the PCS is now only fighting over small details, like how many positions it would receive on the merged unions' committees. Most corporate mergers are takeovers and that is the case here: these last arguments are merely the last rages against the fading of the light.

In a recent post on the PCS's website, the union claimed that the merger would "bridge the traditional divide between unions in the public and private sectors to boost our bargaining power". A faction opposing the deal noted this point was made on April Fool's Day.

The financial reality is that the PCS has ultimately failed, just as Mr Reamsbottom feared it would.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Life and Style
life
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Austen Lloyd: Law Costs HOD - Southampton

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: An outstanding new...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £21000 per annum + uncapped commission: SThree: As a graduate you are...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn