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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40/45k + INCENTIVES + BENEFITS: SThree: The su...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent