I recently interviewed a number of PCS activists and senior representatives as part of my MA research. One of the interesting things about the set of interviews was the difference between discussing trade union issues with the two sets of people. Interviews with senior reps all took place in PCS HQ in Clapham, often in the offices the reps used on a daily basis. Interviewing rank and file activists meant travelling to a wide variety of places and interviewing people where it was possible. There was something raw and real about these interviews that placed the discussion about trade union activism firmly within the confines of community, social and family life.
John Pearson met me at Stockport station and we drove off to his house. When we arrived his wife had collected some fish and chips and we chatted over lunch before the serious interviewing began. Whilst I was there to talk about a range of issues, John’s dismissal from Hewlett Packard (HP) would dominate our discussion. We began though talking about the experience of being a rank and file activist.
“I started in 1974. At that time I was a member of NALGO and became branch secretary in 1981. I did that for seven years and with changes of job I’ve had periods when I’ve not been active but I’ve always joined the union and eventually everywhere I’ve worked I’ve always got back into union activity and become a rep. I’ve been a PCS rep since 2008.
For one year at HP I was the group president for the union’s HP group which consisted of five branches, but other than that one year all the roles I held have been at branch level. That’s the level I want work at. I don’t have any interest in being an employee of the union. I want a relationship with the members and the accountability with the members. You’ve got to be in touch with issues the members are facing. If you spend your time sitting in committee rooms, at the National Executive Committee (NEC), you know you’re going to drift away from that sort of connection with the workplace that allows you to understand what forms of action you can successfully embark upon.”
John talks about democracy at a branch level and how all decisions have to flow upwards from the grassroots.
“The union is the members; I’ve always wanted to work for the members. But I’ve seen many union officials who in the past have been good branch level activists, been involved with industrial action but as their careers develop as full time officials, even elected officials, they start talking about the union as if it’s some body apart from the members. I don’t think that’s inevitable, it’s about your attitude.”
We then turned to events at John’s workplace and he explained to me what happened during consultation over redundancies.
“We learnt that the site that I worked on at Lytham St Annes was scheduled for closure. So working in the ways that I have described, we built up a good attitude with the members within my branch to fight the redundancies using industrial action.
I had sent out to the branch members details of redundancy proposals. It had been sent to us with a confidentiality stamp on it and my branch executive committee discussed this and we decided, no this is dynamite, we’ve got a strike coming up in two days’ time, here’s a proposal that another 584 jobs are going to go within the next three months, the members need to see this straight away. You cannot have genuine consultation unless the union reps share the information with the members who are impacted. It was absolutely essential that we share that with the members otherwise consultation is a sham.”
The response from the employer was to discipline and dismiss John for sharing the information with the membership.
“It was outrageous. They suspended me on that basis and 12 weeks later they called me to a disciplinary which I refused to participate in on principle. I didn’t submit to being disciplined for carrying out my union activity. And they summarily dismissed me on August 9 [last year].”
I asked John about the support he got from PCS.
“I’ve been fighting since then for backing for my reinstatement. The union officials took the opinion of the union solicitor. They came back with a view that the case does not have reasonable prospects of success at the tribunal. The union officials in possession of that view then said ‘right we’re not going to support John Pearson at the tribunal’. I was branch secretary. I was sacked during the course of industrial action. The issue I was sacked on was purely about my performance in my union duties, nothing at all to do with my performance or my duty as an HP employee. I think it’s absolutely crystal clear the union should be seen to be supporting me.”
In fact, because John wasn’t supported at the tribunal by PCS it resulted in him being effectively thrown out of the union.
“A member who has been dismissed remains a member for as long as the union is taking action to secure a remedy for them. They judged that the union is no longer taking action and therefore I am no longer a member.”
John did get support from rank and file activists. The now defunct Civil Service Rank and File Network (CSRF) organised a campaign to secure donations for legal costs and a motion was discussed at conference urging the union to reinstate John’s membership and support the legal case. The Executive argued against this and won the vote.
However, last week John received news that he has won the tribunal.
“In view of the unfair dismissal verdict, I intend to challenge the union’s refusal to fund the case. I anticipate that the bureaucracy won’t rectify their failings with good grace and that I will need to seek support from branches. We now move onto the remedy part of the case and again I will be demanding the union’s support in pursuing my claim for reinstatement. I hope to be reporting back for work at what is left of the HP site at Lytham St. Annes very soon and offering my resumed services as a union rep to the members”
As union activists we put our necks on the line for the good of the membership and the working class. People in the movement use the word solidarity all the time but it should be an action and not just some cliché term to be trotted out. PCS were ill-served by poor legal advice in this case but it was used to build a case against the principled position of defending an activist carrying out their democratic duty to keep members informed. I hope PCS as an organisation will now support John. PCS activists who failed to support John should ask themselves why. Showing solidarity shouldn’t be a part time hobby, undertaken on a case by case basis. You show solidarity by standing together against attacks by the ruling class. In this case many people shamefully decided that it would be OK if one activist was picked off by an employer.
With regards to the future for PCS you might expect John to be downbeat considering recent events but he tells me he’s positive. On rank and file activity he says,
“I think it’s just a question of people grasping what is necessary and then being motivated to take action towards achieving what is necessary. The needs of workers to defend themselves are still there and the needs of workers to come to the realisation that they have got to go on to the offensive instead of just fighting defensive battles all the time is still there.”
John Pearson was right about his case. Now get behind him and support his demand for reinstatement.