Issue 264 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

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CIVIL SERVANTS

A very uncivil coup

Striking civil servants on a picket line recently
Striking civil servants on a picket line recently

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.
Phil Pardoe


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • Nigeria's privatised power company, the National Electric and Power Authority (or NEPA, referred to by Nigerians as Never Enough Power Anywhere), has placed advertisements in newspapers begging for calm in the event of power failures interrupting World Cup games.
    World Cup 'If you go on an orgy of destruction simply because there was a failure during a match, you will not be helping matters,' it pleads.
  • A far right Colombian paramilitary group responsible for killing nearly 1,000 civilians is so concerned with its image that it has set up an internet complaints hotline. Now, when United Self Defence Forces of Columbia slaughter trade unionists or activists, their family can log on to 'feedback' at www.colombialibre.org and get the grievance off their chest.
  • The technology used in the Space Shuttle is so out of date that Nasa has been forced to advertise on Yahoo! for spare parts. The shuttle is intended to be in use for another ten years.
    However that depends on what response they get and how many old Amstrads are still knocking about.
  • COLOMBIA

    Darling of the death squads

    Colombians harassed before casting their vote
    Colombians harassed before casting their vote

    Some 54 percent of the 24 million registered voters stayed at home in Colombia's presidential election last month. Colombia's new president is death squad darling Alvaro Uribe Velez. Son of a prominent mafia boss, Uribe Velez won a decisive first round victory in Colombia's elections. The high abstention rates left Velez with just 5.8 million votes--24 percent of eligible voter preferences.

    The low turnout signified a growing disenchantment with a political system that has failed to address the nation's ongoing death squad violence and a severe economic crisis.

    Uribe, who has a media mogul as his running partner, enjoys the enthusiastic support of the US government and the local media. He is also supported by the country's powerful generals and the death squad umbrella organisation AUC. According to observers, residents in rural areas were forced to vote for Uribe by right wing paramilitaries.

    Paramilitary support for Uribe was also evidenced following his victory by the congratulations he received from the AUC. US ambassador Anne Patterson also congratulated him.

    Uribe plans to increase military spending, double the number of troops, and create an armed militia of one million citizens. The prospect of armed civilians patrolling rural villages conjures up images of mass murder from Guatemala, where 'civil patrols' slaughtered thousands of indigenous people during the government war on the opposition.

    'What this is going to do is prolong the armed confrontation even longer and place the country at the edge of a situation that is almost civil war and dissolution,' said Jorge Rojas, director of a Bogotá-based human rights group known as CODHES, which works with the county's steeply rising internal refugee population.
    Elizabeth Atherton


    INDEX

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    MEDIA OWNERSHIP

    The Sky's the limit for broadcasters

    Channel 5 is up for grabs with Murdoch leading the way
    Channel 5 is up for grabs with Murdoch leading the way

    'Culture' minister Tessa Jowell's new media bill, released last month, lets the market rip through the television industry, with Rupert Murdoch set to benefit. Jowell launched the bill just as her previous free market prescription for our screens, digital television, collapsed, leaving behind bad debts, and the bad memory of Johnny Vegas and his monkey.

    Jowell's new bill is trumpeted as 'a significant deregulation in media ownership to promote competition'. The deregulation lets Rupert Murdoch bid for a free to viewer television station, Channel 5, to add to his satellite and newspaper empire. It also allows regional television firms like Granada and Carlton to merge.

    Jowell's bill shows Labour's enthusiasm for keeping Britain at the forefront of the deregulation bandwagon. Opening up television to more mergers and acquisitions is more likely to lead to job losses than the creation of new programmes--indeed, one of the main complaints from the media multinationals is that the BBC produces programmes that people like to watch. Disney in particular has lobbied hard to stop the BBC making as much children's television. The greatest danger is the bill will also put more television news and current affairs in fewer and richer hands.

    Labour's enthusiasm for doing exactly what the corporations ask is genuine, heartfelt and reflected in Jowell's bill. The party's top table have also started mingling personally with the businessmen they admire politically. Tessa Jowell's lawyer husband, David Mills, numbers Silvio Berlusconi among his clients. Jowell's bill actually opens British broadcasting more to US than European multinationals, but Labour's leaders are close to those as well. Labour's previous culture minister, Chris Smith, is a paid consultant for the Disney Corporation. Disney already own a quarter of GMTV, and it would like to buy bigger slices of the British broadcast pie.

    Labour's links to Rupert Murdoch are widespread. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both flown out to pay homage to Murdoch. Tim Allan left his job as Alastair Campbell's deputy to become the £100,000 a year director of communications for Murdoch's BSkyB. While asylum seekers are reviled for coming to Britain to flee persecution, foreign millionaires are being begged to come to Britain and broadcast endless reruns.

    The government's friends have tried to argue that Ofcom, the new regulator for the media, will counterbalance the wholesale deregulation in the bill. This is unlikely, as Ofcom is touted as a 'light touch' regulator. Ofcom was dreamt up by New Labour think-tank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). Just as IPPR's influential pro-privatisation work on PFI is funded by leading privatisers, so work on the media is funded by the broadcast multinationals. IPPR's study proposing Ofcom was partly funded by BSkyB, Turner Broadcasting and the Commercial Radio Companies Association. Previous studies were funded by London Weekend Television and News International.

    Jowell's promises that the new free market regime will offer viewers more seems particularly slim following so closely on the heels of the last Labour-backed business failure on (or rather not on) our screens. Labour gave companies a potential bonanza by promising to turn off the 'analogue' signal by 2006, forcing viewers to buy new set-top boxes if they wanted to continue watching the telly.

    Labour dreams of delivering services by television, 'interactively'. The party believed voting could migrate to digital television. Viewers could select tacky politicians in the same way they can select tacky gifts on shopping channels like QVC . Even after the failure of ITV Digital, the government's 'e-envoy' Andrew Pinder announced the exciting news that digital television users can now access government services, such as health service advice or plans for the golden jubilee, through their set-top boxes. Pinder claimed, 'There is a hard core of people who will never use government services over the internet, so it is incumbent on us to look at other means of reaching them. And there are an awful lot of digital television sets.' The government is not in favour of meeting citizens' needs through older technologies, like accessible offices, health visitors or social workers.

    Pinder failed to notice that set-top boxes are beginning to resemble so much scrap. Despite the government's promise to deliver digital customers as a captive market by turning off the analogue signal, Britain's best business minds made a hash of it. Carlton and Granada--the same firms who will be allowed to merge in Jowell's new bill, produced television of such staggering banality that few people stuck with their dismal service. While public sector workers are regularly told that 'throwing money at a problem' is no answer, ITV Digital paid enormous sums of money for only moderately popular Football League matches . In the end, the government's plans for digital television floundered, and the firm went bust, not least because 60 percent of people prefer their television free and don't subscribe to cable, satellite, digital or any other form of pay television. Over 1000 call centre workers in Pembrokeshire are now unemployed, and the Football League is chasing Carlton and Granada in the courts for £178.5 million of unpaid fees--while scores of footballers from smaller clubs are laid off.
    Solomon Hughes


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