The return of workers’ blacklists
By calling for far-right people to be sacked from the civil service, the PCS union is adopting anti-union tactics.
Recently on spiked, Frank Furedi highlighted the campaign by the UK teachers’ union, the NASUWT, to ban members of the far-right British National Party (BNP) from the teaching profession (1). However, my union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), has already stolen a march on the NASUWT when it comes to illiberal campaigning against the far right.
The PCS, the main UK Civil Service union, passed a motion at its 2008 annual conference agreeing ‘to campaign against the employment of members of fascist political parties in the civil service’ (2). In addition, following the decision in the Potter v Prison Service (2006) employment tribunal case, which endorsed the prison service’s policy of refusing employment to members of racist organisations, the PCS is asking the Cabinet Office ‘to reconsider its approach to employing members of racist and fascist organisations, and ban them, in line with [its] policy’ (3) — a call which was repeated by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka at this year’s annual conference (4).
In other words, a major British trade union is calling on the government to discriminate against, and refuse employment to, people based on their political views. Why would any union willingly hand such a power to the employer, and especially when the employer is the state?
For the PCS, the far right ‘are a danger to all our members’, as they ‘threaten to divide our workplaces and communities’ through their divisive, bigoted and anti-democratic politics (5). However, I would argue that the PCS campaign actually poses a greater threat to the democratic interests of PCS members, and, in fact, to all government employees, than the views of those far-right supporters who work amongst us. The PCS obviously believes that such a policy would only be used against those with whose politics the union at present disagrees. However, once in place, it would effectively give those in power the authority to sack or bar from employment anyone with dodgy political views.
Maybe the PCS has forgotten that generally (as has recently been brought to light in the construction industry) it has been trade unionists and their supporters on the left who have been the main victims of employers’ blacklists (6). However, for a union to beg the government to impose some sort of right-on blacklist not only demonstrates a disturbing level of historical amnesia, it also smacks of political cowardice — both in its willingness to undermine the fundamental democratic rights of freedom of thought and association in the hope that the powers-that-be will protect us from the views of a few, and in its abdication of responsibility for dealing with instances of harassment, bigotry and inequality within the workplace.
If the likes of the BNP represent the threat that the PCS believes they do, then you would think that a robust critique of their politics would be made a priority. Unfortunately, the PCS’s criticism of the far right generally amounts to little more than making comparisons to the Nazis and allusions to the Holocaust and 1930s fascism, as if that alone should be enough to win any argument (7). If the PCS’s criticism ever does extend beyond such crude ahistoricism, it is to point out either the violent criminal convictions of many BNP members or their renowned ineffectiveness when they do win electoral seats (8) – neither of which is an effective argument against the BNP’s politics.
But then the PCS’s whole approach could be described as anti-political. For example, in the run-up to the 4 June European and local elections in the UK, through its Make Your Vote Count campaign the PCS urged us to vote precisely to stop the far right from winning seats. However, the PCS was keen to emphasise that it was not recommending which parties or candidates we should vote for, nor did it explain how the policies of those anonymous parties differ significantly from those of the BNP. Rather, for the PCS, any notion of political contestation is reduced to a simplistic formula of the far right versus all the rest (9). Worse still, by urging us to vote for anyone-but-the-BNP, the PCS is effectively giving uncritical endorsement to the policies of those other parties, no matter how reactionary they may be.
The attempt to ban members of far-right organisations from employment in the civil service is not just illiberal and cowardly; it also betrays a deeply patronising attitude by the PCS towards its own membership and the wider workforce. The PCS’s campaign, like those of many other anti-fascist organisations, shows that it views us as vulnerable and gullible individuals in need of protection from the nasty views of a few petty-minded, flag-waving nationalists.
Why else would the PCS issue a letter to all members just prior to the recent European elections in which it stated in bold capitals ‘DO NOT VOTE FOR THE BNP’ (10)? Ironically, without campaigns like those of the PCS and Unite Against Fascism, to which the PCS is affiliated, the BNP would struggle to get the publicity and achieve the level of notoriety that it currently enjoys.
The PCS, and other unions, obviously need reminding that they should always be defending the interests of all their members, regardless of their political views and affiliations, and all employees against victimisation by the employer. Unions should be defenders of freedom of speech, thought and association, without which they themselves cannot exist as independent organisations. And a union should never be asking an employer to sack or bar anyone for their views.
One of the PCS’s mottos in its recent Make Your Vote Count campaign was ‘When trade union members vote – the far right lose’. If its policy to get the Cabinet Office to discriminate in its employment practices against people with certain political views is not challenged, then it won’t just be the far right losing, it will be any employee whose views don’t accord with elite opinion.
Paul Thomas is a civil servant working in Leeds. He is co-organiser of Leeds Salon, a new debating forum which hosts open and lively debates around contemporary political, cultural and scientific issues. He is also a member of his local PCS Branch Executive Committee. Paul will be speaking at ‘Recession-Proofing: from union militancy to reskilling’ at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 1 November at the Royal College of Art in London.
Previously on spiked
Frank Furedi argued that people should not be punished for their beliefs. Rob Lyons looked at the myth of the far-right surge. Mick Hume noted how, when all else fails, the elite goes after the BNP. Elsewhere, he said it shouldn’t be an offence to belong to the BNP. Nathalie Rothschild asked: ‘Who’s afraid of the BNP?’ Or read more at spiked issue: British politics.
(1) People should not be punished for their beliefs, by Frank Furedi, 23 July 2009
(2) View, July/August 2008
(3) PCS Informed Leaflet, January 2009. See also Employment Appeal Tribunal No. UKEAT/0457/06/DM
(4) View, July/August 2009
(5) PCS Leaflet ‘Unite to Stop the Far Right: Make Your Vote Count’, issued May/June 2009, and ‘Antifascist focus on May Day’ and ‘Stop them at the ballot box’, View, June 2009.
(6) Secret data on workers ‘sold” to building companies, The Times (London), 7 March 2009
(7) Stop them at the ballot box, View, June 2009.
(8) View, June 2009; and Same old boot-boys under the suits, PCS Comment, 30 January 2009
(9) Stop them at the ballot box, View, June 2009
(10) Letter to all members: “European Elections – USE YOUR VOTE”, ref: 0170573/B201031/12558.