For the trade union visionaries who promoted the formation of both PCS and UNISON in the 1990's the ultimate aim was always the creation of a single public service union in the UK. The emerging proposals for a PCS transfer of engagements to Unite (rather than merger) mark a tragic defeat for that impeccable trade union industrial logic. It could have been very different if recent history had taken an alternative course. At the TUC's 2010 Congress, PCS and UNISON agreed a statement on closer working welcomed by the national leadership of both unions but in the wake of the 2011 public service pensions dispute this was not progressed and the following year an almost identical statement (minus the anti Trident reference!) was agreed between PCS and Unite.
As LSE Professor David Metcalf notes in British Unions: resurgence or perdition? most union mergers have been 'aimed at raising market share - shuffling members around - rather than generating scale economies which would release extra resources for servicing and organising. Indeed many mergers are simply a reaction to the loss of members and income.' There will be claims to the contrary, but the hook up between PCS and Unite certainly falls into this bracket. Both PCS and Unite have faced significant membership losses in recent years. Civil service departments have borne the brunt of ruthless cuts in central government spending and PCS membership has now reverted back to its pre-2000 levels below 250,000. Unite's evolution through numerous mergers and transfers of engagements masks a phenomenal decline in overall membership of its constituent unions from 2,715,000 in 1999 to today's claimed 1,500,000 as deindustrialisation decimated employment in the UK's unionised industrial heartlands. However the current reality is that Unite's paying membership in January 2014 was under 1,135,000 (some 200,000 fewer working members than UNISON).
The incorporation of PCS into Unite is, of course, a matter internal to those two trade unions. However the case being made to promote the PCS transfer into Unite claims that ‘the main motivation for discussing a possible merger is the creation of a new, powerful force in the public sector’ and that ‘we need a more effective union fightback in the public sector to defend pay, jobs and pensions. And a union which can bridge the traditional divide between unions in the public and private sectors to boost our bargaining power.’
This projection marks a new departure and can be read as a statement of intent to launch a competitive challenge to UNISON in the public services. It is to be hoped that effective inter union and TUC diplomacy not to mention the principle of trade union solidarity will avoid the outbreak of union wars across public services – whose very existence is threatened by outsourcing and privatisation. But at this early stage there are grounds for concern.
UNISON branches and regions should be ready to defend the union's strong membership base in our established spheres of influence whilst at the same time avoiding encroachment into those of other TUC unions.