Just like the old times, comrade

Observations on union welfare

You may think the early 1980s were a bad dream from which the left has now woken up. But look at the 250,000-member Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), where left- and right-wing claimants to the post of general secretary are set for a £70,000 court battle at their members' expense.

Union work has pretty well come to a halt, because every order to staff from left-wing Mark Serwotka is countermanded by right-wing Barry Reamsbottom. Serwotka's column in the latest issue of the union journal was pulled at the printer on Reamsbottom's orders; he substituted his own fierce attack on Serwotka.

Serwotka was elected to the job in October 2000 and had worked at the head office as general secretary-elect for more than a year, sharing the duties with Reamsbottom, the outgoing general secretary. Then, at an executive meeting in May - during which members screamed and threatened each other, lying across the table in an attempt to stop proceedings - Serwotka's election was declared illegal. Reamsbottom ordered staff not to obey Serwotka, and instructed Serwotka's secretary to stop working for him.

The story goes back to the creation of the PCS in 1999, from a merger of two unions, one the notoriously volatile Civil and Public Services Association. (In the days when sectarian divisions in the unions seemed almost designed to pave the way for Thatcher's 1983 landslide, the battles were always fiercest in the CPSA.) Reamsbottom was the CPSA's general secretary, and the merger agreement allowed him to continue as leader of the new union until 2004, when he reaches retirement age at 55. But Reamsbottom has spent a lifetime conducting trench warfare against the left; Public Service, Taxation and Commerce, the other union in the merger, felt he wasn't running things in a sufficiently collegiate style.

So, in a ballot, 97 per cent of the members voted for a fresh election. Reamsbottom was expected to stand against Hugh Lanning, a former official in the PTC. Lanning duly became the focus of hatred from both factions in the old CPSA: the left called him a "Blairite bureaucrat", Reamsbottom called him a Trot.

But Reamsbottom did not stand - because, he now says, he thought the election illegal. At the time, however, apparently struggling to get enough branch nominations, he agreed to hand over to the new general secretary this summer, in return for being paid in full up to 2004.

So Lanning's opponent was Serwotka, a leader of the inaptly named Left Unity. Everyone thought Serwotka's chances were nil, but he won. And just to make the story more complex, he is thought to have won partly because Reamsbottom covertly backed him, preferring to indulge his hatred of Lanning over hatred of left extremism. It is said that Reamsbottom celebrated Serwotka's victory in the Falcon (the pub where the PCS right drinks; the left goes to a different one).

If Reamsbottom wins in court, he will try to get the rules changed, so that he can continue beyond 2004. No doubt, the factionalism will go on well into this century. In case you are now wondering about the members of the PCS, they are mostly non-industrial workers in the civil service and various quangos - in other words, people who help to run the country.