Being a union representative can seriously damage your career prospects, according to 92% of the 524 reps who took part in a recent survey by Personnel Today and the TUC. As someone who was only promoted once during his 21 years as a civil servant, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), certainly proves that point.
The PCS is one of the UK’s largest trade unions and represents more than 320,000 people working for the Civil Service – about 70% of its workforce – from junior staff to senior-level roles.
The union’s clout was clearly demonstrated on 31 January, when an estimated 200,000 members took part in a one-day strike over the government’s public sector reform programme and proposals to slash tens of thousands of jobs.
And Serwotka has pledged to make the May local elections as difficult as possible for party candidates.
The Welsh firebrand said: “We’re going to have a massive intervention by contacting every candidate and asking them where they stand on local public service issues. We’re going to publish their response and encourage every union member to vote.”
Serwotka started work at the age of 16 as a clerical officer at the former Department of Health and Social Security (now the Department for Work and Pensions), in Pontypridd, South Wales.
“My mother told me to get into the Civil Service as I would have a job for life, a fantastic pension, and people in the community would look up to me. Finding out my mother had lied three times in one sentence was quite a difficult start to my working life,” he joked.
He spent two decades working on the front line as a benefits officer and was finally promoted to executive officer in 1999, years before he was elected as PCS general secretary. “I wasn’t exactly on the career fast-track,” he said.
His last six years at the department were spent working part-time for an annual salary of just £12,616.
“I took advantage of an agreement struck by my union to have school holidays off and I became a term-time worker [to look after my children],” he said. “It was an economic decision, as my partner, working in the private sector, was earning more money than me.”
Serwotka’s socialist leanings are not hard to unearth. Since he became general secretary in 2001 he has regularly repaid the PCS a proportion of his salary and donated £1,000 per month to the union’s campaign fund.
And, despite being at the forefront of the union movement, family priorities and achieving some sort of work-life balance are still important to him.
“I think I was one of the first people to take my kids with me to the TUC conference,” he said. “I always come home rather than stay away and I still try and take the kids to school when I can.”
This egalitarian approach to his family and colleagues, however, belies Serwotka’s disdain for politicians and the powers-that-be in Whitehall. “People must share my belief that some of what [politicians] are doing – reducing headcount, outsourcing, privatising services and damaging morale – is ultimately destructive.
“Morale is generally very low in the Civil Service- especially at the Home Office where politicians are always seeking scapegoats.
“Many public sector workers feel more demoralised and less valued now than they did in Thatcher’s time,” he said. “I think it’s terrible that, coinciding with my term as general secretary, the government has gone off on this tangent.”
But unlike many union chiefs, Serwotka regards HR professionals as fellow victims of the government’s agenda.
“We’re defending people in the Civil Service from losing their jobs and we recognise that HR people have a more difficult role to play there. I admire the job that many HR people do,” he said.
There is no doubting Serwotka’s passion for the labour movement. But he has ruled out the idea of the PCS joining the new ‘super union’, which is expected to be created by a merger between Amicus and the Transport & General Workers’ Union.
“It can only be for the union involved to decide if it’s right,” Serwotka said. “I don’t find [the merger] threatening, and I don’t believe it’s an organisation the PCS will be joining. I think unions should only join if they have a common function and interests. Unions should be a product of their members.”
At the age of 43, Serwotka is already clear about his legacy as a union leader. “My driving motivation is that the people who do so much for public services in this country actually get some recognition and respect for what they do,” he said.
“The government needs to start recognising what an asset public services and public service workers are.”
Let’s just hope that Gordon Brown is listening.
2001-present: general secretary, Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)
1999-2001: executive officer, Department of Health and Social Security
1990-2001: Group assistant secretary, PCS
1985-1990: Chair of South West and Wales union group executive committee, PCS
1980-1999: benefits officer, Department of Health and Social Security
1980-1984: Union representative, PCS