Britain is experiencing its third Covid wave which is being made much worse by the ending in England of most Covid restrictions. As we write this, cases are over 50,000 a day with an estimate that this figure will rise to 100,000 cases in September. The numbers of those in hospitals is increasing, with some hospitals reconfiguring their layouts to re-introduce Covid wards.
Of course given the acute lack of beds in this country, every Covid patient in hospital occupies a bed that someone else could use. So we are seeing operations being cancelled, thus adding to the backlog of millions of people, many of them in pain, waiting for an operation.
Now the Government claim that the vaccination programme has broken the link between cases and hospitalisations and death. This is untrue. The programme has weakened the link but unfortunately not broken it; even people double vaxed (as proven by the Health Secretary of State contracting Covid) can still be infected.
In any case, as this article is being written, just over half of the total UK population have been fully vaccinated and around 70% have been partially vaccinated. Even assuming that approximately 20% of unvaccinated people are protected by previous infection, this still leaves more than 17 million people with no protection against COVID-19. Therefore there are millions of people who are unvaccinated or only partly so who are vulnerable to the third wave. This pool of people, much of whom are young, is where Covid is being left rip.
Whether by design or negligence, the UK Government is seeking herd immunity by infection rather than by vaccination. As such many more people will die, many more will be hospitalised and very importantly many more will get Long Covid. Already it is estimated that up to two million have Long Covid. The Government is adding to that number.
Then there is the chaos caused by people being pinged by the NHS app, the largely unreported crisis in school where at any one time, 100Ks of pupils are being sent home. All this is being made worse by the UK Government actions and inactions.
So what should the union say and do?
Firstly we have to condemn the ending of restrictions and set out the case to our members that the route to herd immunity must be by vaccination, not mass infection. It follows therefore that we must be opposed to a return to the workplace in the current circumstances and we should renew the call that those already forced back to the workplace be allowed to home work.
In reality this means backing action in DVLA and DWP.
In the former the union is re-balloting members in DVLA as required by law (the anti-trade union law forces unions to seek another strike mandate after six months – of course the Tories after the last election have a mandate for five years).
In DWP there was an indicative ballot, the results of which were not announced and since then things have on the surface gone quiet. For us that calm is deceptive. Each week offices are being closed owing to Covid as DWP is not immune to the third wave. More worryingly the department is pushing on with plans to get more claimants into Job Centres, have interviews at unscreened desks and to get staff back into processing and other centres. In other words, DWP is deliberately making the Covid crisis worse, converting every job centre into a super spreading site.
We have to oppose this not only by word but also by deed. Even if the mood on the ground is not uniformly for strike action now, though through clear leadership, consistent and firm messaging that can be changed – members’ state of mind is not fixed – we should seek to organise a fight where we can.
The indicative ballot presumably was or can be broken down by branch or even office. Therefore we know where a possible fight back can be organised from. Those branches should be immediately approached for possible balloting.
Our preference though is that all Job Centres/Processing centres, better still the whole Group take action. The Group should make this their public position and work towards this aim in the next weeks accordingly.What the Group should not do, to use an old phrase, is keep its powder dry, waiting for the events to reach some crisis point, hoping that member’s attitudes will change accordingly and then act.
Firstly that ignores that the union’s campaign is a factor that could bring that crisis to ahead and to change attitudes; whilst the havoc caused by Covid is the objective factor, what PCS says and does is the subjective factor that can change everything.
Pragmatically, given the long run in times demanded by anti-trade laws to ballot etc, we cannot wait for the crisis. By the time that comes and we ballot then, it maybe be over by the time the union can legally take action. Therefore we should anticipate events rather than wait for them!
PCS is finally moving its national pay campaign in a direction that Independent Left supporters have argued in favour of for years. Yet even as it does, it has risked fatally undermining the campaign with its recommendation of the Pay and Contract Reform offer that has now been accepted in HMRC.
At its most recent meeting on 26 February, the National Executive Committee voted in favour of a national pay claim which finally put national pay bargaining and pay coherence front and centre. Rather than, as previously, a one-line demand for national bargaining that was overshadowed by the percentage rise demand, the union is now seriously pushing for coherence based on the best available across government and using sectoral pay claims as a stepping stone to that through a reduction in the number of bargaining units.
There are still issues. The claim lacks a living wage underpin, for example, at a point where the trade union movement is discussing whether the current £10 per hour standard demand should raise to £12 or even £15 per hour.
However, the PCS Independent Left has long argued for pay equality and a levelling up to the best in government as well as the intelligent use of the differing pay ranges across departments. This was part of the platform Assistant General Secretary John Moloney advocated in his election campaign. IL members on the NEC have also consistently advocated prioritising the national bargaining demands when discussing the pay claim over the years we have been elected to the committee.
Despite this positive move in terms of the pay claim, however, there are still significant flaws in the NEC’s approach to delivering on it. This includes the unwillingness to openly advocate for a ballot with a proper lead-in, to concretely set out plans for delivering increases in membership and in reps as part of our organising efforts, or to finish developing an industrial action strategy that it can sell to members.
On top of these flaws, the leadership has now managed to remove the second biggest Group in the union (and the largest Group to pass the 50% turnout threshold in a statutory ballot) from any potential action for the life of HMRC’s Pay and Contract Reform Deal. Worse, it has refused to commit to a policy of no detriment and trading off terms and conditions for pay and signalled to the employer that they believe doing so might even help them achieve their national demands.
Refusal to build for action
At the previous NEC, proposals by the IL to signal to members that action would be needed to win on pay, to develop plans on union growth and development of activists, and to finally pin down an industrial action strategy that members could buy into were rejected. The logic was that these things were premature and unnecessary.
This highlights the significant contradiction in the leadership’s thinking: at once short-termist and yet always hesitant.
Short-termist because it was clear in the contributions that they thought signalling the necessity to build towards action suggested that a ballot would have to be imminent before this happened. Ignoring the lessons not only of unions like the CWU, whose ballot for their Four Pillars campaign had a seven-month lead in, but also of our own past ballots where twice in a row events started late enough to leave staff and activists rushing to catch up with the union’s own timetable.
At the same time, the leadership’s hesitation means that the horizon is ever-shifting. Not because the heavy lifting with members is being done, and members are aware that a strike ballot is coming but only once we are organisationally ready, but because committee meeting after committee meeting takes the firm decision that there will be actual decisions made at the next committee meeting, and all of this is far removed from actual members in workplaces or the organising work necessary to make the union ballot ready.
This approach is not only why members are likely to find out a ballot is coming a couple of weeks before it starts (if they’re lucky), but also why developing and publicising a concrete plan for targeted industrial action still hasn’t happened. This despite the NEC deciding to do exactly that on multiple occasions, including before both statutory industrial action ballots several years ago.
At the NEC Campaigns Committee and the NEC itself, it was admitted that the current pay campaign is a top-down initiative, lacking the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that might otherwise be expected when an issue captures the imagination of branches and members. In some ways, this is unavoidable due to the pandemic and the current circumstances. However, it is also not particularly new that national campaign initiatives would occur at a distance from workplaces, and in many cases even workplace-based activity would be announced at incredible short notice – including appearing on the union website on the day they should be happening.
This is a symptom of a wider malaise in the union. PCS aims to be an organising union, i.e. one that involves the mass of members in activity to win collectively and shift power to the workers, but in practice is still stuck on mobilising and servicing. In other words, staff and activist-led activity with membership involvement limited to specific set pieces, and the union as a largely external body which provides services like representation.
Fixing that requires a culture change that the leadership is, being generous, nervous about broaching.
HMRC Group: In or Out?
When barracking the HMRC Group Executive Committee into voting to recommend the Pay and Contract Reform offer, the Group Secretary categorically stated that doing so would not take the Group out of the national pay campaign.
When asked at a reps meeting, the General Secretary was clear that HMRC could not be part of the national pay campaign if the offer was accepted.
The latter position was probably a more realistic reflection of what was likely to happen. Not least because many reps saw the inclusion of the DWP Group after the Employee Deal as dragging the ballot turnout down. However, if that’s the case, it begs the question: is what results really a national campaign? How do you get pay coherence and national bargaining across the Civil Service when excluding one of the biggest departments?
The IL view is that, whilst recommending the offer was a mistake and does undermine the national campaign, the answer to that is to try and bring the Group back in rather than to leave them out for the life of the offer and (in essence) hope nobody notices you have a wheel missing.
The General Secretary and NEC majority’s view is that a ballot on pay isn’t imminent anyway, with the pandemic ongoing and where the government’s roadmap out of lockdown leaves us being unclear. This is a fair enough view, but also cements the fact that there is time to do the necessary work to bring HMRC members with us – we would clearly not be trying to convince them (or anybody else) to vote yes to industrial action on national pay too soon after telling them to vote yes to a deal on departmental pay.
This means what we should be doing, and should have time to do, is build in the Group. Five thousand new members joined PCS to vote on the offer and, although the failure to organise around the issue of pay is demonstrated by the fact that membership continued to decline in 2020 whilst the secret talks were ongoing, the task now is clearly to give those members a reason to stay. Alongside that, those who feel betrayed by the offer and PCS recommending detriments need to be won around, and shown that there’s still a reason to be in the union and a fight to be had.
Demands for national pay bargaining, alongside other elements in the pay claim which the HMRC offer did not achieve (and for some actually lost) such as more leave and shorter working hours, provide an opportunity to do that. Unfortunately, the NEC majority didn’t see it that way and instead have effectively opted to exclude HMRC from the national pay campaign.
The caveat on that was that ballots over the Civil Service Compensation Scheme or pensions would of course include HMRC members. However, that doesn’t answer the issue of winning on pay nationally without all constituent parts of the national union.
The risk of future trade-offs
Aside from the role (or not) of HMRC in the national campaign, the other major concern from the endorsement of the PACR offer is what it means for similar offers in the future. Will the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence, where contrary to the HMRC position the PCS leadership opposed what was on offer, come back with deals modified to reflect what was accepted in HMRC?
The NEC paper on the national campaign said that negotiators “advise[d] the Cabinet Office that this year, we would be likely to submit sectoral pay claims alongside our national claim” and “in talks on the pay remit guidance, we would be pressing for the flexibility to allow business cases that could widen the financial scope.” This in itself is fine, as alongside national demands we absolutely should pressure permanent secretaries to make the case to the Treasury for more money. However, as proof that “this could be achieved even in the context of a pay freeze,” they cited “numerous examples where we had secured deals of this nature before in similar circumstances, notably in the Home Office, Department for Transport, Department for Work & Pensions and currently in HM Revenue and Customs.” [Emphasis added]
The nature of the DWP and HMRC deals, and that they are cited as positive examples of achieving pay flexibility, begs the question: is a fully funded pay rise with no detriment still the policy? Or is trading off terms and conditions for pay now part of PCS’s strategy?
That the NEC voted down a recommendation from the IL to reaffirm the policy of full funding and no detriment, and that in their contributions some NEC members even suggested that detriment is an inevitable part of negotiations, is very worrying.
There is an alternative
The PCS Independent Left has won the argument over a coherent set of pay demands rooted in pay equality across departments, and that a serious industrial action strategy must consider targeted action, paid for from a strike fund. However, whilst slowly adopting the ideas we have argued for, is still failing to properly develop the national campaign we need.
It is reticent to develop a strategy of action that members can buy into. It is unwilling to properly engage members on getting ballot ready, with a consistent message that action is needed and cannot be delivered at a snap of their fingers. Now, it has signalled to the employer that it may trade off conditions for pay and opted the second largest Group in the union out of the national campaign. Their approach is not one that can deliver real gains for members.
Despite the employer mobilising it’s forces towards a ‘yes’ vote, with members bombarded every working-hour with propaganda for the deal, some might say the HMRC ballot result is an affirmation of the union’s policy to advocate for the deal. As we’ve said before, we understand that many members will have been tempted by the money on offer. So desperate to make up even a modicum of the loss in pay seen over the past decade that they saw the sale of significant contractual terms to the employer as the only option to achieve that. But this desperation is not the glowing endorsement the Group leadership thinks it is. Rather, it’s an indictment of the lack of confidence they have enshrined in our membership to fight and win on pay for the 15-plus years they have been at the helm.
If they remain in leadership we should, and will, still push for our union to do better. But we stand a much better chance of doing that if we are able to both build at the grassroots and change the leadership to one that seriously supports those efforts.
For real change, and a real chance to build a winning campaign, please support Independent Left candidates in the upcoming national and Group elections.
Our candidates for the NEC:
Bev Laidlaw, DWP
Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Chris Marks, DWP; Phil Dickens, R&C
NEC ordinary members
Tom Bishell, DWP; Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Ralph Corrigan, PSg; Phil Dickens, R&C; Chris Hickey, MHCLG; Karen Johnson, MHCLG; Bev Laidlaw, DWP; Chris Marks, DWP; Paulette Romain, DfT; Matt Wells, DEFRA
Every year, members of the Independent Left elect candidates at our Annual General Meeting to contest PCS’s national and group elections. Please consider nominating our candidates at your branch’s AGM.
We stand for:
- The pay that we deserve: We need a serious industrial fight to win on pay, with a real living wage as a minimum and workers on the same grade getting the same rate regardless of department.
- A union for all government workers: PCS should make a serious effort to organise all workers in our workplaces, including outsourced and agency workers, and fight for direct employment and the levelling up of conditions.
- A serious political and industrial strategy: Greater focus on workplace campaigns and disputes, to help spread and amplify them.
- Transparent negotiations: An end to secret “embargo” agreements. Members should be kept informed, engaged, and able to democratically direct the negotiation process.
- Equality at the centre: The union should be a tool for black, women, LGBT+, and disabled workers to use to organise against inequality and discrimination, at work and in society.
- Rank-and-file control: The union should support all groups of workers who want to take action, not put barriers in their way.
- Elected and accountable full-time officials: All officials should directly answerable and accountable to the membership, not to the internal staff hierarchy of the union. FTOs’ pay should be pegged to the average wages of the members they represent.
On Monday 1 February, HMRC published its Pay and Contract Reform offer to staff. The union’s HMRC Group Executive Committee is recommending members accept the deal. The PCS Independent Left thinks this is a mistake and urges members to reject it.
The deal’s publication was delayed by a week at the behest of the GEC. This was because, when the Group officers first asked the GEC to take a view on the deal, they did not have all of the papers and information available to them. Key amongst these was the collective agreement underpinning the offer. This was finally given to the GEC just fifteen hours before they had to vote on the offer, and has still yet to be published to members.
Much of what is on offer is the subject of uncertainty and varying interpretations even amongst the negotiating team. However, a number of detriments are already clear:
- Longer term members on older contracts will have less annual leave.
- Many members in London will have a longer working week.
- Members with alternative working patterns due to caring responsibilities, particular needs or personal circumstances will be forced to reapply for these and they will expire after five years. (Members may at that point “apply to extend the arrangement for a further period not exceeding five years,” which implies a hard ten-year limit on such arrangements, though this is so far unconfirmed.)
- The Reasonable Daily Travel policy, which prevents members being forced to move to an office more than an hour’s travel away, is being removed. The supposed mitigation, that all factors should be considered including home working as an alternative to redundancy, already applies.
- The new contractual terms have already been confirmed to mean that the MIS Agreement, a key protection for telephony workers, will no longer apply. There is no guarantee of what will replace it.
- Members based in the Customer Services Group who currently do not have to work weekends or evenings can now be compelled to work one evening a week and six Saturdays a year.
- Saturday working no longer attracts a premium and is paid at plain time rate.
- Overtime also no longer attracts a premium and is instead paid with a flexi credit.
- Once the new contract is agreed, there is a provision that “Where HMRC reasonably considers that the needs of the business require, this, HMRC may permanently change your individual working pattern,” meaning that those outside of CSG may also be compelled to work unsocial hours not previously required.
There are positives in the offer, such as the introduction of a contractual flexi right for all and members getting up to 30 days’ leave in a shorter time period. However, the pay rise itself is in essence a payment for accepting a new contract and many will see a detriment as a result of that.
There is no new money attached to the offer, and whilst it addresses low pay and pay progression in the short term, once the three years of the deal is up there is no funding to carry on pay progression and therefore no guarantee that the same situation won’t simply re-occur. The existing lack of pay progression was itself the result of a previous pay deal that the then-GEC recommended and which was voted for despite many members voicing concerns, so this may just be history repeating itself.
Like the DWP Employee Deal, this offer is already causing huge division amongst members. This is a situation that the HMRC GEC allowed itself to be led into, with the negotiators agreeing to secretive talks for months whilst the Group haemorrhaged members due to ongoing office closures and failed to recruit newer workers to replace them. Recruitment may be spiking now that there’s an offer on the table and you need to be in the union to vote on it, but that’s no guarantee of sustainable growth after the ballot. If anything, the division in members because of who wins and loses and the lack of a serious organising effort to fight for the betterment of all suggests the risk of a continued decline overall despite the spike. With the Group already below 50% density, and with management well aware of this, the danger here cannot be overstated.
As for the wider union, acceptance of this offer removes the union’s second largest Group from the fight for national pay bargaining. That puts more power in the government’s hands and makes the union’s position all the more difficult.
We must campaign for rejection of this offer, as it is a lot harder to regain what’s already lost than to extend what we have. Whatever the outcome though, we cannot stop there. PCS has, over years, failed to resist the introduction of a two-tier workforce or to even demand equal conditions for newer workers. Healing the division this offer is causing means addressing that shortcoming and building a genuine fight for the betterment of all.
The positives in this offer show that HMRC can improve things where it has the will to do so. If we want that to come without strings, we need to rebuild genuine union power in the workplace.
The PCS National Executive Committee met on Thursday 21 January for its first meeting of 2021. The topics covered by the meeting included the Covid-19 pandemic, the national campaign over pay, Conference, the strategic options for the future of the union, and elections.
The NEC received an update on negotiations and organising around the pandemic. In particular, the push to ensure that the union’s demands in relation to the latest lockdown and health, safety and welfare concerns for members.
There were no recommendations in the paper, but in light of the National Education Union’s successful use of section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to force school closures, members of the PCS Independent Left put forward the following proposal: “In future, the union will complement the option of balloting members with immediate collective use of Section 44, as per the NEU’s example if the urgency dictates, and proactively support any collective use of this provision by groups of members, as the UVW have also done and are continuing to do.”
At the outset, the General Secretary stated that he was minded to oppose this however would reserve judgement based on the debate.
In that debate, members of Left Unity called for the recommendation to be remitted. The grounds for this were that although members needed as many options as possible to defend themselves, the legal situation and the specifics of various workplaces had to be taken into account in deciding how to take this forward.
These concerns are of course valid. When looking at how we utilise section 44, the nature of the workplace, the specific risks and legal advice obviously need to be taken into account. The NEU action and the advice given by the United Voices of the World, as well as their proactive support of members who walk out under section 44, highlight a number of approaches that can possibly be taken. It was pointed out that passing the proposal wouldn’t prevent the considerations that were the rationale for calling for remission.
In right of reply, the General Secretary supported remission and tried to frame the proposal as one for a blanket approach across the civil service which falsely equated the NEU situation with our own. He reported that he had spoken to the NEU, and they had withdrawn the advice to members and had encountered a lot of the difficulties PCS had anticipated when previously debating the issue such as members who exercised their section 44 rights not being paid. He also advised that the NEU wanted to speak to PCS about our industrial action strategy.
Of course, this framing doesn’t reflect what was proposed. The points made about ensuring that the specific circumstances were taken into account and approach decided accordingly are of course ones we advocate, as stated above. The proposal was ultimately remitted. Whether this is substantively different to the proposal falling, in terms of what happens next, remains to be seen.
The General Secretary moved a detailed paper on the national campaign, built around a series of ‘fair pay days’ used to advance our pay claim and build support amongst members.
What was proposed was the product of discussions in the Organising and Education Committee and the Campaign Committee, both of which the IL have a presence on and we supported the thrust of the paper and the actions detailed in it to build the campaign. However, there were things that we felt were missing from the paper in terms of putting us in the strongest possible position to deliver action that could win and we put forward proposals to address this.
We proposed “That the NEC agrees we should tell members now that our intention is to ballot, both in order to ensure we have as long a lead in as possible to any vote and so that we can impress upon all members and activists the importance of organising so we are able to deliver action.”
The argument for this was straightforward. We already know that a ballot and action is likely to be necessary to deliver victory on pay. The paper included discussing this with activists and making sure all branches developed a ballot ready plan. There was no logic, therefore, to not making our intent clear to members and using that to clearly set out what was needed to get to that point and ensure that we could actually deliver a ballot, the legally required turnout, and action from that. Otherwise, as in the previous ballots, we risked trying to do this from a standing start with too short a lead-in, and struggling to get to where we needed to be as a result.
In addition, we proposed “That the NEC agrees that detailed plans in respect of the following aspects of the campaign should be prepared:
- What any industrial action we take would look like, and how we can communicate that to members in order to build confidence we can actually win;
- How we will use the campaign and any ballot and action to recruit additional members;
- How we can ensure the widest spread of our message through social media and other arenas, including how we can utilise the talents of lay members and activists in both our own messaging and beyond our official channels;
- How we intend to rapidly reduce the number of workplace ballot addresses held and increase the percentage of members we have mobile and email contacts for;
- How we can use this activity to transform advocates into reps, particularly in areas where we currently have no or few reps.
“These should be available for consideration at the February NEC and ready to implement urgently following that meeting.”
Again, the logic here was simple. Almost all of the above list are things that NEC members have agreed we need to do, but which have yet to concretely materialise. For example, activists during the last ballot still had members who thought the industrial action plan involved one day strikes, and despite the union formally adopting a policy of targeted action, the National Disputes Committee meeting to consider that more than once during and since the previous ballots and seeking submissions from Groups about how this would work, no plan has yet materialised. Having a concrete plan in place rather than a vague aspiration makes these things more likely to happen, as we saw from them not happening previously.
Unfortunately, these recommendations were opposed by the General Secretary. Not on the basis that he disagreed with them, but that he felt they were ‘premature.’ He did commit that the issues in the proposal would be given proper consideration in due course. However, given that he said a ballot, if it happened, was likely to be in March/April – and how quickly that time will come around – this makes it more likely than not that we will be running to catch up with ourselves in the event we reach a point where we decide to ballot for action.
This makes it all the more important that branches and activists not only engage with those things the NEC did agree on the pay campaign, but that we ensure our own rank and file infrastructure is as effective as it can be, so that we can still deliver a campaign which builds the participation, confidence and combativeness of members.
The NEC received a paper with the proposed dates of the national and Group Conferences, the proposed topics for the four sessions of national Conference, and election regulations for the block votes at Conference. There were also two branches which put in motions opposing what they see as the NEC dictating the agenda of Conference and a further five branches which made representations to the same effect. However, the paper was agreed and a briefing will be issued to branches to that effect.
Strategic Options for the Union
The NEC was due to receive a report on the submissions to the consultation over the future of the union. This wasn’t yet completed and so it was agreed it would be produced for February and issued to branches as well as the NEC, with a further round of discussions across the union to follow. Until we see the detail of the responses, it’s not possible to say the direction this will take.
The IL put forward a motion addressing the traditional low turnout and asking the senior officers to look at measures we can implement to improve turnout. It said that in drawing up these measures they should:
- review what has worked in the past to boost turnout (e.g. did more members vote after each email reminder);
- see if lessons can be learnt from other unions regarding increasing the vote;
- and explore how far the limits placed on the union by anti-trade union law can be pushed as regards the NEC election.
This was opposed by one NEC member on the bizarre grounds that it was apparently factional and opportunistic. Others engaged with the proposal honestly but also opposed it on the grounds that not much could be done in time for this year’s elections.
We were able to propose that, since most of the NEC appeared to agree with the intent, the motion could be remitted instead of voted down. This means that the proposed actions can be taken forward without any concern over stringent time limits, and as part of a longer, ongoing discussion about boosting participation in our union’s democracy.
Other items covered
The agenda for the NEC was packed, and the NEC also discussed papers on finance, motions to the Scottish and Youth TUC conferences, membership data, a donation to support the Durham Miners’ Association’s renovation of its Redhills site, and more.