HMRC: Meet with PCS members for fair wages and conditions

HMRC must take urgent action to resolve the dispute between PCS members employed as cleaners at HM Revenue and Custom’s Birmingham and Merseyside sites and their employer, ISS.

Send a message to HMRC’s CEO so they know how many of us are behind these workers.

Why is this important?

PCS members are in dispute over low pay, unequal sick pay entitlement compared to directly employed HMRC staff and job insecurity.

All workers deserve the dignity and respect that employment usually provides. But the minimum wage is simply not enough to live on. Statutory sick pay rates are so low and only normally payable from the fourth day of illness, meaning staff routinely work when they are sick as they cannot afford not to.

These are dedicated staff whose skills, hard work and enthusiasm are crucial to keeping the UK’s tax offices safe, clean and functioning. In fact, the vital work they do has been recognised by their key worker status during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have continued to work throughout lockdown despite the personal risk to themselves and their families.

The PCS union have approached HMRC several times to urge them to meet their members’ just demands but HMRC has declined to do so.

Send a message to Jim Harra and show your support, here.

 

Save Ealing Tax Office from closure

Reverse plans to close Ealing tax office.

#SaveEalingTaxOffice

Why is this important?

HMRC’s ill-considered office closure plans, which they still euphemistically call ‘Building Our Future’, will have a particularly heavy impact on PCS members working in International House in Ealing.

Many members working in the office have been redeployed previously, some several times, before being based at Ealing having therefore already gone through the “torment” of earlier office closures. As a result many Ealing staff do not live in Ealing and this combined with a significant proportion of staff having caring responsibilities and/or disabilities – making it near impossible for them to commute to Stratford.

The closure of International House, if the work there is not relocated locally to another premises will mean that HMRC will no longer have a presence in Ealing, leading to a detrimental local socio economic impact in the area, the impact to the local economy could be as much as £1million per year.4

Sign the online petition now here.

Re-instate Erek Slater! International solidarity now!

PCS Independent Left held its Summer all members’ meeting on Saturday 25 June. A number of important items were discussed and a report will be published in due course.

The meeting also heard from a guest speaker, Erek Slater, a Chicago bus driver and trade union representative sacked for refusing to transport police to and arrested demonstrators from Black Lives Matter protests.  The meeting pledged its solidarity with Erek and will be raising awareness of his campaign throughout PCS and the wider movement.

Erek also spoke to Liverpool Trades Council (LTUC) recently and we include that video here along with LTUC’s statement which outlines the importance of Erek’s struggle for all workers and trade unionists.

LTUC statement here.

See https://www.facebook.com/reinstateerekslater for more information on his campaign.

Please share this and look out for further info, here, in the coming days.

The union and “protect our borders”

The union is launching a national pay petition on the government’s petition website as part of our national campaign.

The NEC this week was asked to finalise the campaign strategy and agree the wording of the petition.

The wording of the petition ends with a sentence praising the work our members do, including some examples, specifically “The job retention scheme, keeping our courts running and our borders secure”.

The sentence exists to highlight the work we deem to have contributed to society to deserve a pay rise.

But one of those things is not like the others: Independent Left members of the NEC moved an amendment to remove reference to keeping our borders secure.

It is claimed that the phrase is included to highlight the work done by our members working in customs, excise and other areas ensuring duty is paid and imported goods are safe etc. But what is commonly understood by the phrase ‘keeping our borders secure’ in Britain is very simple: The hostile environment towards migrants, the deportation of immigrants and the refusal of support to refugees.

It is a phrase used as a dog-whistle by the likes of Nigel Farage, Priti Patel and Donald Trump for racist anti-immigration and immigrant policies. It cannot be used on its own without those connotations.

To illustrate the point, type the phrase into Google.

The top results include another petition on gov.uk demanding troops are used to repel immigrants at the borders; the corporate website of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security and an article on the EU’s site outlining measures taken to stop immigrants from North Africa escaping conflict and poverty crossing the Mediterranean.

What using this phrase means in reality and to the public is to normalise the policies our members follow to “keep our borders secure”, particularly around deportation and immigration enforcement. Policies we oppose and which are quite transparently discriminatory, both in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Policies which variously conflict with the equality policies of the union.

In other words, you cannot divorce praise for ‘keeping our borders secure’ from the reality of the policies employed to do that.

Our black and migrant members know what the phrase means all too well as victims of the government’s policies on ‘border protection’.

We should be no prouder of that work than we are of the work our members in DWP are asked to perform carrying out the unfair benefit sanctions and conditionality regime. Work we rightfully don’t include on this petition and work, like the border regime the union has conference policy to oppose.

There is a wider question here too. What is meant by ‘our’ borders?

PCS is in a praiseworthy position in the British trade union movement for being in favour of free movement. These borders aren’t ‘our’ borders any more than other elements of state control belong to us – they do not serve our interests. They divide workers on the basis of nationality and block people fleeing persecution and hardship from finding a better life.  

It is inconsistent for a union that believes in internationalism to be extoling the virtues of border protection.

When the vote on the amendment came, only the three IL comrades and the Socialist Party voted for the phrase’s removal. The SWP and others voted to keep it in. Picking apart the wording of a petition may seem pedantic, but political clarity is important. At best it is unnecessary, politically wrong and devoid of nuance. At worst it could be seen to be opportunistically currying support from reactionary sentiments in society.

Elections and Conference in 2020

The National Executive Committee meeting on 8 July voted to confirm that elections would not happen in 2020, whilst a final decision on Conference has been kicked further down the road.

As with the last meeting, the NEC had a large agenda to get through and most of it wasn’t ultimately heard. Therefore, beyond updates on the national campaign and negotiations related to COVID-19, the substantive discussion was on the elections and Conference.

Members of the PCS Independent Left put motions to the previous NEC asking for elections to be reinstated and some form of Conference to be considered. As those motions weren’t heard, we put amendments forward to the paper that came to this meeting from the General Secretary. Those amendments inevitably fell, with voting on the usual factional lines, and we detail the debate below.

Elections

In March, the NEC took the decision to not go ahead with elections (or Conference) as scheduled, on the basis of the then-emerging situation with Covid-19. In particular, we had just gone into lockdown, whilst the shielding period for the clinically vulnerable and extremely vulnerable members had barely begun and many members were also in self-isolation having had a member of their household exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. Although there was some debate, a majority of the NEC including two out of the three IL members on the committee voted in favour of elections not going ahead at that point.

The situation now is different. There are still real and ongoing concerns over the safety of members and the wider working class in relation to the pandemic, and in particular the re-opening of pubs and shops alongside scenes of crowded parks and beaches point towards a second spike in deaths. None of this should be dismissed. What is different is that the Communication Workers Union no longer discourages the sending of non-essential post, the shielding period has ended and those who were doing so can no go outside as long as social distancing is properly observed, and people can have a “social bubble” or meet with other households on the basis of the same precautions.

It is also worth mentioning that receiving a letter in the post, in many cases alongside online shopping deliveries, and popping to the post box to return a ballot paper is not in any way comparable to being asked to return to the office and all the risks that entails. (Online voting is even less comparable!) Just as taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests in the open air, with social distancing in effect, is not comparable to being in an enclosed space such as public transport, a pub, a shop or a workplace, and the increased transmission risk that entails.

It was on this basis that the IL argued for elections to resume. This was important, we argued, as the incumbent NEC only had a mandate for twelve months which has now passed, and with important decisions such as those on the union’s Strategic Objectives ahead of us it is vital that an NEC with a live democratic mandate takes them forward.

Under our proposals, existing nominations would be carried forward (though candidates would get the opportunity to update their election addresses) and the ballot period would begin in earnest with the winners taking up post from the declaration of results. This could, feasibly, allow for a new NEC to take up office for nine months – meaning that disruption of the normal process was minimised to a great extent.

Despite this, we heard that the proposal would undermine negotiations with the employer over avoiding a return to business as usual using the false comparison refuted above. It was argued that there was an increased risk for members, predicated on the conjured notion of armies of leafleters spreading COVID from workplace to workplace. Those of us making the proposal were even, absurdly, compared to Tories and the employer for wanting elections to happen – invoking memories of when we were compared to scab miners for opposing the previous suspension of elections back in 2014.

The main argument, however, was that the timetable for elections (based on re-running the entire process from scratch, despite no proposal for that) would mean the 2021 election cycle would begin before the 2020 cycle was ended. This wasn’t some new, unprecedented information, and would have been known as a possibility when the NEC agreed to not hold the elections as originally planned and keep the matter under review. Yet rather than say at that point that elections were cancelled altogether, that decision was kicked down the road to a later meeting.

This approach will be familiar to many in PCS, with the deferral of decisions in this way used both as a way of doing nothing whilst appearing to act and alternatively as a way to force an outcome by withholding a decision until it can be presented as without alternative. This is why the majority decision taken on Conference leads us to believe that it is unlikely to happen this year.

Conference

The decision taken was to explore all the options on whether a virtual conference or “event” was possible and to bring that information back so a future NEC meeting could decide if it goes ahead. This sounds straightforward, but as above is more likely to defer the decision on whether it happens until it is too late to take any other decision than that it doesn’t.

The debate itself also drew out that many of the NEC majority are opposed to a Conference, virtual or otherwise, happening in the current year. The view was that more reps and members participated in the various Zoom meetings and forums that have been happening over the past period and that the logistics of delegates debating and voting by virtual means would be a nightmare.

Being generous, this shows a lack of imagination. Whilst the increase in communications and meetings over the recent period are welcome, it is also notable that these are generally speaking top-down events whereby the leadership conveys its decisions to others but there is nothing in the way of decision making from the ground up or the membership shaping decisions even through the usual, corporate methods of “consultation.”

There would undoubtedly be issues with running Conference virtually in exactly the format it runs as a physical event. However, nobody was suggesting that. The IL proposal was to simply commit that we would have a Conference through virtual means and from there look at how this would be done.

This would also provide an opportunity to look at what could be done differently on a more permanent basis, to improve attendance and participation and to strengthen the direct democracy that in theory is the heart of Conference. Though of course a leadership whose own motions dominate the Conference agenda might not be too favourable towards such a notion. That certain branches going unrepresented and decreasing attendance at Conference were presented as arguments against committing to a virtual Conference but have yet to be the focus of a discussion where we consider how to rectify the issue certainly suggests as much.

What next?

The current NEC will therefore retain office until at least May 2021 (assuming that developments in the pandemic later in the year don’t warrant further suspension of processes) and a Conference looks unlikely to happen. Yet the union is faced with its most significant challenges yet not just with the pandemic but with the questions around the future of PCS as a going concern. The latter deserves the most democratic debate and oversight possible. Ensuring that will be a significant challenge in the period ahead.

Report from the NEC on 24 June

The PCS National Executive Committee met via Zoom on 24 June. As previously, the meeting was scheduled for three hours. However, the agenda this time around was a lot bigger and a lot of issues didn’t get discussed as a result.

Pay and COVID-19

At this meeting, the decisions to be taken on pay and COVID-19 largely amounted to practical implementation of strategic decisions taken previously.

On the pay campaign, the NEC previously decided to run with a government petition and use both the Callhub and Organising App to record conversations with members, their commitment to signing the petition (or not) serving as a structure test to help determine our ballot readiness. Now it was just a question of the steps necessary to make that happen.

The Five Tests for Safe Workplaces have also been previously agreed and publicised, with the Organising Committee working on ways that branches could use these not just “behind the scenes” but to engage with members and build participation and workplace power as a way to enforce agreements. The outstanding question therefore was on how we approached the relaxation of the two-metre social distancing rule in England. Taking a stance that it should apply in all departments, not least those with offices in the devolved nations, was unanimous.

Despite this, the debate still saw a retreading of the row between the Socialist Party-dominated Broad Left Network and their former comrades in Left Unity over supposed rival strategies. As we have previously written, there is no actual alternative strategy at play in the SP/BLN’s opposition, nor do LU have the perfect strategy bottomed out.

There is still a long way to go to bridge the gap between our rhetoric on organising and a reality where we have branches broken and stripped of activists by office closures (as in HMRC), other branches closed off from their own members by those who primarily value their own place in control, and yet others still who feel a desperate lack of support from the wider union. Not only is the union leadership unwilling to acknowledge and address these things (as in some cases it would mean discomfiting their own comrades) but to a great degree our union is still entrenched in a culture of mobilising rather than organising.

Until our union can address this honestly, or we can build an independent rank and file movement capable of forcing the necessary culture change, we will face the same uphill struggles in every campaign.

Strategic Review

Following on from the attacks on the union by the government in 2014, including the wholesale withdrawal from collecting union subscriptions through members’ wages (check off), the NEC of the time set out a Strategic Review and following that period Conference in 2018 agreed Strategic Objectives in order to ensure the survival of the union both financially and organisationally. The SO period ends in December this year.

In some cases, it is evident that we are better off than we were in 2014. The union’s finances have stabilised. The heroic effort by reps and members to effectively re-recruit the entire union membership by signing them up to direct debit prevented the financial devastation intended by the removal of check off. However, where we had a goal of increasing membership to 200,000, the number in the union is less now than it was in 2018 despite the civil service growing in size over that period.

The NEC has agreed to a full analysis of the reasons for this and a special meeting to decide next steps, including democratic accountability. The IL position in regard to the latter point is that fresh NEC elections and a Conference (even if it is of necessity virtual or some kind of physical-virtual hybrid) must happen this year as part of that process. We put up motions to that effect, but they weren’t heard, though we understand the question will be considered at the next NEC.

We also believe that there must be no “no go areas” in terms of possible options to resolve the current situation. Previously, the union has restructured in the sense that it has shed staff and consolidated its estate, and of course the standard response to trade union shrinkage is mergers into “super unions” which have large amounts of members but not necessarily any substantive industrial power due to how widespread and disparate that membership is.

Our point was that any solution to the current situation must not merely be about securing PCS as a business and financial concern, but primarily focused on PCS as a collective as members. Reforms which increase democracy in the union, particularly shop floor direct democracy, and help us to build union power will be the kind of reforms which help us to build the union, where as a purely technical reform which shores up our finances at the expense of democracy and the resources to support organising will likely be a disaster in the longer term.

Similar concerns exist around mergers with other unions. Not least because, beyond PCS’s specific situation, the TUC as a whole is facing a generational shortfall in membership which raises questions over how much of it will remain in a decade’s time.

What the guillotine felled

The NEC has been meeting roughly fortnightly across the present period. Each time, the centre of the discussion has been the coronavirus pandemic and the national campaign. This is correct, of course, as the pandemic has defined how we are currently operating and generated enormous amounts of work for reps at all levels to deal with whilst the national campaign demands – particularly our stagnant pay – have been brought into stark relief with the government’s recognition of us as ‘key workers’ despite us not being paid or treated as such in any meaningful sense.

However, it is no longer true to say that everything else has ground to a halt. Whilst COVID-19 remains a central issue, particularly with the easing of the lockdown and re-opening of workplaces at a time when many fear a second spike in deaths, there’s still plenty else going on.

Arrangements need to be made so that the NEC can discuss a full agenda. That may mean having a series of three-hour meetings across the weeks when, without the pandemic, the NEC would have met anyway so that the usual full variety of papers can be discussed. (We would not be so masochistic as to suggest an entire day, or days, on Zoom in one burst.) We could then still have the more frequent meetings fortnightly to discuss the most urgent issues, whilst preserving the broader functioning of the executive.

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the world have happened largely independent of the trade unions, despite racism in and beyond the workplace being a trade union issue. The NEC was due to debate this, and in particular our attitude to the protests.

Whilst the union has put out statements in support of the movement, there are those who believe that we should not encourage attendance due to the pandemic. The Independent Left members of the NEC believe that whilst the risks of COVID-19 cannot be ignored, and attendance is an individual choice, we should both support those who wish to attend and encourage social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

The narrative that BLM will be in any way responsible for a second spike in deaths is a right wing one, meant to draw attention from the re-opening of pubs and shops and the crowded scenes in parks and on beaches due to the government’s mixed messaging and poor policy choices. It also fails to recognise that the risk of transmission in the open air, with masks and social distancing, is minimal compared to crowding enclosed spaces like pubs.

Beyond that, there is a larger point that the best guarantee of physical safety at anti-racist demonstrations, particularly with fascists coming out in opposition as “statue defenders,” is large numbers. Face masks also then serve a dual purpose to prevent identification and targeting by either the far-right or the police. It is a dereliction of duty for the trade unions to ignore all of this and instead simply say they cannot encourage attendance – in practice, actively discouraging it.

Trans rights

The government’s intent to scrap reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, which PCS has policy to support, will have a clear impact on trans members in PCS and wider. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, the changes were purely administrative. Allowing trans people to self-declare their gender would have had a huge impact for them, letting them get on with their lives with far less bureaucracy and hassle, whilst having not impact on other existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 or the rights of women.

By contrast, the other measure which emerged with the scrapping of GRA reform would have a huge impact on wider society. Proposals to ban anybody with “male genitalia” from women’s spaces such as bathrooms and refuges are a clear signal to reactionary, transphobic sentiment that the government stands with them. What it means in practice is enabling transphobes to police women’s spaces on the basis of gender presentation and gender suspicion, meaning cis women who “look like men” will face as much harassment as any trans woman – whilst it will be far easier for transphobes to achieve their longstanding goal of morally mandating trans people out of existence.

The IL put forward a motion for the NEC to oppose these developments and produce practical guidance for reps and negotiators at all levels to protect members in the workplace. We hope that it can be heard and passed in the near future.

Hong Kong

As communities across the world struggle to contain the pandemic and deal with the upheaval caused by it, the Chinese state is using the disruption as cover to brutally repress Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The National Security Law is currently being imposed on the Hong Kong people. It allows dissidents to be charged and imprisoned under Chinese law for sedition, treason and secessionism – the same methods that are used to suppress dissent elsewhere in China.

Trade unions have been at the forefront of the Hong Kong democracy struggle – founders and key activists of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and the Labour Party have been charged with offences of illegal assembly and other charges from last autumn’s protests – facing sentences of up to 5 years. If the Chinese government succeeds in its clampdown in Hong Kong, other union activists will be at the front of the line for attack.

A motion from the IL called for PCS to declare its solidarity with our trade union comrades in Hong Kong, primarily organised in the HKCTU and liaise about practical aid that we might be able to provide to them. Given the urgency of the issue and the principle of internationalism in the trade union movement, this is also something our union cannot wait until things are “back to normal” to take a view on.