Lessons of the HMRC Cleaners Dispute

16976654_1037896073021135_1126609918_nIt’s now over a year since cleaners employed by ISS to clean HMRC offices in Bootle approached their union reps over cuts to their working hours. Their employer was facing an increase in their pay bill due to a new minimum wage rate, erroneously branded as the ‘national living wage.’ It was going to claim that money back by cutting enough hours so cleaners were left with the same pay as before the rise came in.

The cuts were defeated, and cleaners across Merseyside had their hours restored thanks to a campaign which saw members take two days of action and threatened a further three. It was a strong campaign which won a decisive victory, and it is worth looking at the lessons that we can learn from that.

Firstly, it is worth emphasising that this was not a victory for the Independent Left. One of our members was involved in the campaign from the very beginning, but he will be the first to admit that he was one among many – the vast majority having no factional alignment within the union, and the most important of those of course being the cleaners themselves. We make this point because Left Unity have, in some of their literature, tried to claim the victory as their own. Not only is this a distortion of the facts of the dispute, but it underlines how different our approaches are.

Those of us in the Independent Left and our non-factional allies don’t simply have a different perspective on what positions the union’s leadership should take – although we do have many. We believe in a fundamentally different attitude to how a union should organise, behave and fight.

The example of the HMRC cleaners dispute is just one real-life articulation of this difference.

Member-led disputes – At all stages, the campaign against ISS was led by the membership on the ground. Decisions were taken by vote at meetings which all members could attend and the majority did. Not only does this approach mean that such a campaign is genuinely democratic, but it puts into practice the old axiom that members are the union rather than treating them as chess pieces.

No secret talks – When the members’ action eventually forced ISS to talk to PCS, there was absolutely no consideration of those talks being ‘in confidence’ from the members they were about. In fact, the only reason the decision was taken not to have cleaners attend the talks was to avoid the threat of reprisals by the company. The three reps who did take part provided full reports back to the membership at all points.

No back-room deals – When a deal was finally brokered to call off the strike, it was the members who made the decision to accept. Not as a result of carefully steered meetings where the ‘debate’ amounted to questions for a speaker presenting a particular line, but following a vigorous debate amongst the members and a show of hands vote.

 Building leverage through direct action – ISS talked to PCS only when forced to. They still don’t recognise the union. By involving all of the members in collective action, culminating in strikes, the union leveraged real moral, political and industrial pressure on the employer. This sort of organising will always have more power than relying on the supposed wiliness of negotiators treating industrial relations as a chess game rather than a power struggle.

While the structural support of the union was helpful, the members organising democratically from below was the strength and power of the campaign. This was even the case where union support was concerned, as while the Merseyside branches fully supported their members the machinery of PCS was more reluctant until the campaign had too much traction to be ignored.

PCS Independent Left believes that all of our organising should take this form. We shouldn’t have to fight for the support of our own union, and the ISS dispute is unfortunately not unique in this regard with a PCS led by Left Unity, but we are better placed to win that fight where members have the confidence to lead from the front.

Building this sort of confidence involves a lot of hard work and organising at branch level, which is already being done in many places. But it is emboldened with voices arguing in support of such an approach at Group Executive Committee level.

Two of our members are up for re-election to the HMRC GEC and trying to provide such a voice. We would urge that you support them in the Group elections – Phil Dickens and Phil Millar.


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