A large and increasing number of workers on the government estate, or providing services to the government are outsourced, usually low paid and precarious. As the largest union operating within this area, PCS needs to take organising these workers seriously and dedicate proper resources to this task.
Between 21 and 23 January cleaners, security guards and receptionists at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in London will stage a 48-hour strike. This is the second period of action in their campaign for the Living Wage and equality of terms with civil servants, and an expansion of the dispute since the first strike by cleaners alone inspired the guards and receptionists to join the union. Both of the ballots returned a 100% vote for strike action on a 100% turnout.
This sort of organising is exactly the kind that the union movement needs to see more of in general. For outsourced, precarious workers in particular it’s the model of what PCS should be doing. However, PCS isn’t doing it, and instead the inspirational United Voices of the World (UVW) union has stepped into the vacuum.
PCS Independent Left stands in full solidarity with UVW members in their fight for better pay and conditions. We equally support the organising efforts of the PCS branch in BEIS, just up the road, who after a recent successful ballot of their outsourced members will be coordinating strike action for similar demands. The latter efforts demonstrate, just like the fight by cleaners in PCS Bootle Taxes Branch a few years back, that it is entirely feasible for our union to organise these groups of workers. So why isn’t it happening?
There are a number of potential reasons.
One is that the time and energy of activists is limited. The BEIS dispute, the Bootle Taxes dispute, and various outsourced worker disputes in the Culture Sector have succeeded through the efforts of lay reps who have put the work in alongside both other union duties and their day jobs. Not every activist is able to commit to such efforts, meaning that even where they support such initiatives, they can’t emulate them.
Alongside that we have lukewarm official support from the national union. There will be publicity once a campaign gets rolling, and various senior figures will want their photo opportunities and to give quotes when we reach that point. The road to that point, however, must be taken alone. We have seen PCS refuse to dedicate full time officer resource to such work and tell activists to ensure they don’t appear to be doing more on these campaigns than on those for civil servants, both of which probably represent the union at its least obstructive to fledgling campaigns.
On 28 November, the PCS Private Sector Forum took place in the Liner Hotel, Liverpool. Activists in attendance who had been involved in such campaigns voiced their frustrations that PCS sees them as secondary to civil servants. That they don’t understand the position of precarious workers and are slow to get behind the organising techniques best suited to these areas.
There is support from some areas of the union, of course. The Forum is now established as an annual event, and there are reserved seats on the NEC for the Commercial Sector. Unfortunately, these gestures still need to be matched by a serious commitment to grassroots organising.
The UVW is able to do what it does with the support of a tight-knit network of dedicated organisers. The McStrike campaign, whilst rooted in the heroic efforts of the McDonald’s workers themselves, wouldn’t exist without full time organisers whose entire job is dedicated to building up strength in workplaces.
Unfortunately, the union movement as a whole is not dedicating the necessary resources to this kind of organising, and PCS is no exception. We are making the transition, slowly and painfully, from declaring ourselves an organising union to being one. But our organising officers still spend a fair amount of time as admin staff, and what organising they do is focused on targets and statistics. None have been tasked specifically with building outsourced workers on the government estate into a force to be reckoned with.
Even from the perspective of the union as a business, this makes no sense. The sheer number of potential members and potential subs income, when the union continues to lost both amongst the core civil service, should be enough incentive even for those in HQ who can’t see beyond numbers on a spreadsheet. If you truly believe in organising the working class, it’s a no-brainer. If we build enough momentum to start winning and create upward pressure on pay and conditions, we by default remove the incentive for privatisation.
We need a campaign now to organise all outsourced workers on the government estate around three core demands. A Living Wage of £10 per hour (£11.55 in London), parity of terms and conditions with civil servants, and an end to outsourcing.
If the central union won’t do it, then we need to build it from the ground. The first step being to support those who are leading these efforts. Support the strikes at the MoJ and BEIS!
You can sign the petition for all in-house and outsourced staff to be paid the real living wage here.