The National Executive Committee met via Zoom for a full day meeting on 9 September, following the government’s announcement that it intended to get 80% of civil servants back to the office. This issue was of course top of the agenda, though the meeting also discussed pay, pensions, the possibility of a virtual conference in 2020, and motions on various subjects.
Covid-19 and the return to the workplace
The NEC’s health and safety committee developed the Five Tests for Safe Working some months earlier as part of the efforts to protect members during the pandemic and resist any compulsory return to work. With the directive to Permanent Secretaries to fill up offices to their Covid-safe limits, however, the issue has taken on a renewed urgency.
This is a situation that continues to evolve day by day, with local lockdowns springing up in all sorts of places. It is clear that the government once again wishes to use the civil service as a political punching bag, forcing thousands of members who have been working effectively from home throughout the pandemic to return to potentially unsafe workplaces. This additionally puts pressure on those still working from the office who face finding it much harder to maintain social distancing and other appropriate measures.
The General Secretary’s recommendations to the NEC in response to this situation were that a senior lay reps meeting, an all reps meeting and a members’ survey are used to assess the mood of the membership – both nationally and by Group and branch – for collective action, alongside legal advice on collective and individual action. A special NEC would then be called to review the responses and take a decision on next steps.
Members of the PCS Independent Left on the NEC supported these recommendations, against a rival proposal put forward by members of the Broad Left Network. Their position differed in so much that it called for an indicative ballot rather than a survey, though only as an option following a special NEC which would receive reports from all bargaining areas and plans for an industrial response from the senior officers.
The major issue with the BLN response was that, whilst couched in radical language and heavily critical of the Left Unity majority on the NEC, it didn’t really offer anything new. Although Mark Serwotka had engaged in sabre rattling in the media about strike action, the reality of the situation was that the picture across different departments was incredibly mixed both in terms of who is and isn’t working from home, members’ attitudes to those situations, and even how hardline (or not) departments are being in regards to a return to the office.
It is, of course, vital that efforts to force members back into unsafe offices face fierce resistance. This is why IL members on the DWP Group Executive Committee argued, sadly unsuccessfully, for the recent ballot there to be statutory rather than indicative and to include agency and outsourced members. It is also why through the NEC’s health and safety and organising committees we have supported the development of the Five Tests for Safe Working not only as a guide for negotiators but as demands to organise members around and build membership support and participation.
Workplace power is the key to delivering effective industrial action, and an indicative ballot and a slogan is no shortcut to the necessary (often painstaking) work required to build that.
On pay, the first recommendation put to the NEC were straightforward in that they simply built upon what was previously agreed. The pay petition launched on the government website is now at over 50,000 signatures and so the NEC was asked to agree the continuation of organizing work around this ahead of a decision on next steps in October or November. Those next steps, of course, would be the decision on whether to launch another national ballot.
More crucially, the second recommendation was to prepare potential sectoral pay claims, aiming to reduce the number of separate bargaining units that exist in the civil service as steps towards a single set of pay scales nationally. This is something that has existed in PCS policy for years, but has long taken a back seat to calls for an arbitrary percentage wise, so it’s welcome that as Assistant General Secretary John Moloney has helped to put this work back on the agenda and
push to make it finally happen.
Therefore, PCS Independent Left members on the NEC put forward an additional recommendation to ensure that the union actually collates the information on all of the different pay scales and the pay inequalities that exist across the union. This is information that PCS should already have, frankly, and both John and the IL NEC members have raised the need more broadly to keep a central record of the agreements and policies that have been made in various groups for reference.
From here, the debate around how we take forward the national campaign will move towards the question of a national strike ballot and what our industrial action strategy there looks like. In that debate, we will need an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and make sure that we communicate clearly to members ahead of time what an effective, targeted industrial action strategy looks like ahead of time in order to help win the argument that it is worth voting for action because we can win.
If we don’t do that, even if another Herculean effort by reps drags our turnout in a ballot above 50%, we risk being found wanting when it comes to actually delivering action that moves the government.
The NEC also received an update on the work being done to progress the fight for pensions justice – both the remedy to the age discrimination and the issue of members overpaying into their pensions by at least 2%. This includes potentially looking at mass employment tribunal claims alongside the collective actions including national negotiations and legal challenge. The detail of this is due to go to members through members’ briefings and other communications.
After taking the decision back in March that Conference wouldn’t go ahead in 2020, the NEC agreed to keep that decision under review and more recently that the options for a virtual conference or event would be explored. The result of that investigation came back to this meeting.
The paper argued that whilst a conference was technically possible, the difficulties in doing so for a minimal gain were such that it made more sense not to hold a conference in 2020. Though it was also recommended that we retain the option to hold an emergency single-issue conference if necessary, and that we plan for a physical conference in 2021 – but with contingency plans in case that isn’t possible.
The IL moved amendments to the paper to propose that we make arrangements for a conference in 2020, recognizing that whilst it will deviate from the standard conference arrangements it will at least allow for some form of democratic engagement – as well as a test of our digital systems for future online and/or hybrid events. We also proposed that plans for the 2021 conference included the use of digital and other means to increase participation and inclusion.
Both of our proposals were opposed by the General Secretary and the NEC majority, though in fairness when opposing the latter point there was acknowledgement of the need to look at the use of digital means to increase inclusion in the longer term. A commitment was therefore given that this would be taken into account both in contingency planning and in the discussions around the future of the union.
On the substantive issue of whether or not to hold a Conference, the clear dividing line of opinion was between Left Unity on one side and the IL and the Broad Left Network on the other. Since LU hold a majority, the recommendation to forgo any conference in 2020 was carried.
Every year around this time, the NEC agrees the timetable for elections and Conference in the following year. The IL moved two additional recommendations with the timetable – one to engage in the work to ensure members with workplace ballot addresses update them to their home, minimising potential disruption to the elections if home working and/or lockdown measures remain into the new year election period; and the other to ensure contingency plans are drawn up to ensure elections can go ahead even with a continuing pandemic.
Both motions were supported without opposition. This will hopefully mean that, even if we are no further forward in relation to the pandemic, we have minimised the risk of elections not being able to go ahead and the NEC and GECs sitting for another year without a vote on who makes up those committees.
Motions on Hong Kong and Trans Rights
As we previously reported, IL members had put forward a motion on the situation in Hong Kong and a motion on trans rights. The former motion sought to offer PCS’s solidarity to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions which fights for independent, rank and file led trade unions on the mainland as well as for democratic demands in Hong Kong and has seen many of its activists victimized by the HK government and arrested. The latter placed PCS firmly in opposition not only to the government scrapping reforms for the Gender Recognition Act but also to its overtures that it would actively discriminate against trans women in its policing of women’s spaces, as well as setting out steps for the union to defend trans members and trans people more broadly both in the workplace and in the political sphere.
After being deferred for the nearly three months due to lack of time to hear it in successive meetings, both motions were passed without opposition.