The PCS National Executive Committee met via Zoom on Thursday 12 November. On the agenda were the Covid-19 pandemic, the national campaign, national bargaining in the UK civil service, and contingency planning for Conference 2021.
The first paper on the agenda was organising, campaigning and bargaining related to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was fairly straightforward in updating the NEC on Cabinet Office level talks and the outstanding issues, particularly over the lack of clear central messaging on home working since the government’s attempt to force more members back into the office and the lack of certainty over the continuation of full pay arrangements for outsourced workers having to shield or take time off. It also set out a series of actions to get building/site health and safety committees across multi-employer locations such as the new government hubs.
One area of debate was over the industrial action strategy developed to respond to disputes over safety which ties in traditional industrial action with the right to withdraw from unsafe conditions under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and reinforcing the right to do so without detriment through legal action alongside the industrial action. PCS Independent Left members on the NEC sought to put forward an additional recommendation requiring that the NDC ensure that Groups and branches are aware of the industrial action strategy and that they can deploy it if necessary, and to proactively encourage and build disputes where possible. The Broad Left Network put in their own additional recommendation, complementary to ours, instructing the union to publish the information on the industrial strategy to all branches, with clear advice on how to craft a trade dispute, including the type of language that is advisable, and equally clear advice that the collective route is not purely reactive, i.e. seeking a trade dispute does not require groups or branches to wait until the employer announces plans to move staff into their offices.
The grounds for opposing these amendments by the NEC majority lacked in substance, being largely predicated on the notion that the union was doing this anyway. It was suggested that this was already going on, with Management Action Briefs being issued on the subject and discussions occurring with Groups.
The point in response went unanswered: that MABs largely didn’t go beyond Groups, and therefore that branches remained unaware of positions encouraging the building of disputes, as well in many cases of not knowing the union’s internal procedures to seek and initiate a dispute. Therefore, with the recommendations falling, we are left in a position whereby technically the union will encourage disputes where it receives submissions, but most activists remain unaware of this and therefore the submissions simply don’t come in. Not to mention the barriers that Groups themselves often throw up when branches try to initiate disputes.
The NEC received an update over national pay, pensions and the development of PCS Locals.
The key decision highlighted in the paper was an assessment over whether the union was ready to move to a national ballot on pay; it’s doubtful that any activist would be surprised at the recommendation that the current position meant that we weren’t ready to do so.
The paper suggested that we should continue organising and campaigning, including on the pay petition and that we reassess ballot readiness in early 2021 prior to the Treasury pay remit process.
Whilst not disagreeing with this as an aim, IL NEC members did make the point that doing this properly would require more than simply going away from this meeting and returning in January or February to find that, with the pandemic likely still ongoing and a majority of members still working from home, we remain unready to move to a ballot.
Instead, recognising that there are a number of tools which can be utilised to organise members who work at home, there needs to be detailed work to ensure that branches are aware of the tools available, trained and confident in using them, and fully supported to meet, organise and undertake campaigning activity. If we don’t do that work, proactively identifying where branches aren’t in an ideal position and need an extra push or support, then the result of an analysis over ballot readiness will inevitably be negative.
The issue of pay and contract reform in HMRC and its potential impact on the wider national campaign. The IL’s concern is that these discussions being in confidence is a key part of the potential threat to our ability to cohesively campaign on pay. It reduces members in HMRC to passivity, waiting for an outcome on a process they have no control over, and puts campaigning on a back burner. It also enables HMRC in its propaganda efforts, aimed at selling a deal where conditions are sold off as the only game in town, and prepping managers at all levels to help land whatever comes out of those talks.
The fact that HMRC is holding joint sessions with the two recognised unions to promote union membership and allowing greater leeway for the union to promote the pay petition on work systems appears to fit into that strategy. Whilst we may get more members out of this, there are certainly dangers of this trapping the union into a partnership approach which of course impacts on our ability to organise effectively in opposition to the employer.
In response to this, it was pointed out that many members and staff on the HMRC Yammer pages and in the joint sessions referenced above are voicing defence of terms and conditions and promoting membership of the union. This is of course welcome, but fails to grasp the particular point on how more open negotiations can be used to build leverage, participation and workplace power. There remains no strategy to do this, and the closest the response to our points came to addressing this was suggesting that workers were joining the union to reject a bad deal – again still limiting participation to a take it or leave it approach to the final product on offer.
Interestingly, no NEC members outside of HMRC rushed to defend the in-confidence basis of the talks, and in replying at the end of the debate the General Secretary only noted the differing perspectives and suggested that this highlighted just how critical the issue of pay in HMRC was.
The Broad Left Network moved a motion in opposition to the paper that condemned the ongoing approach of the majority on the NEC and calling for an analysis of the failure of the 2020 pay campaign, proposals to prepare a campaign on pay and other issues in 2021, detail of how the national demands relate to sectoral pay claims and criticising the approach to PCS Locals, which is covered in the relevant section below. The motion fell due to the paper passing.
The main update on pensions was to report that the union was laying the groundwork for individual and collective legal action to seek remedy for members with a potential claim for age discrimination whilst continuing to pressure the government on paying back members’ overpaid pension contributions. There are a potential 50-70,000 claims, including many who will likely not be PCS members, presenting a considerable recruitment and organising opportunity. Recommendations on this are expected at the next NEC.
The paper also covered the development of PCS Locals, the union’s informal, town committee-style bodies aimed at bringing members across different sites in the same geographical location together. The paper set out a series of actions to set up at least two Locals in each PCS hub area as a starting point and getting them active on key workplace and community issues in their areas and making the Locals self-sustainable.
At the Campaign Committee ahead of the NEC, the IL raised the point that such a process should be aimed at encouraging self-activity by members and activists, rather than full time officials instructing them or setting the agenda. At the meeting, this point appeared to be accepted and it was stated that such a top down approach wasn’t the intent. Obviously, the proof of this will be in how it turns out in practice.
The BLN’s objection to Locals mainly stemmed from one of the recommendations being to hold meetings “based around a specific identified local issue and based on agreeing specific action and involvement (such as MP lobbying, assisting with a local foodbank, support for vulnerable residents during lockdown, contacting older members)”. They argued that “It is simply not good enough that the best the Senior Officers of the union can come up with to advance those campaigns is for activists to volunteer at foodbanks, especially at a time when communities are facing devastating cuts and need union activists to organise local campaigns to oppose these cuts.”
One thing not touched on in the paper or debate is that one of the most positive responses to the pandemic has been the rise of mutual aid groups across the country, and unions should absolutely be involved in mutual aid and community organising. This is very different from “advocates turn[ing] themselves into a charity volunteer pool”, which we would join BLN in opposing.
However, we don’t think the union was arguing either for increased charity volunteering or starting a debate on how we approach mutual aid initiatives, but simply reaching for an example of involvement in a local issue. This isn’t a reason to oppose the approach outlined.
The NEC was presented with a draft paper on what the union needs to do in order to review its approach to collective bargaining at all levels and to establish proper national level collective bargaining machinery. The intent was for the paper to be fine tuned by the relevant sub-committees of the NEC and brought back to the December NEC for sign-off.
Overall, the paper was extremely comprehensive and drew together a significant number of bargaining strands whilst seeking to get a proper handle on the bargaining machinery in a way the union has been unable to do for a long time and reverse the erosion of collective bargaining that has resulted. This has been driven in large part by PCS IL member and Assistant General Secretary John Moloney, and IL NEC members sought to add to this by moving amendments to ensure that the impacts of digitalisation and automation and also the use of contingent labour for civil service work were key priorities in our bargaining agenda. Especially in light of Central government using the Covid crisis to expedite and accelerate the introduction of robotics and machine learning into large operation departments such as DWP and HMRC, drastically reducing the work of AA and AO jobs.
The threat to our members jobs through automation of administrative functions is obvious, but unlike before this is likely to take the form of a gradual erosion, not mass redundancies. Still, the union’s organisation and bargaining strategies cannot ignore automation as a key threat to the union’s base. The unions response should be based on a number of key demands:
a) Opposing the reduction in jobs.
b) Opposing an increase in outsourcing capacity, even if the claim from employers is that this is time limited.
c) Re-evaluating our organising and recruitment focus to the emerging shape of the civil service.
d) Demanding that the fruits of automation and digitisation benefit workers first. Be that in the form of a reduced working week or increased pay or both.
This has been an issue the national union and groups have been slow to grapple with, but our amendments were voted to be included in the bargaining paper.
Conference contingency planning
Following on from it being flagged at the last meeting, the NEC agreed the objectives of a potential virtual Conference as a contingency for a physical Conference not being possible. The NEC also agreed to provide guidance and funding for branches to use Zoom for virtual AGMs and Mandating Meetings where necessary.
The basis of these points is that branches should in principle be able to put forward motions to set policy, rather than the subjects and positions for debate being set from the top and the centre by the NEC. That isn’t a democratic policy setting arrangement. Likewise, counting votes based on branch membership allows for the maximum democracy rather than a truncated number of delegates per branch giving some branches disproportionate influence to their size.
Two omissions in the proposed objectives of a virtual Conference, which the IL moved as additional recommendations, were for branches to be able to submit motions and for votes to be taken based on the number of members per branch at the end of 2020. The General Secretary opposed these on the basis that they were too prescriptive at this point and better considered once it was decided that a virtual Conference was necessary. The amendments fell, however it was indicated that these considerations could be looked at in December when the NEC decides in principle whether to take forward a physical or virtual Conference, and so these can be argued again.