The HMRC Group Executive Committee had meetings on 16 December and 5 January to discuss the pay and contract reform talks with the employer. These meeting finally saw the GEC given some actual detail of what’s on the table, but unfortunately the union still has no intent of involving members in the process until a final offer is formed.
The first meeting opened with the Group President sternly warning attendees that the content of the meeting is confidential and should not be shared wider. We were told that the employer would be able to trace any such leak, thereby adding a not too subtle threat of disciplinary action to accompany any breach of confidentiality but assured that what we were seeing wasn’t a final offer. This was an overview of the ‘direction of travel’, and the GEC’s attitude to that would shape what that final offer would look like in the new year.
Not being allowed to disclose any details makes it difficult to report back on the meetings. However, there was a proposal put by a member of the Independent Left to the December meeting that the negotiators should:
- Approach management and seek permission to discuss with members what is currently on the table;
- Demand a full Equality Impact Assessment in order to assess the impact on members with protected characteristics of the proposed changes currently on the table, and
- Publicise to members that we are seeking the above from management, why they are important, and to advise members of management’s response.
It remains the case that not including members in the process of negotiations which are supposedly on their behalf is both bad for participation and democracy and puts the union in a weaker position.
It reinforces the idea of the union as a service you pay for which acts on your behalf, rather than something you should actively engage in, and whilst there may or may not be the formal democracy of a ballot on any final deal this is the most passive form of democratic engagement possible. It would be more democratic and give the union far more leverage at the bargaining table, if members were able through mass meetings in their branches to react to the proposals, to make their own concrete demands, and to campaign for or against the various things being put forward.
Not only that, but when we reach the “best that can be achieved through negotiations,” the next consideration is whether industrial action can get us any farther. The union has, in recent memory, twice failed to get over the 50% turnout threshold in statutory ballots. Beating that trend is clearly easier with a membership assured of their own agency in the process rather than a passive membership that we seek to mobilise only at the point a ballot becomes necessary.
An EQIA puts the onus on management to justify any detrimental changes they seek to make, rather than on the union to argue down a detriment. It is especially important as, in detailed contractual talks, it may not always be apparent where there is potential discrimination, and this minimises the chance of it “slipping through” because one or other individual involved in the talks didn’t pick up on it.
Not undertaking an EQIA until the final offer, the position suggested by negotiators, minimises the extent to which those equality impacts can be addressed. If, as with the DWP Employee Deal, an ‘opt out’ was offered as the main mitigation against any such impacts, that in itself builds inequality into a deal. Any group that has to choose between terms and conditions that disadvantage them and not getting the same pay rise as their colleagues is clearly facing unequal treatment – in the DWP, this fell hardest on women, carers and lower grades.
Finally, telling the members that we have sought these things – and if they are refused – again engages them even to a small degree in what is happening whilst putting pressure on the employer to do what is being asked.
In the end, this proposal wasn’t put to a vote. There was clearly reluctance in some quarters to say too much to members in case it ‘set hares running’ or ‘unbalanced’ the talks. Aside from the fact that leaks by the official side have already set hares running about what’s in the deal, it isn’t necessarily the negative it’s portrayed as if it allows for members to make clear what they find unacceptable in a way that is hard to ignore. However, it at least appeared to be accepted that the negotiators would put the questions to management – only for it to be confirmed at the 5 January meeting that this hadn’t happened.
Not only that, but it emerged at the January meeting that a final offer was expected imminently, indeed had been expected ahead of the meeting but hadn’t yet materialised. This effectively means that the negotiators have talked out the time we had to involve members and use their collective power to shape the final deal and challenge detriments. This has attracted no dissent from the GEC majority (effectively a coalition of Left Unity and the Broad Left Network since BLN members on the GEC have yet to formally split from LU), despite the BLN having written on their blog of the need to consult members more in these talks.
It is unlikely that the end result will be an offer which promotes best practice in terms and conditions, and instead we will see a zero-sum game where there will be losers as well as winners. This can only serve to divide the membership – with acceptance of a deal being viewed as a betrayal by one side and rejection viewed as a failure by the other.
The alternative is to unite members around a strong case for a serious pay increase that eradicates low pay and a positive package of improvements in working conditions for all, backed by the threat of effective industrial action. With no mood for that in the leadership, PCS risks handing all the cards to the employer.