The National Education Union, PCS and ‘Section 44’

Trade Unionists could not have helped but feel a certain pride in our movement when the National Education Union (NEU) announced its intention to advise its members to invoke Section 44 of the Employment rights Act and refuse to return to teach in schools.

This action was explicitly stated as a protective measure for the health and safety not just of education workers themselves, but of their pupils, their families and our wider community. Precisely the kind of spirit in action that the workers’ movement needs.

The subsequent mass online meetings – the largest in British trade union history – and the humiliating climb down over school openings by the government the following day should imbue us all with confidence and pride in a significant victory.

Since then, trade union leaders, including those in PCS have rightfully heralded the action. Unfortunately, when the time came for it in civil service workplaces during the first lockdown, the leadership of PCS did not act with the same militancy and bravery, and thwarted attempts by some of us on the union’s national executive to propose similar action to that of the NEU.

At the start of the pandemic, the National Executive Committee met to discuss the unions approach. This included agreeing a strategy to defend members who were coming under pressure to continue to commute to and work in offices.

There was much discussion about the use of Section 44. There was unanimous agreement that the union should make members aware of their rights under the act. And in fairness, subsequent bulletins from the union did just that. Unfortunately, it stopped far short of advocating and agitating for collective use of the legislation and was clear that the union leadership and bureaucracy accepted a conservative reading of the act.

The NEU strategy was explicitly one of collective action. The NEU leadership knew that caution and conservatism in any approach or communication to members would breed under-confidence in members to take action and therefore be self-defeating.

In literature and mass online meetings the advice was that if possible, school branches should send a single, collective letter, signed by as many staff as possible, to provide protection in numbers and to mitigate against members being picked-off one by one. A pre-emptive statement of the principle, An Injury to One is an Injury to All.

When IL members of the NEC argued for a similar collective strategy in PCS on both the 29 April and 13 May, our proposals calling for ‘Support for workers individually or collectively who refuse to return to offices on the basis of safety by providing them with legal defence under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act’, was voted down. Any move towards collectivising Section 44, we were told by FTO’s and the Left Unity leadership, was legally untested and irresponsible to attempt.

We’d have to wait until the NEU had the courage to try it.

We are glad the leadership now appears, superficially at least, to accept this and we hope in future will take the brave lead from the NEU to push the envelope regarding the legislation.

Trade Unions have a responsibility to be honest with members about the limitations of the law, but they also need to inspire confidence in their members to fight and win. Continued insistence to present the most conservative interpretation of the law rather than promoting militant, novel and creative ways of taking action despite it is guaranteed to result in defeat. Defeat we can not afford when the literal lives of our members and their families are concerned.

For PCS members, the handling of the union’s response to the pandemic is going to be a key issue in the upcoming Group and National Executive elections.

We have consistently argued, as above, for a more combative, member-led strategy to protect the health and safety of our members during this period. We believe the severity of the situation continues to warrant it.

As we previously reported, the NEC has adopted a strategy for collective action. Whilst this suits an ongoing or longer term issue, it is contingent on a lawful industrial action ballot process which takes six weeks at a minimum. There is still the need to give direct advice to members to collectively utilise their Section 44 rights and to come out in support of those who do so, as for example the UVW union have been doing, so that we can effectively react to the most urgent situations.

In the DWP London Region our members and supporters have been central in organising hundreds of new Work Coach recruits to fight for the right to be able to work from home and have proactively drafted Section 44 templates for members in offices where management are still holding out.

If you agree with us, please support our candidates for election at your branch AGM’s and vote for and encourage colleagues to vote them when ballots land later in the year.

Pay and contract reform in HMRC

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:

  1. Approach management and seek permission to discuss with members what is currently on the table;
  2. 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
  3. 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.

End leadership paternalism

Notably, we have a situation now where reps and members in our largest and historically better organised and represented employer groups have lost confidence.

Many long-standing reps don’t feel confident even talking face to face to members, let alone calling meetings of their workplaces to agitate.

At a recent DWP H&S reps meeting in Yorkshire and Humber. Less than 15% were confident enough to hold a carpark meeting of their own members and even less without a script provided by the Group.

A recent survey in the HMRC group suggested that while most branch organisers thought they were organising effectively, a minority said they’d regularly speak face to face to members, or had the confidence to do so.

This is not the fault of these reps.

The left took over the union in the early 2000’s on the back of a rank and file, workplace campaign from branches that did organising and agitating for themselves because the right-wing leadership wasn’t going to do so.

Since the left took over a paternalistic, managerial and top-down culture of organising has been allowed to set-in.

Group committees will decide the frame of any dispute, Group committees will provide speakers and speaking notes, the Group will negotiate and the Group will be the arbiter of any action.

When branches do decide they wish to take action independent of this culture, they can come against opposition. Such as the 2015 North West contact centre dispute in DWP, where the GEC time and time again rejected members calls for a ballot.

Or they receive limited or abortive national support or strategy, such as the office closure programme where sites such as Birkenhead, Sheffield Eastern Avenue and Plymouth fought without escalation.

This culture is passed down to new reps, so even in many of the areas where we recruit new activists, poor habits die hard. And let’s face it, it’s not a culture that inspires the next generation of activists like the rank and file led struggles of the 80’s and 90’s did in the absence of a left leadership.

But this is not uniform across the entire union. FTO’s in our emerging areas of organising such as facilities management and the Culture sector have stressed the importance of rank and file led and controlled disputes. In the FCO and BEIS disputes, the strikers are the ones speaking on picket-lines, and recommending and endorsing next steps. This has created dynamic disputes and a healthier, self-refreshing workplace activist base.

How do we change?

Independent Left says that any structural change to the union cannot be a panacea for fixing this problem. However, there are structural changes that can support a shift. We believe power over disputes needs to be in the hands of workplaces and branches as well as the Groups. In the CWU for example, branches have the ability to take action which they have used to great effect in the postal service.

Culturally, the left in the union has to relinquish the paternalist attitudes it adopted after taking control of the union, and accept that it has contributed to creating a reliance on the centre which has been negative.

We can start by devolving or making negotiating with central employer more accountable to branches and members.

We should also bring to an end secretive embargo arrangements with employers which create a bubble at the top of the union between the bosses and the bureaucracy with the workers on the outside. There needs to be a change to the unions hierarchical management structure. FTO’s in workplaces should be directly accountable to the branches they support, not simply their union line-manager.

Report from the NEC of 12 November

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.

Covid-19 organising

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.

National Campaign

The NEC received an update over national pay, pensions and the development of PCS Locals.

Pay

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.

Pensions

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.

PCS Locals

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.

National Bargaining

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.

Pay and Contract Reform in HMRC

After being trailed for several years, HMRC has finally got a business case approved by the Treasury for a pay rise attached to contractual changes and is entering collective bargaining with the unions. The final outcome is still some time away, but it’s a matter of great interest to all PCS members in the department.

The negotiations need to be conducted in the open, with details of any and all proposals – not just the final offer – available so that we can organise members around the issue, build pressure through campaigning to strengthen our hand in negotiations, and give members the maximum say at all stages.

A low pay department

Whilst pay in the Civil Service as a whole has been stagnant for a decade, the subject of the national union’s pay campaign, HMRC is one of the lowest paid departments. Statistics from the institute for government show that HMRC has the lowest median earnings across the Civil Service, and only the Home Office and DWP sit alongside it below the CS-wide median.

Part of this is because HMRC has the second highest proportion of staff who earn £30,000 or less and the second highest proportion who earn £20,000 or less – only the DWP beating it in either category. HMRC also has the lowest paid AAs, AOs and EOs in the civil service. In terms of the A grades, AA pay is now so low that they require a mid-year uplift every year to comply with the minimum wage, whilst AOs on the minimum of their national pay scale are a matter of pennies above the minimum wage.

Little wonder, then, that satisfaction with pay in the Civil Service People Survey is consistently lowest amongst HMRC workers.

Meanwhile, HMRC’s Grade 7 and 6 pay ranges are already significantly above other government departments and overlap with the Senior Civil Service pay band 1 minima. The median pay for Senior Civil Servants in the department is roughly in line with the CS-wide median for the SCS but as for the highest earners, only the Department for International Trade, Cabinet Office, Department of Health and Social Care and DWP have anyone at the top of the organisation earning more. When Jim Harra took the First Permanent Secretary role, his previous job as Second Permanent Secretary was advertised with a salary of £150-160,000, whilst the Chief Digital and Information Officer job was advertised with a salary of £200,000 and bonuses of up to 30% of this. In both cases, more than the Prime Minister.

It is also worth noting that, as the SCS pay award is separate from that of the junior civil service, those overseeing the pay and contract reform will not have to face any changes to their working conditions.

What kind of trade off are we looking at?

At the moment, there is no concrete information on what will be in the deal. The strongest rumour states that the deal will offer a 15% pay rise over three years, but provides no clue as to what the trade off will be.

Last year, a leaked document suggested that increases to the working week, the abolition of flexi time in favour of the kind of shift working seen in Contact Centres, only paying overtime and unsocial hours at plain time, reducing paid sick pay, and more were all on the table. It now appears that what was leaked was part of the scoping process with HMRC’s various sections, but it also tallies up with a lot of what was on the table in the MEP deal at the Ministry of Justice, and of course the Employee Deal at the DWP is still on most members’ minds when this subject comes up.

Speculating further at this point doesn’t particularly add much to the discussion. It has been suggested that details of “worst-case scenarios” may even serve as a useful stalking horse for HMRC, making anything less severe, though still detrimental, appear positive by comparison.

Any changes to our terms and conditions should not be linked to our pay. In the current negotiations, pay and contract reform are being dealt with in two separate sets of talks, but will be “brought together” at the end, making the link clear. This needs to be rejected, not just because it is an important principle but especially because no new money is being offered for this pay deal and it is constrained by what can be found within existing budgets.

Part of the savings that will account for a pay rise will clearly come from what efficiencies HMRC feels will result from contractual changes. However, although not explicitly stated, it is apparent that various other developments on the horizon such as savings from office closures, the false economy offered by the proposed privatisation of Brexit-related work, perhaps even the benefits of automation following on from the lessons learned by the lockdown and the hasty increase required in digital capacity, will all figure into the calculation.

In opposition to these, we should seize the space to argue for positive changes. If more work can be automated, does that allow for workers to have more leisure time by decreasing the full-time working week? Can we equalise annual leave not by giving everyone less but by scrapping the ten year wait to go up to a full thirty-day entitlement? If working from home reduces the amount of time that we are taking off sick, can we therefore afford to return everyone to an entitlement of six months’ full sick pay from day one of employment? If we have improved our digital infrastructure, does that aid the planning of work in a way that lets more workers rather than less to enjoy the benefits of flexi time? And so on.

It is clear that the negotiators will not be asking these questions when talking about contract reform, sadly. However, it is not clear what they will be talking about.

HMRC managing the message

That latter point leads on to the problems inherent to negotiations in confidence. In general terms, it takes control and agency away from union members, making it harder for them to hold negotiators accountable for what is said.

This form of collective bargaining, then, isn’t about delegates of the workforce advancing collectively agreed demands, with the vigilance of the workers themselves and their activity leverage for a positive response to those demands. Instead, it is about the union as a middleman, negotiating with the bosses for something they can sell to the workers, who in this scenario are passive customers rather than active participants.

The obvious objection to this is that the union’s membership is not clamouring for activity, held back only by the machinations of the bureaucracy. Members expect the negotiators to reach a deal on their behalf and make a recommendation in a ballot, and whilst they may be hungry for a conclusion, they’re not particularly clamouring for the kind of transparent bargaining process outlined above. This is true, and without going too much into it here, this is a situation that unions themselves have engineered over decades – managerialism encouraging passivity.

This doesn’t mean that the situation is therefore to be tolerated, or that there’s no gain to be made in trying to push for a more genuinely transparent, collective approach through serious organising. There absolutely is. Instead, the Group appears content to try and grow through a service provider union model, and to allow HMRC to manage the message.

The department is adept at propaganda, as the last five years of the Building Our Future programme shows. The 2015 announcement of mass office closures in favour of a limited number of regional hubs followed the leak of a document showing the bosses’ union-busting approach. The communication of the closures then followed to a tee the union buster’s script: direct communication between senior leaders and staff, cultivation of a direct employer-employee relationship, the promotion of HMRC as a “community” built around its new hubs, and a constant flow of announcements and events designed to cultivate acceptance and even enthusiasm for its approach.

The union then, in line with the explicit stated aim of the union busting paper, waged no industrial campaign against closures but instead “work[ed] with [HMRC] to achieve [HMRC’s] change agenda whilst seeking to protect the legitimate interests of members as far as possible.” The fruits of this approach are some offices open longer than expected and some additional hubs where not previously planned – alongside the largest redundancy programme in Civil Service history going ahead in the middle of a global pandemic at the same time as the union is debating how it responds to a failure to grow its membership.

In the same vein, HMRC have moved to manage the debate over pay and contract reform to their benefit. This hasn’t been as easy, since contractual rights still provoke strong responses from members, but pay provokes equally strong responses and so the employer has been keen to frame contractual reform as about fairness whilst also offering it as the only way to resolve pay. This isn’t impossible for the union to refute, but to do so it needs to articulate its industrial action strategy clearly enough to convince more members the worth of voting for it and put a plan in place to deliver the ballot and the subsequent action.

In the meantime, as well as its direct propaganda, HMRC has also produced support packs for both senior and front-line managers so that they understand what’s required of them to ensure the employer’s line lands with the workers. This is explicitly tied in with senior management’s newfound desire to promote union membership, emphasising that the “collective” in collective bargaining is the employer and the union acting in partnership, again allowing for an easier sell of whatever deal emerges and – crucially – laying the groundwork to frame the union as wreckers if necessary, e.g. opposition to a deal would be presented as the union denying members a pay rise, despite HMRC’s efforts to work in partnership, and so on.

Negotiations in confidence up until the point a final deal is available to be published only plays into HMRC’s strategy. This was raised by the one member of the PCS Independent Left on the GEC back in August, where a seemingly positive response from one of the lay negotiators agreeing that members should be kept informed was contradicted by the Group Secretary expounding at length on the supposed virtue of keeping the employer’s confidence.

Worryingly, not only can members not scrutinise the direction of travel in talks, but the GEC itself is also being updated only in vagaries.

At the GEC meeting on 14 October, the Group Secretary advised that reports on the talks were being provided to the General Secretary’s office. This is due to Mark Serwotka, with good reason, multiple times voicing concerns that what is happening in HMRC is the biggest potential threat to the unity of the national pay campaign. However, when asked whether the GEC could also receive these reports or at least the information in them, the response was to respond at length about what the reports did not say, but not to provide a concrete yes or no to the actual question asked.

This question was again asked by the IL member on the GEC. However, it is notable that the Broad Left Network have published an article laying out similar concerns. They, too, argue that “negotiators must resist the pressure of talks behind closed doors, designed to exclude members from the process, so the pressure of tens of thousands of members can’t be mobilised during negotiations. This makes it difficult to consult with members and to organise a response when the final terms of a deal are on the table; any campaign has to begin from a standing start.” As is clear above, we agree.

Unfortunately, whilst the IL have spoken up at the GEC, the BLN have not. Their members in HMRC have opted so far to remain within Left Unity, unlike BLN members elsewhere, which is why the BLN claims it is working with members of the HMRC GEC who are “fighting a rear-guard action” within LU. That rear-guard action, it seems, remains behind closed doors as much as the pay negotiations – making forcing movement towards our apparent common position all but impossible.

What next?

It is possible for PCS to use this situation to improve our organisation on the ground, vital as membership continues to decline, and strengthen our hand in negotiations. To do this, we need:

  1. Clear demands. We need to make sure the national pay claim, of 10% underpinned by a real living wage, isn’t lost in the discussions. We also need to articulate a case for terms and conditions to not only be uncoupled from pay but also improved for all through positive rather than detrimental changes.
  2. Open, transparent negotiations. All members should know what stage negotiations are up to, what their negotiators are saying on their behalf, and what is and isn’t on the table.
  3. Regular mass members’ meetings. Ideally these should be on the employer’s time, and we should ask for that. Even if they aren’t, they should be the beating heart of the campaign, with open debate allowing all members to have their say, and feedback from the meetings informing the GEC’s decisions.
  4. A serious grassroots organising effort. As well as the obvious stuff such as producing leaflets and tailored recruitment materials, we need to encourage branches to engage with members, one-on-one, to agitate, educate and organise. Using the Organising App to map responses, we need to ensure our arguments are getting across and turn passive support into active participation.
  5. Visible campaigning activity. That active participation should reflect where we are in the campaign and what leverage we need, from everyone putting a sign on their desk or signing a petition to protests and lightning walkouts.
  6. The option of industrial action. The best offer we can achieve through negotiations, even backed up by robust organising and campaigning, isn’t necessarily the best offer we can achieve at all. If we end up in a ‘take it or leave it’ situation with a bad offer, we should be prepared to force the employer’s hand by striking.

Report from the NEC of 8 October

The PCS National Executive Committee met on 8 October for its regular, now monthly, Zoom meeting. On the agenda were Covid-19, the national campaign, the strategic options for the union, and finance, along with other administrative matters.

Conference

Ahead of the first formal agenda item, the General Secretary noted that the Senior Officers were starting to scope out options for Conference. As previously reported, the NEC agreed that a physical conference but that contingency plans should be put in place. It was reported that the Brighton Centre was taking provisional bookings but that these were on a social distancing basis. This would have a potential impact on the number of delegates. The NEC was told to expect a detailed update in November and that a decision would likely be necessary in December.

Covid-19

The update paper presented to the NEC covered the correspondence between the General Secretary and the government and Cabinet Office over the previous threat to force Civil Servants back to the office. That situation resulted in a very public government U-turn in response to the worsening situation in relation to the virus.

The union sought feedback from reps and members regarding the situation, and it was reported that there was broad support for the union’s position. However, the position varied in devolved nations and in different groups, as well as a divergence of views between those in the workplace and those working from home; whilst the former still support the union’s stances, the majority was notably lower. There wasn’t overwhelming support for industrial action on a Civil Service-wide basis – meaning that the union will continue its current approach. However, it is urging that where any Group or National Branch considers the employer’s approach to be unsafe, they should consider industrial action.

John Moloney reported back on proposals from the Bargaining, Personnel and Policy Committee on homeworking and ‘future working.’ The paper included eight principles that the BPPC had agreed on the subject, to be put to the Civil Service and devolved administrations and other employers as the basis of future home working agreements. These included asserting that homeworking is and should be voluntary, that it’s a valid redundancy avoidance measure, ensuring that home workers don’t suffer a pay detriment based on where they live (e.g. if they live outside London but the team is based in London, they should still receive London-weighted pay), and measuring the carbon impact of home working.

A proposed amendment from members of the Broad Left Network argued that these principles should be noted rather than supported and implemented, asking for more information before agreeing anything. In moving it, they suggested that a voluntaristic model of home working presented pitfalls including the threat that reduced office numbers would be used as a rationale for office closures and the spectre of regional pay. The proposed alternative was union control over home working contracts and who could agree to homeworking.

The debate around this, including contributions from Independent Left NEC members, pointed out that putting the implementation of the principles on hold presented its own risk. Homeworking is a reality now and one that the union needs to get a better handle on it both in negotiations and from an organising standpoint, and so it is crucial to pin down protections for members around these issues. This didn’t mean that there weren’t more complex issues to draw out and develop positions on, but those positions wouldn’t be better handled by putting the matter on hold. It was also pointed out that a position of union control over homeworking would represent a level of organisational control over the workplace that PCS has never had under any leadership.

In the vote, the amendments fell.

Pay

The main focus of the discussion around the pay campaign was the pay petition, which has over 56,000 signatures but is only increasing in number very slowly. This makes reaching 100,000 signatures unlikely without a significant escalation of activity, and in turn makes it unlikely that the November NEC will take a decision to move to a national industrial action ballot.

Both on the Campaigns Committee and the Organising Committee, as well as in the NEC, IL members made the point that there were several significant barriers to the petition functioning as an organising structure test. The most obvious of these is the situation with Covid, which in Groups like HMRC has rendered face to face contact with a majority of members to discuss the issue all but impossible, but the fact that the facility to record on the Organising App that members have signed is only now available to branches means that the union is effectively chasing existing signatories to confirm their participation rather than seeking out new signatories. Doing this through bulk emails and phone calls also means that as a structure test the union can to a degree measure membership enthusiasm on pay but not branches’ engagement with the necessary work on the ground, since contact through CallHub is not being done on a branch basis and therefore isn’t an analogue to one-on-one conversations by lay activists.

The NEC agreed a series of actions which are aimed at stepping up activity and driving up the signatories on the petition. However, for the reasons above, it is difficult to see how the number of signatures maps onto ballot readiness. This is particularly true in an ongoing situation where a significant majority of members will remain working from home and we still don’t have a handle on how we organise them.

A list of proposed ‘PCS Locals’ was also circulated, and the NEC agreed to take these out to regional committees to develop them. The PCS Local model is about building cross-branch structures, like town committees, that allow joint campaigning on a geographical basis. This is something that the union does need to develop, to encourage wider organising and get past barriers to membership participation and narrow sectionalism. But again, the future of this initiative will be contingent on getting a handle on organising homeworkers. There is a potential argument that we could even develop PCS Locals where there are geographical concentrations of members living, rooting the union in communities and perhaps even invoking organising methods (post-pandemic) where activists knock on members’ doors to engage with them.

The paper also confirmed that the December meeting of the NEC would receive proposals on sectoral pay bargaining and single sectoral pay claims. A big part of this work, which the IL has argued in favour of for a long time but the union has resisted until now, will be establishing a database of pay scales across government which can be used to inform bargaining, legal considerations and campaign propaganda.

Finance

The NEC received a finance update from the Assistant General Secretary, who reported that subscription income was up due to a net increase in membership this year as opposed to the planning projections of a loss of 3,000 members due to past trends.

The main strain on PCS finances continues to be the deficits of the legacy staff pension schemes, potentially leading to an extra million pounds of expenditure in the coming years. At the same time, the government’s announcement that it will cease funding the Union Learning Fund in England next year will cause significant issues due to the money PCS had been drawing from this including the salaries of eight staff. Also on the horizon were the impact on membership, and therefore subscriptions, from job losses in the Culture Sector and redundancies in HMRC.

The main area of discussion was around the subscription rates for 2021. The NEC agreed to a 2% increase to the rate, alongside a 10p increase to the maximum subs rate. However, we raised the point that there was still a need for comprehensive subscription reform, as it was inherently unfair to have a structure that meant members at EO grade paid the same rate as Grade 7 members. This also potentially meant that we were missing a trick financially, when clearly this was a concern given the issues highlighted over the forecast for the union’s income.

Subscription reform was of course part of John Moloney’s election platform as Assistant General Secretary and he pledged to speak to the President and General Secretary in order to take forward that programme of work.

Strategic options for the union

We have previously reported on the special NEC where the questions for the future of the union were debated. The NEC signed off the final versions of the scoping paper to go to branches and the analysis of membership trends from the Organising and Education Committee that will accompany it. At the meeting of the OEC, the IL proposed several additions which were incorporated into that latter paper, to ensure that what goes to branches incorporated discussion of organising in outsourced areas, the impact of the localised disputes that we’ve seen in recent years on our membership, and our organising culture.

We would encourage all branches to fully consider the issues at hand and to put forward their own positions, without being bound by the ‘merger or restructure’ binary choice. The NEC will consider all responses in January and the IL still believes these should be available to any branch or member who wants to see them, but in the event that we lose that argument we also urge branches to publish and share their positions as well as providing them to the NEC.