Report from the NEC 9 September

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.

National campaign

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.

Conference

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.

Elections

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.

HMRC: Meet with PCS members for fair wages and conditions

HMRC must take urgent action to resolve the dispute between PCS members employed as cleaners at HM Revenue and Custom’s Birmingham and Merseyside sites and their employer, ISS.

Send a message to HMRC’s CEO so they know how many of us are behind these workers.

Why is this important?

PCS members are in dispute over low pay, unequal sick pay entitlement compared to directly employed HMRC staff and job insecurity.

All workers deserve the dignity and respect that employment usually provides. But the minimum wage is simply not enough to live on. Statutory sick pay rates are so low and only normally payable from the fourth day of illness, meaning staff routinely work when they are sick as they cannot afford not to.

These are dedicated staff whose skills, hard work and enthusiasm are crucial to keeping the UK’s tax offices safe, clean and functioning. In fact, the vital work they do has been recognised by their key worker status during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have continued to work throughout lockdown despite the personal risk to themselves and their families.

The PCS union have approached HMRC several times to urge them to meet their members’ just demands but HMRC has declined to do so.

Send a message to Jim Harra and show your support, here.

 

Save Ealing Tax Office from closure

Reverse plans to close Ealing tax office.

#SaveEalingTaxOffice

Why is this important?

HMRC’s ill-considered office closure plans, which they still euphemistically call ‘Building Our Future’, will have a particularly heavy impact on PCS members working in International House in Ealing.

Many members working in the office have been redeployed previously, some several times, before being based at Ealing having therefore already gone through the “torment” of earlier office closures. As a result many Ealing staff do not live in Ealing and this combined with a significant proportion of staff having caring responsibilities and/or disabilities – making it near impossible for them to commute to Stratford.

The closure of International House, if the work there is not relocated locally to another premises will mean that HMRC will no longer have a presence in Ealing, leading to a detrimental local socio economic impact in the area, the impact to the local economy could be as much as £1million per year.4

Sign the online petition now here.

Re-instate Erek Slater! International solidarity now!

PCS Independent Left held its Summer all members’ meeting on Saturday 25 June. A number of important items were discussed and a report will be published in due course.

The meeting also heard from a guest speaker, Erek Slater, a Chicago bus driver and trade union representative sacked for refusing to transport police to and arrested demonstrators from Black Lives Matter protests.  The meeting pledged its solidarity with Erek and will be raising awareness of his campaign throughout PCS and the wider movement.

Erek also spoke to Liverpool Trades Council (LTUC) recently and we include that video here along with LTUC’s statement which outlines the importance of Erek’s struggle for all workers and trade unionists.

LTUC statement here.

See https://www.facebook.com/reinstateerekslater for more information on his campaign.

Please share this and look out for further info, here, in the coming days.

The union and “protect our borders”

The union is launching a national pay petition on the government’s petition website as part of our national campaign.

The NEC this week was asked to finalise the campaign strategy and agree the wording of the petition.

The wording of the petition ends with a sentence praising the work our members do, including some examples, specifically “The job retention scheme, keeping our courts running and our borders secure”.

The sentence exists to highlight the work we deem to have contributed to society to deserve a pay rise.

But one of those things is not like the others: Independent Left members of the NEC moved an amendment to remove reference to keeping our borders secure.

It is claimed that the phrase is included to highlight the work done by our members working in customs, excise and other areas ensuring duty is paid and imported goods are safe etc. But what is commonly understood by the phrase ‘keeping our borders secure’ in Britain is very simple: The hostile environment towards migrants, the deportation of immigrants and the refusal of support to refugees.

It is a phrase used as a dog-whistle by the likes of Nigel Farage, Priti Patel and Donald Trump for racist anti-immigration and immigrant policies. It cannot be used on its own without those connotations.

To illustrate the point, type the phrase into Google.

The top results include another petition on gov.uk demanding troops are used to repel immigrants at the borders; the corporate website of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security and an article on the EU’s site outlining measures taken to stop immigrants from North Africa escaping conflict and poverty crossing the Mediterranean.

What using this phrase means in reality and to the public is to normalise the policies our members follow to “keep our borders secure”, particularly around deportation and immigration enforcement. Policies we oppose and which are quite transparently discriminatory, both in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Policies which variously conflict with the equality policies of the union.

In other words, you cannot divorce praise for ‘keeping our borders secure’ from the reality of the policies employed to do that.

Our black and migrant members know what the phrase means all too well as victims of the government’s policies on ‘border protection’.

We should be no prouder of that work than we are of the work our members in DWP are asked to perform carrying out the unfair benefit sanctions and conditionality regime. Work we rightfully don’t include on this petition and work, like the border regime the union has conference policy to oppose.

There is a wider question here too. What is meant by ‘our’ borders?

PCS is in a praiseworthy position in the British trade union movement for being in favour of free movement. These borders aren’t ‘our’ borders any more than other elements of state control belong to us – they do not serve our interests. They divide workers on the basis of nationality and block people fleeing persecution and hardship from finding a better life.  

It is inconsistent for a union that believes in internationalism to be extoling the virtues of border protection.

When the vote on the amendment came, only the three IL comrades and the Socialist Party voted for the phrase’s removal. The SWP and others voted to keep it in. Picking apart the wording of a petition may seem pedantic, but political clarity is important. At best it is unnecessary, politically wrong and devoid of nuance. At worst it could be seen to be opportunistically currying support from reactionary sentiments in society.

Elections and Conference in 2020

The National Executive Committee meeting on 8 July voted to confirm that elections would not happen in 2020, whilst a final decision on Conference has been kicked further down the road.

As with the last meeting, the NEC had a large agenda to get through and most of it wasn’t ultimately heard. Therefore, beyond updates on the national campaign and negotiations related to COVID-19, the substantive discussion was on the elections and Conference.

Members of the PCS Independent Left put motions to the previous NEC asking for elections to be reinstated and some form of Conference to be considered. As those motions weren’t heard, we put amendments forward to the paper that came to this meeting from the General Secretary. Those amendments inevitably fell, with voting on the usual factional lines, and we detail the debate below.

Elections

In March, the NEC took the decision to not go ahead with elections (or Conference) as scheduled, on the basis of the then-emerging situation with Covid-19. In particular, we had just gone into lockdown, whilst the shielding period for the clinically vulnerable and extremely vulnerable members had barely begun and many members were also in self-isolation having had a member of their household exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. Although there was some debate, a majority of the NEC including two out of the three IL members on the committee voted in favour of elections not going ahead at that point.

The situation now is different. There are still real and ongoing concerns over the safety of members and the wider working class in relation to the pandemic, and in particular the re-opening of pubs and shops alongside scenes of crowded parks and beaches point towards a second spike in deaths. None of this should be dismissed. What is different is that the Communication Workers Union no longer discourages the sending of non-essential post, the shielding period has ended and those who were doing so can no go outside as long as social distancing is properly observed, and people can have a “social bubble” or meet with other households on the basis of the same precautions.

It is also worth mentioning that receiving a letter in the post, in many cases alongside online shopping deliveries, and popping to the post box to return a ballot paper is not in any way comparable to being asked to return to the office and all the risks that entails. (Online voting is even less comparable!) Just as taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests in the open air, with social distancing in effect, is not comparable to being in an enclosed space such as public transport, a pub, a shop or a workplace, and the increased transmission risk that entails.

It was on this basis that the IL argued for elections to resume. This was important, we argued, as the incumbent NEC only had a mandate for twelve months which has now passed, and with important decisions such as those on the union’s Strategic Objectives ahead of us it is vital that an NEC with a live democratic mandate takes them forward.

Under our proposals, existing nominations would be carried forward (though candidates would get the opportunity to update their election addresses) and the ballot period would begin in earnest with the winners taking up post from the declaration of results. This could, feasibly, allow for a new NEC to take up office for nine months – meaning that disruption of the normal process was minimised to a great extent.

Despite this, we heard that the proposal would undermine negotiations with the employer over avoiding a return to business as usual using the false comparison refuted above. It was argued that there was an increased risk for members, predicated on the conjured notion of armies of leafleters spreading COVID from workplace to workplace. Those of us making the proposal were even, absurdly, compared to Tories and the employer for wanting elections to happen – invoking memories of when we were compared to scab miners for opposing the previous suspension of elections back in 2014.

The main argument, however, was that the timetable for elections (based on re-running the entire process from scratch, despite no proposal for that) would mean the 2021 election cycle would begin before the 2020 cycle was ended. This wasn’t some new, unprecedented information, and would have been known as a possibility when the NEC agreed to not hold the elections as originally planned and keep the matter under review. Yet rather than say at that point that elections were cancelled altogether, that decision was kicked down the road to a later meeting.

This approach will be familiar to many in PCS, with the deferral of decisions in this way used both as a way of doing nothing whilst appearing to act and alternatively as a way to force an outcome by withholding a decision until it can be presented as without alternative. This is why the majority decision taken on Conference leads us to believe that it is unlikely to happen this year.

Conference

The decision taken was to explore all the options on whether a virtual conference or “event” was possible and to bring that information back so a future NEC meeting could decide if it goes ahead. This sounds straightforward, but as above is more likely to defer the decision on whether it happens until it is too late to take any other decision than that it doesn’t.

The debate itself also drew out that many of the NEC majority are opposed to a Conference, virtual or otherwise, happening in the current year. The view was that more reps and members participated in the various Zoom meetings and forums that have been happening over the past period and that the logistics of delegates debating and voting by virtual means would be a nightmare.

Being generous, this shows a lack of imagination. Whilst the increase in communications and meetings over the recent period are welcome, it is also notable that these are generally speaking top-down events whereby the leadership conveys its decisions to others but there is nothing in the way of decision making from the ground up or the membership shaping decisions even through the usual, corporate methods of “consultation.”

There would undoubtedly be issues with running Conference virtually in exactly the format it runs as a physical event. However, nobody was suggesting that. The IL proposal was to simply commit that we would have a Conference through virtual means and from there look at how this would be done.

This would also provide an opportunity to look at what could be done differently on a more permanent basis, to improve attendance and participation and to strengthen the direct democracy that in theory is the heart of Conference. Though of course a leadership whose own motions dominate the Conference agenda might not be too favourable towards such a notion. That certain branches going unrepresented and decreasing attendance at Conference were presented as arguments against committing to a virtual Conference but have yet to be the focus of a discussion where we consider how to rectify the issue certainly suggests as much.

What next?

The current NEC will therefore retain office until at least May 2021 (assuming that developments in the pandemic later in the year don’t warrant further suspension of processes) and a Conference looks unlikely to happen. Yet the union is faced with its most significant challenges yet not just with the pandemic but with the questions around the future of PCS as a going concern. The latter deserves the most democratic debate and oversight possible. Ensuring that will be a significant challenge in the period ahead.