This month has seen 2 significant announcements from the civil service’s largest employer, DWP. The first is that all front-facing staff will be required to work back at offices with immediate effect. The second is that claimants will be forced to attend the Jobcentre appointments on a much more regular basis as part of the newly announced ‘Way To Work’ policy. As a consequence, in many workplaces the department is ripping-up commitments to social distancing and cleaning, forcing customers and claimants to meet on ‘red’ desks, removing screens and abandoning commitments to reduced footfall.
These reckless and harmful decisions represent a perfect storm for the Health and Safety of Jobcentre workers and Claimants. On one side is the obvious increase in the risk from covid, on the other an increased risk of violent confrontation caused by the unnecessary and egregious antagonism of claimants that the new policy represents.
Before Christmas the DWP Group Executive called an all-members meeting via Zoom. Over 1000 reps and members joined the call, showing the depth of feeling on the subject of being forced to work in unsafe offices.
During the call a poll was taken, asking whether members would be willing to take industrial action. The vote was carried overwhelmingly with 90% of attendees participating. The group leadership promised to escalate the dispute if no meaningful movement came from the employer.
Predictably, the Department refused to budge. They provided a small, hardly enforceable concession that in some places, in some circumstances discretion could be given to offering telephone over face-to-face appointments to claimants. No members we’ve spoken to consider this an acceptable or meaningful concession and there’s no evidence it had any effect on footfall in offices.
Fast-forward a month and another members’ meeting was called. The first call was repeated once again with the leadership expressing again how badly the department was behaving to an audience well versed in such treatment, having been on the front-line since the last meeting.
An increase in hostility from the employer, a worsening of conditions in Jobcentres and a new policy announcement making matters even worse.
Instead of the call to action, promised at the previous meeting, and in the face of yet another zoom poll showing overwhelming support for action, the leadership equivocated. Not only was there no commitment to action but we were told that there were different views on strike action and that it really was the last course of action.
If you answer the question of industrial action by playing down expectations and moderating the ‘different views on strike action’, rather than agitating in favour of the action we all know is required, you aren’t providing leadership, you are abrogating your responsibility as trade union leaders.
You are confirming the most moderate positions, you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the future of the dispute and any ballot result and you have wasted another golden opportunity of galvanising thousands of members.
PCS Independent Left members in the DWP offer an alternative strategy:
1. An immediate disaggregated ballot linking H&S and staffing
While the impact of the pandemic affects all members, the application of agreements and management behaviour, union organisation and members feelings across workplaces is uneven.
In some offices, local members taking Section 44 action has forced management to reduce footfall. In a few offices’ management have been more understanding of the seriousness of the issue and used their authority to make workplaces safer than others. In others, the situation is incredibly desperate, and members should be preparing to take industrial action.
High workloads/lack of permanent staff across the group in all grades is having a detrimental effect on all in terms of wellbeing, and stress levels.
This landscape means that an aggregated national ballot across the Department may result in workplaces which are willing to take action prevented from doing so by those where the problem is less widely felt, where management are better behaved or where members are less organised.
Equally, it makes strategic sense to use workplaces which are ready to take action as a catalyst to agitate among those who aren’t ready as soon as possible.
We therefore call for an immediate national ballot disaggregated to the workplace level. On the basis of the following 8 demands:
Hybrid working offered to all staff within DWP when safe to do so.
All FTA staff to be offered permanent contracts regardless of grade.
Bring back in-house all outsourced work.
Return to closing of floors/sites awaiting deep cleans after positive covid case.
Return of case conferences between management and local PCS H&S reps upon notification of a positive covid case on site with 48 hours.
When in an office all staff to be seated at least 2m from another member of staff/1m if a screen is between them
All Jobcentres to ensure that customers are not seated within 2m of another customer (unless members of the same household/bubble)
All covid safety control measures in Jobcentres to remain until covid cases drop to an acceptable level – No group information sessions and all meetings via Teams.
At this week’s DWP Group Executive Committee, a motion proposed by IL members, calling for this was voted down. However, Branches can pass the motion themselves and send to the GEC, and while it may very well be too late, members should propose it to their AGM’s in order for it to be debated at Annual Conference.
Please get in touch for a copy.
2. Refusal to refer sanctions or impose conditionality
Anti-trade union laws block union members from taking political strike action against government policies. However, the ‘Way To Work’’ policy and the increased sanction and conditionality regime associated with it does represent an increased risk to the health and safety of members and consequently action against such a policy could be considered a legitimate trade dispute.
We need to use everything in our arsenal to defend members. In addition to strike action, action short of a strike, allowing members to refuse to apply sanctions or conditionality would serve to protect members and claimants by reducing the harmful consequences of the government’s policy.
In 2015 IL members on the GEC proposed such a policy. This was voted down by the Leadership and Broad Left Network supporters at the time. We believe it’s time for a rethink.
If you agree, we can send a model motion to your branch to pass up to the GEC or submit to annual conference for debate.
3. If the Group won’t lead, reps and members can and should
We have been advocates of these tactics for a long while and we have no illusions that the Group will change tack.
Branches and reps who agree with us should be aware that despite rumours to the contrary, the power in the union rests in the workplace. Branches and workplaces have the right to call their own carpark members meetings to discuss and vote on taking collective industrial action and to submit a request for a statutory ballot direct to the National Disputes Committee who rarely turn down such a request and is able to sanction strike pay.
It can be daunting, but even one workplace balloting for action puts pressure on the employer and acts as a beacon for other workplaces and branches to step-up too.
While the Group leadership refuse to agitate for such action, they have said they will support any workplace that wishes to do so. We need to challenge them to their word.
If you think members in your branch or workplace are up for or could be convinced to taking action, please get in touch and we can support you.
If you agree, nominate and vote for Independent Left Candidates
Each year supporters of the Independent Left stand for election to the union’s national leadership committees. The nominations for these committees are happening at the moment. If you agree with our positions, please nominate our candidates at your branch AGM’s and vote for us when you get your ballot papers.
Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Phil Dickens, R&C; Chris Marks, DWP
NEC ordinary members
Tom Bishell, DWP; Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Ralph Corrigan, PSg; Victoria Cuckson, R&C; Chris Day, National Archives; Phil Dickens, R&C; Steve Flynn, DWP; Chris Hickey, MHCLG; David Jones, MHCLG; Vijay Menezes-Jackson, DWP; Bev Laidlaw, DWP; Chris Marks, DWP; Phil Millar, UK Health Security Agency; Paulette Romain, DfT; George Thompson, DWP; Matt Wells, DEFRA
It is heartening to see the number of current disputes.
In DVSA 92% of Driving Examiners members voted for strike action on an 80% turnout. This dispute, triggered by the Department for Transport, is over forced moves to an 8 test day for full timers (up from the current 7) and a proportionate increase in testing for part timers.
On 1 October, a month’s long strike will begin for cleaners and attendants working to the Royal Parks. This is over jobs and conditions.
Shortly we expect members in DVLA Swansea to be reballoted. This is over safety in the workplace.
The question arises though, why aren’t there not even more disputes? Certainly the material basis for those are everywhere. For example, in DWP, management are forcing staff into the workplace. In the ‘old’ days this would have triggered multiple branch disputes, possibly a group strike, yet at the moment, nothing.
Whilst leadership, or the lack of it, is a factor as always in these matters, a key issue though is that our organising culture is wholly lacking. So whilst it varies greatly across the union, our percentage membership is not as high as it was pre-check off. Of course our density levels then were as not as great as in the past.
Whilst not downplaying the political background where many young people have not heard of a union the plain fact is that as a union, with honourable exceptions, organising, not only in the sense of recruiting members but crucially developing activists and getting members involved, is not a priority.
So what can be done? Firstly we should just admit the truth that we have to rebuild an organising culture. Indeed at the last ADC, delegates passed an NEC motion that amongst other things calls on the union to ‘Develop a structured programme to build an organising culture’.
As we all know though there is a big difference between passing a motion and actually actioning the terms of a motion. At the moment the union has not said how it is going to build the necessary culture. Certainly it cannot be done by the NEC alone or by FTOs. Whilst the national union can kick start the change, only if activists and members are engaged, can the change be made.
Over the coming weeks, the Independent Left will set out some ideas as to what we would like to see. In the end though we need a cross-union conversation on organising. If we don’t then the culture won’t change. That won’t mean the end of the union but it will mean a progressive corrosion of the union’s influence in the workplace. It is in our hands to prevent that.
Britain is experiencing its third Covid wave which is being made much worse by the ending in England of most Covid restrictions. As we write this, cases are over 50,000 a day with an estimate that this figure will rise to 100,000 cases in September. The numbers of those in hospitals is increasing, with some hospitals reconfiguring their layouts to re-introduce Covid wards.
Of course given the acute lack of beds in this country, every Covid patient in hospital occupies a bed that someone else could use. So we are seeing operations being cancelled, thus adding to the backlog of millions of people, many of them in pain, waiting for an operation.
Now the Government claim that the vaccination programme has broken the link between cases and hospitalisations and death. This is untrue. The programme has weakened the link but unfortunately not broken it; even people double vaxed (as proven by the Health Secretary of State contracting Covid) can still be infected.
In any case, as this article is being written, just over half of the total UK population have been fully vaccinated and around 70% have been partially vaccinated. Even assuming that approximately 20% of unvaccinated people are protected by previous infection, this still leaves more than 17 million people with no protection against COVID-19. Therefore there are millions of people who are unvaccinated or only partly so who are vulnerable to the third wave. This pool of people, much of whom are young, is where Covid is being left rip.
Whether by design or negligence, the UK Government is seeking herd immunity by infection rather than by vaccination. As such many more people will die, many more will be hospitalised and very importantly many more will get Long Covid. Already it is estimated that up to two million have Long Covid. The Government is adding to that number.
Then there is the chaos caused by people being pinged by the NHS app, the largely unreported crisis in school where at any one time, 100Ks of pupils are being sent home. All this is being made worse by the UK Government actions and inactions.
So what should the union say and do? Firstly we have to condemn the ending of restrictions and set out the case to our members that the route to herd immunity must be by vaccination, not mass infection. It follows therefore that we must be opposed to a return to the workplace in the current circumstances and we should renew the call that those already forced back to the workplace be allowed to home work. In reality this means backing action in DVLA and DWP.
In the former the union is re-balloting members in DVLA as required by law (the anti-trade union law forces unions to seek another strike mandate after six months – of course the Tories after the last election have a mandate for five years).
In DWP there was an indicative ballot, the results of which were not announced and since then things have on the surface gone quiet. For us that calm is deceptive. Each week offices are being closed owing to Covid as DWP is not immune to the third wave. More worryingly the department is pushing on with plans to get more claimants into Job Centres, have interviews at unscreened desks and to get staff back into processing and other centres. In other words, DWP is deliberately making the Covid crisis worse, converting every job centre into a super spreading site.
We have to oppose this not only by word but also by deed. Even if the mood on the ground is not uniformly for strike action now, though through clear leadership, consistent and firm messaging that can be changed – members’ state of mind is not fixed – we should seek to organise a fight where we can.
The indicative ballot presumably was or can be broken down by branch or even office. Therefore we know where a possible fight back can be organised from. Those branches should be immediately approached for possible balloting.
Our preference though is that all Job Centres/Processing centres, better still the whole Group take action. The Group should make this their public position and work towards this aim in the next weeks accordingly.What the Group should not do, to use an old phrase, is keep its powder dry, waiting for the events to reach some crisis point, hoping that member’s attitudes will change accordingly and then act.
Firstly that ignores that the union’s campaign is a factor that could bring that crisis to ahead and to change attitudes; whilst the havoc caused by Covid is the objective factor, what PCS says and does is the subjective factor that can change everything.
Pragmatically, given the long run in times demanded by anti-trade laws to ballot etc, we cannot wait for the crisis. By the time that comes and we ballot then, it maybe be over by the time the union can legally take action. Therefore we should anticipate events rather than wait for them!
PCS is finally moving its national pay campaign in a direction that Independent Left supporters have argued in favour of for years. Yet even as it does, it has risked fatally undermining the campaign with its recommendation of the Pay and Contract Reform offer that has now been accepted in HMRC.
At its most recent meeting on 26 February, the National Executive Committee voted in favour of a national pay claim which finally put national pay bargaining and pay coherence front and centre. Rather than, as previously, a one-line demand for national bargaining that was overshadowed by the percentage rise demand, the union is now seriously pushing for coherence based on the best available across government and using sectoral pay claims as a stepping stone to that through a reduction in the number of bargaining units.
There are still issues. The claim lacks a living wage underpin, for example, at a point where the trade union movement is discussing whether the current £10 per hour standard demand should raise to £12 or even £15 per hour.
However, the PCS Independent Left has long argued for pay equality and a levelling up to the best in government as well as the intelligent use of the differing pay ranges across departments. This was part of the platform Assistant General Secretary John Moloney advocated in his election campaign. IL members on the NEC have also consistently advocated prioritising the national bargaining demands when discussing the pay claim over the years we have been elected to the committee.
Despite this positive move in terms of the pay claim, however, there are still significant flaws in the NEC’s approach to delivering on it. This includes the unwillingness to openly advocate for a ballot with a proper lead-in, to concretely set out plans for delivering increases in membership and in reps as part of our organising efforts, or to finish developing an industrial action strategy that it can sell to members.
On top of these flaws, the leadership has now managed to remove the second biggest Group in the union (and the largest Group to pass the 50% turnout threshold in a statutory ballot) from any potential action for the life of HMRC’s Pay and Contract Reform Deal. Worse, it has refused to commit to a policy of no detriment and trading off terms and conditions for pay and signalled to the employer that they believe doing so might even help them achieve their national demands.
Refusal to build for action
At the previous NEC, proposals by the IL to signal to members that action would be needed to win on pay, to develop plans on union growth and development of activists, and to finally pin down an industrial action strategy that members could buy into were rejected. The logic was that these things were premature and unnecessary.
This highlights the significant contradiction in the leadership’s thinking: at once short-termist and yet always hesitant.
Short-termist because it was clear in the contributions that they thought signalling the necessity to build towards action suggested that a ballot would have to be imminent before this happened. Ignoring the lessons not only of unions like the CWU, whose ballot for their Four Pillars campaign had a seven-month lead in, but also of our own past ballots where twice in a row events started late enough to leave staff and activists rushing to catch up with the union’s own timetable.
At the same time, the leadership’s hesitation means that the horizon is ever-shifting. Not because the heavy lifting with members is being done, and members are aware that a strike ballot is coming but only once we are organisationally ready, but because committee meeting after committee meeting takes the firm decision that there will be actual decisions made at the next committee meeting, and all of this is far removed from actual members in workplaces or the organising work necessary to make the union ballot ready.
This approach is not only why members are likely to find out a ballot is coming a couple of weeks before it starts (if they’re lucky), but also why developing and publicising a concrete plan for targeted industrial action still hasn’t happened. This despite the NEC deciding to do exactly that on multiple occasions, including before both statutory industrial action ballots several years ago.
At the NEC Campaigns Committee and the NEC itself, it was admitted that the current pay campaign is a top-down initiative, lacking the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that might otherwise be expected when an issue captures the imagination of branches and members. In some ways, this is unavoidable due to the pandemic and the current circumstances. However, it is also not particularly new that national campaign initiatives would occur at a distance from workplaces, and in many cases even workplace-based activity would be announced at incredible short notice – including appearing on the union website on the day they should be happening.
This is a symptom of a wider malaise in the union. PCS aims to be an organising union, i.e. one that involves the mass of members in activity to win collectively and shift power to the workers, but in practice is still stuck on mobilising and servicing. In other words, staff and activist-led activity with membership involvement limited to specific set pieces, and the union as a largely external body which provides services like representation.
Fixing that requires a culture change that the leadership is, being generous, nervous about broaching.
HMRC Group: In or Out?
When barracking the HMRC Group Executive Committee into voting to recommend the Pay and Contract Reform offer, the Group Secretary categorically stated that doing so would not take the Group out of the national pay campaign.
When asked at a reps meeting, the General Secretary was clear that HMRC could not be part of the national pay campaign if the offer was accepted.
The latter position was probably a more realistic reflection of what was likely to happen. Not least because many reps saw the inclusion of the DWP Group after the Employee Deal as dragging the ballot turnout down. However, if that’s the case, it begs the question: is what results really a national campaign? How do you get pay coherence and national bargaining across the Civil Service when excluding one of the biggest departments?
The IL view is that, whilst recommending the offer was a mistake and does undermine the national campaign, the answer to that is to try and bring the Group back in rather than to leave them out for the life of the offer and (in essence) hope nobody notices you have a wheel missing.
The General Secretary and NEC majority’s view is that a ballot on pay isn’t imminent anyway, with the pandemic ongoing and where the government’s roadmap out of lockdown leaves us being unclear. This is a fair enough view, but also cements the fact that there is time to do the necessary work to bring HMRC members with us – we would clearly not be trying to convince them (or anybody else) to vote yes to industrial action on national pay too soon after telling them to vote yes to a deal on departmental pay.
This means what we should be doing, and should have time to do, is build in the Group. Five thousand new members joined PCS to vote on the offer and, although the failure to organise around the issue of pay is demonstrated by the fact that membership continued to decline in 2020 whilst the secret talks were ongoing, the task now is clearly to give those members a reason to stay. Alongside that, those who feel betrayed by the offer and PCS recommending detriments need to be won around, and shown that there’s still a reason to be in the union and a fight to be had.
Demands for national pay bargaining, alongside other elements in the pay claim which the HMRC offer did not achieve (and for some actually lost) such as more leave and shorter working hours, provide an opportunity to do that. Unfortunately, the NEC majority didn’t see it that way and instead have effectively opted to exclude HMRC from the national pay campaign.
The caveat on that was that ballots over the Civil Service Compensation Scheme or pensions would of course include HMRC members. However, that doesn’t answer the issue of winning on pay nationally without all constituent parts of the national union.
The risk of future trade-offs
Aside from the role (or not) of HMRC in the national campaign, the other major concern from the endorsement of the PACR offer is what it means for similar offers in the future. Will the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence, where contrary to the HMRC position the PCS leadership opposed what was on offer, come back with deals modified to reflect what was accepted in HMRC?
The NEC paper on the national campaign said that negotiators “advise[d] the Cabinet Office that this year, we would be likely to submit sectoral pay claims alongside our national claim” and “in talks on the pay remit guidance, we would be pressing for the flexibility to allow business cases that could widen the financial scope.” This in itself is fine, as alongside national demands we absolutely should pressure permanent secretaries to make the case to the Treasury for more money. However, as proof that “this could be achieved even in the context of a pay freeze,” they cited “numerous examples where we had secured deals of this nature before in similar circumstances, notably in the Home Office, Department for Transport, Department for Work & Pensions and currently in HM Revenue and Customs.” [Emphasis added]
The nature of the DWP and HMRC deals, and that they are cited as positive examples of achieving pay flexibility, begs the question: is a fully funded pay rise with no detriment still the policy? Or is trading off terms and conditions for pay now part of PCS’s strategy?
That the NEC voted down a recommendation from the IL to reaffirm the policy of full funding and no detriment, and that in their contributions some NEC members even suggested that detriment is an inevitable part of negotiations, is very worrying.
There is an alternative
The PCS Independent Left has won the argument over a coherent set of pay demands rooted in pay equality across departments, and that a serious industrial action strategy must consider targeted action, paid for from a strike fund. However, whilst slowly adopting the ideas we have argued for, is still failing to properly develop the national campaign we need.
It is reticent to develop a strategy of action that members can buy into. It is unwilling to properly engage members on getting ballot ready, with a consistent message that action is needed and cannot be delivered at a snap of their fingers. Now, it has signalled to the employer that it may trade off conditions for pay and opted the second largest Group in the union out of the national campaign. Their approach is not one that can deliver real gains for members.
Despite the employer mobilising it’s forces towards a ‘yes’ vote, with members bombarded every working-hour with propaganda for the deal, some might say the HMRC ballot result is an affirmation of the union’s policy to advocate for the deal. As we’ve said before, we understand that many members will have been tempted by the money on offer. So desperate to make up even a modicum of the loss in pay seen over the past decade that they saw the sale of significant contractual terms to the employer as the only option to achieve that. But this desperation is not the glowing endorsement the Group leadership thinks it is. Rather, it’s an indictment of the lack of confidence they have enshrined in our membership to fight and win on pay for the 15-plus years they have been at the helm.
If they remain in leadership we should, and will, still push for our union to do better. But we stand a much better chance of doing that if we are able to both build at the grassroots and change the leadership to one that seriously supports those efforts.
For real change, and a real chance to build a winning campaign, please support Independent Left candidates in the upcoming national and Group elections.
Our candidates for the NEC:
Bev Laidlaw, DWP
Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Chris Marks, DWP; Phil Dickens, R&C
NEC ordinary members
Tom Bishell, DWP; Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Ralph Corrigan, PSg; Phil Dickens, R&C; Chris Hickey, MHCLG; Karen Johnson, MHCLG; Bev Laidlaw, DWP; Chris Marks, DWP; Paulette Romain, DfT; Matt Wells, DEFRA
See who we support for the HMRC GEC here and our candidates for the DWP GEC here.