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 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.


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.


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.

Report from the NEC on 24 June

The PCS National Executive Committee met via Zoom on 24 June. As previously, the meeting was scheduled for three hours. However, the agenda this time around was a lot bigger and a lot of issues didn’t get discussed as a result.

Pay and COVID-19

At this meeting, the decisions to be taken on pay and COVID-19 largely amounted to practical implementation of strategic decisions taken previously.

On the pay campaign, the NEC previously decided to run with a government petition and use both the Callhub and Organising App to record conversations with members, their commitment to signing the petition (or not) serving as a structure test to help determine our ballot readiness. Now it was just a question of the steps necessary to make that happen.

The Five Tests for Safe Workplaces have also been previously agreed and publicised, with the Organising Committee working on ways that branches could use these not just “behind the scenes” but to engage with members and build participation and workplace power as a way to enforce agreements. The outstanding question therefore was on how we approached the relaxation of the two-metre social distancing rule in England. Taking a stance that it should apply in all departments, not least those with offices in the devolved nations, was unanimous.

Despite this, the debate still saw a retreading of the row between the Socialist Party-dominated Broad Left Network and their former comrades in Left Unity over supposed rival strategies. As we have previously written, there is no actual alternative strategy at play in the SP/BLN’s opposition, nor do LU have the perfect strategy bottomed out.

There is still a long way to go to bridge the gap between our rhetoric on organising and a reality where we have branches broken and stripped of activists by office closures (as in HMRC), other branches closed off from their own members by those who primarily value their own place in control, and yet others still who feel a desperate lack of support from the wider union. Not only is the union leadership unwilling to acknowledge and address these things (as in some cases it would mean discomfiting their own comrades) but to a great degree our union is still entrenched in a culture of mobilising rather than organising.

Until our union can address this honestly, or we can build an independent rank and file movement capable of forcing the necessary culture change, we will face the same uphill struggles in every campaign.

Strategic Review

Following on from the attacks on the union by the government in 2014, including the wholesale withdrawal from collecting union subscriptions through members’ wages (check off), the NEC of the time set out a Strategic Review and following that period Conference in 2018 agreed Strategic Objectives in order to ensure the survival of the union both financially and organisationally. The SO period ends in December this year.

In some cases, it is evident that we are better off than we were in 2014. The union’s finances have stabilised. The heroic effort by reps and members to effectively re-recruit the entire union membership by signing them up to direct debit prevented the financial devastation intended by the removal of check off. However, where we had a goal of increasing membership to 200,000, the number in the union is less now than it was in 2018 despite the civil service growing in size over that period.

The NEC has agreed to a full analysis of the reasons for this and a special meeting to decide next steps, including democratic accountability. The IL position in regard to the latter point is that fresh NEC elections and a Conference (even if it is of necessity virtual or some kind of physical-virtual hybrid) must happen this year as part of that process. We put up motions to that effect, but they weren’t heard, though we understand the question will be considered at the next NEC.

We also believe that there must be no “no go areas” in terms of possible options to resolve the current situation. Previously, the union has restructured in the sense that it has shed staff and consolidated its estate, and of course the standard response to trade union shrinkage is mergers into “super unions” which have large amounts of members but not necessarily any substantive industrial power due to how widespread and disparate that membership is.

Our point was that any solution to the current situation must not merely be about securing PCS as a business and financial concern, but primarily focused on PCS as a collective as members. Reforms which increase democracy in the union, particularly shop floor direct democracy, and help us to build union power will be the kind of reforms which help us to build the union, where as a purely technical reform which shores up our finances at the expense of democracy and the resources to support organising will likely be a disaster in the longer term.

Similar concerns exist around mergers with other unions. Not least because, beyond PCS’s specific situation, the TUC as a whole is facing a generational shortfall in membership which raises questions over how much of it will remain in a decade’s time.

What the guillotine felled

The NEC has been meeting roughly fortnightly across the present period. Each time, the centre of the discussion has been the coronavirus pandemic and the national campaign. This is correct, of course, as the pandemic has defined how we are currently operating and generated enormous amounts of work for reps at all levels to deal with whilst the national campaign demands – particularly our stagnant pay – have been brought into stark relief with the government’s recognition of us as ‘key workers’ despite us not being paid or treated as such in any meaningful sense.

However, it is no longer true to say that everything else has ground to a halt. Whilst COVID-19 remains a central issue, particularly with the easing of the lockdown and re-opening of workplaces at a time when many fear a second spike in deaths, there’s still plenty else going on.

Arrangements need to be made so that the NEC can discuss a full agenda. That may mean having a series of three-hour meetings across the weeks when, without the pandemic, the NEC would have met anyway so that the usual full variety of papers can be discussed. (We would not be so masochistic as to suggest an entire day, or days, on Zoom in one burst.) We could then still have the more frequent meetings fortnightly to discuss the most urgent issues, whilst preserving the broader functioning of the executive.

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the world have happened largely independent of the trade unions, despite racism in and beyond the workplace being a trade union issue. The NEC was due to debate this, and in particular our attitude to the protests.

Whilst the union has put out statements in support of the movement, there are those who believe that we should not encourage attendance due to the pandemic. The Independent Left members of the NEC believe that whilst the risks of COVID-19 cannot be ignored, and attendance is an individual choice, we should both support those who wish to attend and encourage social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

The narrative that BLM will be in any way responsible for a second spike in deaths is a right wing one, meant to draw attention from the re-opening of pubs and shops and the crowded scenes in parks and on beaches due to the government’s mixed messaging and poor policy choices. It also fails to recognise that the risk of transmission in the open air, with masks and social distancing, is minimal compared to crowding enclosed spaces like pubs.

Beyond that, there is a larger point that the best guarantee of physical safety at anti-racist demonstrations, particularly with fascists coming out in opposition as “statue defenders,” is large numbers. Face masks also then serve a dual purpose to prevent identification and targeting by either the far-right or the police. It is a dereliction of duty for the trade unions to ignore all of this and instead simply say they cannot encourage attendance – in practice, actively discouraging it.

Trans rights

The government’s intent to scrap reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, which PCS has policy to support, will have a clear impact on trans members in PCS and wider. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, the changes were purely administrative. Allowing trans people to self-declare their gender would have had a huge impact for them, letting them get on with their lives with far less bureaucracy and hassle, whilst having not impact on other existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 or the rights of women.

By contrast, the other measure which emerged with the scrapping of GRA reform would have a huge impact on wider society. Proposals to ban anybody with “male genitalia” from women’s spaces such as bathrooms and refuges are a clear signal to reactionary, transphobic sentiment that the government stands with them. What it means in practice is enabling transphobes to police women’s spaces on the basis of gender presentation and gender suspicion, meaning cis women who “look like men” will face as much harassment as any trans woman – whilst it will be far easier for transphobes to achieve their longstanding goal of morally mandating trans people out of existence.

The IL put forward a motion for the NEC to oppose these developments and produce practical guidance for reps and negotiators at all levels to protect members in the workplace. We hope that it can be heard and passed in the near future.

Hong Kong

As communities across the world struggle to contain the pandemic and deal with the upheaval caused by it, the Chinese state is using the disruption as cover to brutally repress Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The National Security Law is currently being imposed on the Hong Kong people. It allows dissidents to be charged and imprisoned under Chinese law for sedition, treason and secessionism – the same methods that are used to suppress dissent elsewhere in China.

Trade unions have been at the forefront of the Hong Kong democracy struggle – founders and key activists of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and the Labour Party have been charged with offences of illegal assembly and other charges from last autumn’s protests – facing sentences of up to 5 years. If the Chinese government succeeds in its clampdown in Hong Kong, other union activists will be at the front of the line for attack.

A motion from the IL called for PCS to declare its solidarity with our trade union comrades in Hong Kong, primarily organised in the HKCTU and liaise about practical aid that we might be able to provide to them. Given the urgency of the issue and the principle of internationalism in the trade union movement, this is also something our union cannot wait until things are “back to normal” to take a view on.

The Pay Campaign in 2020

The National Executive Committee (NEC) met on 4 June to agree a number of initial campaigning actions in pursuit of both the national pay claim and the union’s five tests for safe working.

Though the campaigning actions set out were fairly straightforward, they were not without controversy as members of the Socialist Party (SP) proposed a motion in opposition to the main paper. They set their position out, broadly, in this article on their website. A number of things in this article worth addressing.

The Independent Left (IL) has significant criticisms of the union leadership’s approach on campaigning, which we have raised previously and will also touch on here. However, we believe that the only principle in the SP’s criticisms is reinstating their control of the union, as they were in the big tent during most of the last two decades – including “pay campaigns” that consisted entirely of bi-annual one day strikes and a number of other wholly lacklustre positions which the IL and others have used Conference and other fora to push the union away from.

Before getting onto the subject of the most recent meeting, the SP article begins with this:

Within weeks of the NEC agreeing the claim, a PCS senior officers meeting watered down the pay demand to “an above inflation increase”. This unmandated ‘interim’ claim went to the employer days before a February meeting of the NEC, which was faced with a fait accompli.

The interim demand was exactly that – ‘look, until we can have the talks about the remit and our 10% claim, give us an above inflation pay rise to recognise our work in the crisis.’ Whether you agree with that approach or not, it was always that and meant to elicit a rapid response, with negotiations when they came still focused on 10%. It is possible to agree or disagree with this approach without that dishonest framing.

Plus, alongside that the union asked for no cuts to the redundancy scheme and no job cuts, and the response there was a lot closer to what was asked for.

The SP also claim that “At the recent NEC meeting the original [pay] claim was reinstated.” However, it wasn’t that recent. It was two or three NECs ago when the IL moved an amendment which committed PCS to pushing on the full 10% claim due to the lack of response to the interim claim. It passed without controversy.

We then move towards the substance of the motion the SP raised at the last NEC, by raising their criticism of the current approach:

But with no campaign in the intervening period, and no real national campaign going forward, there is a risk of a further year’s pay stagnation.

The trouble with this claim is that we’ve had a decade of pay restraint where for most if it (with the SP in charge) the pay campaign existed in name only, so even if this was true, it would be hard to say what was new there.

As it happens though, the recommendations passed on 4 June explicitly referred to organising work and structure tests in the membership in order to build towards a statutory ballot, which Mark Serwotka signalled would potentially come in the Autumn.

The union is going to be launching a petition on the UK government website. Hardly the most revolutionary of activities on its own. However, the explicit aim of this is to use it as a tool – on the one hand to mobilise our political campaigning around, and on the other to use the Organising App to record conversations with members and their commitment to signing the petition.

If we aren’t in a position to convince ten thousand of our members to sign it in order to force a government response, and from there a hundred thousand members to sign so that there has to be a parliamentary debate, then it’s harder to be confident we can get over ninety thousand members to vote in a statutory industrial action ballot and give us a turnout above 50% as required by the law.

In opposition to this approach:

A motion put to the NEC by Broad Left Network supporters called for a campaign of opposition to the government’s pay remit (cap), leading to a consultative ballot for industrial action, and raised the possibility of a statutory strike ballot. This motion was not allowed to be debated.

The IL supported the motion being debated, though that vote was lost as the Left Unity majority were against it. However, we opposed the motion itself as it offered nothing new.

For example it counterposed the planned pay petition, with a public sector wide pay petition that largely did seem to be framed as an end in itself rather than a tool for organising. The author of the motion also framed PCS’s focus on organising as “dogmatic,” suggesting that the union is too focused on that approach. This ignores the reality that we’re actually late to the party on organising, and only slowly, haltingly turning in the right direction. It also offered no concrete suggestion of what the SP would do differently except, perhaps, not engage in the necessary organising work.

We’re not particularly interested in the two fragments of the decades-long establishment having a pissing contest for control of the union. What is important is what will actually build union power in the workplace and stand us a better chance of actually delivering effective industrial action.

The SP suggest that “There is a real sense that the 2020 national campaign is being kicked into the long grass.” They may yet be right. But this would be the eleventh year that this has happened (most of which they ran the union for) rather than the first.

If the campaign is kicked into the long grass, though, it won’t be cause of the recommendations passed.

The union is more often than not making the right sounds about organising and building from the ground up. The problem isn’t that we’re talking about that, it’s that in practice most of the leadership are late and reluctant converts to an organising approach. They may even have their fingers crossed when they say it.

As it becomes clear whether or not we’re in a position to deliver a ballot, it will be crucially important they we’re honest with members. If we cannot deliver, then we should be upfront as to why and exactly what shortfalls we need to address to fix that, and not be afraid of doing so even where it seems to go against factional interests.

If we think we can deliver, then we need to ensure that we have a good solid lead in rather than trying to win from a standing start as we have in the past. We need to clearly communicate an effective strike strategy, including targeted action, as this has something we have clearly failed to convince members of previously.

It will be impossible to do all of this, however, if just like in 2018 and 2019 the 2020 pay campaign’s main utility is as a proxy for the sectarian row between the two camps of a leadership which has mismanaged our national campaigning for at least a decade.

Pay remit raises automation threat

Automation Software Technology Process System Business concept

The Cabinet Office has published its pay remit for the civil service. As expected, civil service pay is being held below inflation, with departments allowed to award between 1.5 and 2.5%. This is yet again a kick in the teeth for low paid PCS members.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the failure of this government to offer anything close to an acceptable pay award after a decade of austerity. Though, with a two year pay freeze in the public sector and significant tax rises for the lowest paid working class people forming part of their leaked post-COVID recovery plans, we also shouldn’t be surprised if they try to frame this as an act of generosity ahead of the ‘necessary’ pain to come.

What is key in this year’s pay remit, however, is this:

“Departments paying an average award of more than 2% and up to 2.5% must demonstrate tangible outcomes based plans, with milestones, for progress against delivery of key long term priorities such as workforce transformation and improvements, including through automation, location strategy and addressing pay anomalies.”

What this translates to is a pay award at the higher end of the remit range must be paid for in jobs.

We have already seen that the government wants to use pay restraint as the stick to force changes to terms and conditions on workers. Departments such as HMRC continue to enthusiastically promise this at every turn. We also know that job cuts are on the horizon with the location strategies in HMRC, DWP and Ministry of Justice in particular.

However, alongside home working, the other big boom in the civil service has been automation. The employer will come out of the pandemic with a far clearer picture of what work can be done without us, and what work can be done with less of us.

The supposed gratitude for key workers through this crisis will not mitigate the attacks to come. However, we can hope that the naked contradiction between the spectacle of applause and veneration and the clear contempt when it comes to pay policy will radicalise more workers and make them realise that there are sides – and that the government and the employer are not on theirs.

If you are a civil servant and not a member of PCS, you should join today. Don’t’ stop there – organise your workmate and be ready for a fight. The success of this attack is wholly dependent on how the workforce responds.

Report from the NEC on 13 May


The PCS National Executive Committee met on Wednesday 13 May to debate the union’s approach to the prospect of members returning to the office following the messages put out by the government.

The government announcement

A lot of media outlets and other commentators have already noted the confusion that Boris Johnson’s announcement has sewn. There’s a good reason to feel that this is deliberate, as it follows on from the shift whereby those previously demanding punitive action if somebody sat on the grass during their daily walk were now taking part in street parties and spectacle for VE Day. This change in the public mood, and the media portrayal of the unions as “wreckers” for wanting to protect members, suggests the propaganda war we’re up against when trying to protect the health, safety and welfare of members.

For PCS members, the major cause of concern was that head of the civil service Mark Sedwill’s message echoed that of Boris Johnson and suggested an imminent return to the workplace for all. Those members who have lost loved ones will also have had to content with Sedwill’s ghoulishly cheerful declaration that ‘the lockdown has worked.’

Fortunately, the NEC heard that despite these messages a meeting between the Cabinet Office and unions with collective agreements with civil service employers yesterday confirmed that they have no plans to move people back to workplaces in the short-term. PCS had given them an ultimatum that without such confirmation we would tell our members that the status-quo continues.

The perspectives of the TUC unions

The General Secretary gave a report back from the TUC executive where he pushed the union’s opposition to lifting of the lock-down and forcing workers back to workplaces. The response from the big unions such as Unite and GMB was predictably poor. Unison responded that “without a dynamic economy there will be no public services,” which is an extremely conservative viewpoint that frames the health, safety and welfare of workers and the services upon which the working class and society rely as subservient to the demands of capitalism.

Whilst we have many reasons to disagree with Mark Serwotka, it seems he is one of the few voices opposing this dross from the left. The unions with similar perspectives (albeit for different reasons) are the likes of the RMT, NEU, and POA – essentially, the members of the Trade Union Coordinating Group.

Our proposals to the NEC

As the meeting with the Cabinet Office was the day before the NEC, the Independent Left members on the executive weren’t in a position to amend the emergency paper which was submitted just before the meeting.

The recommendations that came with the paper were in response to the better position from the Cabinet Office and were essentially a continuation of the existing position that no member should return to the workplace and keeping members informed of the latest position and their individual rights while not committing us to a particular strategy.

Our proposals, built around how to respond in the worst-case scenario of a mass return to work, were as follows:

1. That the NEC reaffirms the union’s position that no member currently away from the workplace (whether working at home or otherwise absent) should be asked to return.

2. That the NEC reinforces that message by:

  • Having Groups and National Branches broadcast it through their own communication channels.
  • Writing to the heads of the civil service to reaffirm our position.
  • Writing to the leaders of the devolved governments asking that they intervene to prevent the UK Civil Service breaking their national lockdowns.
  • Publicising the above correspondence.
  • Advising all members that, if they are encouraged to return to work, they contact their local union rep or the union’s Covid-19 hotline.

3. In the event that the Cabinet Office – or any other employer (e.g. outsourcing companies, agencies, etc) refuses PCS’s position and attempts to enforce a mass return to work, the union takes the following actions:

  • A template letter is drafted for members to send if they are told to report to the workplace, citing their rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 – and the law or policy position of the devolved nation where a member lives and/or working in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
  • Groups and national branches are asked to coordinate inspections across their areas to identify the risks (crowded public transport, unsuitability of buildings for social distancing measures, lack of PPE for facilities workers, etc) in order to issue Union Inspection Notices in response to members being forced to return to work.
  • Members are provided with the UINs, advice on their legal rights, and the template letters with instructions based upon the union’s assessment of the risks in attending their workplace.
  • Work with local safety reps and organisers to ensure that any refusal to attend work is done on a collective basis with as much protection as possible rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves based only on the letter of the law and possible recourse at Employment Tribunal.

4. That the NEC highlights the disproportionate risk and impact upon BAME members of any reduction in lockdown measures and incorporates this into our political and campaigning activity.

5. That we ensure that facilities management workers are taken into account in PCS negotiations and actions at all levels.

It was broadly agreed that proposals 1, 2, 4 and 5 were covered by the union’s actions and/or overtaken by events. In relation to point 4 and 5, it is worth noting that a lot of the disproportionate risk and impact BAME members face from Covid-19 is directly connected to the impact of the crisis on outsourced and facilities management workers, as these workers who face the highest risk are far more likely to be BAME whilst the senior civil servants most able to comfortably stay at home without financial or job implications are overwhelmingly white.

Proposal 3 of course remained key, as there not only do we have to address the response of the worst employers in the interim, particularly outsourcing companies who are looking for ways out of the protocols laid down by the Cabinet Office, but we also need to prepare for the possibility of the Cabinet Office’s own position shifting in the mid-term.

The proposal was lost on the usual factional lines, with the Left Unity majority voting against whilst their former comrades who split to form the Broad Left Network voted with us.

Section 44 and collective union action

The debate at the NEC reflected a wider debate in the union movement and beyond about the utility of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion on social media in particular seems to treat this right as a “magic bullet,” when the reality is not so straight forward. One website in particular is downright conspiratorial, suggesting that there is an effort to prevent the public knowing about this right, and ignoring that like all employment rights it doesn’t actually shield you from negative consequences but only allows you to take the matter to an Employment Tribunal after those consequences (such as being sacked or losing pay) have already happened.

The clear alternative to this approach is trade union organisation. The rights under Section 44 should be seen not as a panacea but as a tool we can use as part of our collective union activity. The duties imposed on management and functions of safety representatives afforded in broader health and safety legislation allow us to undertake inspections, identify risks and advise members of the appropriate course of action, including utilising the right under Section 44 where appropriate. This should, of course, go hand in hand with wider organisational and campaigning activity to bring pressure to bear on the employer.

The main argument against the IL proposals was that collectivising the Section 44 right in this way would be seen as a unofficial industrial action, potentially stripping members of their protections under legislation and resulting in significant claims against the union.

Mark Serwotka when responding to the debate essentially admitted that we don’t have the strength or membership confidence to break the union laws, but that if comrades wanted that debate then it should be honestly put. The problem with this, of course, is that the organisational strength and membership confidence to take unofficial action requires rank and file organising activity and cannot be artificially produced from a debate amongst the leadership. Our very mild proposals were made not to dishonestly broach the subject of unofficial action but in recognition of our very clear limitations in that regard as things stand.

The debate is still out about interpretation of the law, but in PCS at least the general mood is that anything bolder than informing members of their rights is unlawful and as such either shouldn’t be done at all or we don’t have the strength to do so.

Unfortunately, what this translated into was a full-time officer using the introduction of a Zoom meeting for activists to tell them what the union couldn’t do regarding section 44. “The union won’t do anything that could be considered encouraging collective action” and the General Secretary telling members the NEC don’t support a national ballot for action.

This, of course, leaves wide open the question of what we can do. It also begs the question, if we aren’t able to assert our collective strength at a time when we have never had more potential leverage, of how effective our response will be to the further wave of brutal austerity set to follow the current pandemic.