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.