The PCS National Executive Committee met on 8 October for its regular, now monthly, Zoom meeting. On the agenda were Covid-19, the national campaign, the strategic options for the union, and finance, along with other administrative matters.
Ahead of the first formal agenda item, the General Secretary noted that the Senior Officers were starting to scope out options for Conference. As previously reported, the NEC agreed that a physical conference but that contingency plans should be put in place. It was reported that the Brighton Centre was taking provisional bookings but that these were on a social distancing basis. This would have a potential impact on the number of delegates. The NEC was told to expect a detailed update in November and that a decision would likely be necessary in December.
The update paper presented to the NEC covered the correspondence between the General Secretary and the government and Cabinet Office over the previous threat to force Civil Servants back to the office. That situation resulted in a very public government U-turn in response to the worsening situation in relation to the virus.
The union sought feedback from reps and members regarding the situation, and it was reported that there was broad support for the union’s position. However, the position varied in devolved nations and in different groups, as well as a divergence of views between those in the workplace and those working from home; whilst the former still support the union’s stances, the majority was notably lower. There wasn’t overwhelming support for industrial action on a Civil Service-wide basis – meaning that the union will continue its current approach. However, it is urging that where any Group or National Branch considers the employer’s approach to be unsafe, they should consider industrial action.
John Moloney reported back on proposals from the Bargaining, Personnel and Policy Committee on homeworking and ‘future working.’ The paper included eight principles that the BPPC had agreed on the subject, to be put to the Civil Service and devolved administrations and other employers as the basis of future home working agreements. These included asserting that homeworking is and should be voluntary, that it’s a valid redundancy avoidance measure, ensuring that home workers don’t suffer a pay detriment based on where they live (e.g. if they live outside London but the team is based in London, they should still receive London-weighted pay), and measuring the carbon impact of home working.
A proposed amendment from members of the Broad Left Network argued that these principles should be noted rather than supported and implemented, asking for more information before agreeing anything. In moving it, they suggested that a voluntaristic model of home working presented pitfalls including the threat that reduced office numbers would be used as a rationale for office closures and the spectre of regional pay. The proposed alternative was union control over home working contracts and who could agree to homeworking.
The debate around this, including contributions from Independent Left NEC members, pointed out that putting the implementation of the principles on hold presented its own risk. Homeworking is a reality now and one that the union needs to get a better handle on it both in negotiations and from an organising standpoint, and so it is crucial to pin down protections for members around these issues. This didn’t mean that there weren’t more complex issues to draw out and develop positions on, but those positions wouldn’t be better handled by putting the matter on hold. It was also pointed out that a position of union control over homeworking would represent a level of organisational control over the workplace that PCS has never had under any leadership.
In the vote, the amendments fell.
The main focus of the discussion around the pay campaign was the pay petition, which has over 56,000 signatures but is only increasing in number very slowly. This makes reaching 100,000 signatures unlikely without a significant escalation of activity, and in turn makes it unlikely that the November NEC will take a decision to move to a national industrial action ballot.
Both on the Campaigns Committee and the Organising Committee, as well as in the NEC, IL members made the point that there were several significant barriers to the petition functioning as an organising structure test. The most obvious of these is the situation with Covid, which in Groups like HMRC has rendered face to face contact with a majority of members to discuss the issue all but impossible, but the fact that the facility to record on the Organising App that members have signed is only now available to branches means that the union is effectively chasing existing signatories to confirm their participation rather than seeking out new signatories. Doing this through bulk emails and phone calls also means that as a structure test the union can to a degree measure membership enthusiasm on pay but not branches’ engagement with the necessary work on the ground, since contact through CallHub is not being done on a branch basis and therefore isn’t an analogue to one-on-one conversations by lay activists.
The NEC agreed a series of actions which are aimed at stepping up activity and driving up the signatories on the petition. However, for the reasons above, it is difficult to see how the number of signatures maps onto ballot readiness. This is particularly true in an ongoing situation where a significant majority of members will remain working from home and we still don’t have a handle on how we organise them.
A list of proposed ‘PCS Locals’ was also circulated, and the NEC agreed to take these out to regional committees to develop them. The PCS Local model is about building cross-branch structures, like town committees, that allow joint campaigning on a geographical basis. This is something that the union does need to develop, to encourage wider organising and get past barriers to membership participation and narrow sectionalism. But again, the future of this initiative will be contingent on getting a handle on organising homeworkers. There is a potential argument that we could even develop PCS Locals where there are geographical concentrations of members living, rooting the union in communities and perhaps even invoking organising methods (post-pandemic) where activists knock on members’ doors to engage with them.
The paper also confirmed that the December meeting of the NEC would receive proposals on sectoral pay bargaining and single sectoral pay claims. A big part of this work, which the IL has argued in favour of for a long time but the union has resisted until now, will be establishing a database of pay scales across government which can be used to inform bargaining, legal considerations and campaign propaganda.
The NEC received a finance update from the Assistant General Secretary, who reported that subscription income was up due to a net increase in membership this year as opposed to the planning projections of a loss of 3,000 members due to past trends.
The main strain on PCS finances continues to be the deficits of the legacy staff pension schemes, potentially leading to an extra million pounds of expenditure in the coming years. At the same time, the government’s announcement that it will cease funding the Union Learning Fund in England next year will cause significant issues due to the money PCS had been drawing from this including the salaries of eight staff. Also on the horizon were the impact on membership, and therefore subscriptions, from job losses in the Culture Sector and redundancies in HMRC.
The main area of discussion was around the subscription rates for 2021. The NEC agreed to a 2% increase to the rate, alongside a 10p increase to the maximum subs rate. However, we raised the point that there was still a need for comprehensive subscription reform, as it was inherently unfair to have a structure that meant members at EO grade paid the same rate as Grade 7 members. This also potentially meant that we were missing a trick financially, when clearly this was a concern given the issues highlighted over the forecast for the union’s income.
Subscription reform was of course part of John Moloney’s election platform as Assistant General Secretary and he pledged to speak to the President and General Secretary in order to take forward that programme of work.
Strategic options for the union
We have previously reported on the special NEC where the questions for the future of the union were debated. The NEC signed off the final versions of the scoping paper to go to branches and the analysis of membership trends from the Organising and Education Committee that will accompany it. At the meeting of the OEC, the IL proposed several additions which were incorporated into that latter paper, to ensure that what goes to branches incorporated discussion of organising in outsourced areas, the impact of the localised disputes that we’ve seen in recent years on our membership, and our organising culture.
We would encourage all branches to fully consider the issues at hand and to put forward their own positions, without being bound by the ‘merger or restructure’ binary choice. The NEC will consider all responses in January and the IL still believes these should be available to any branch or member who wants to see them, but in the event that we lose that argument we also urge branches to publish and share their positions as well as providing them to the NEC.