Safety first to defend our reps and members

The PCS Left Unity-led NEC met on 26 March and took the difficult decision not to go ahead with this year’s NEC and Group elections in May due to the pandemic crisis unfolding every day before our eyes. We agreed to keep this decision under review, keeping branches fully informed.

Nobody takes a decision like this lightly. We had to give careful consideration to all of the factors. PCS is well-known, across the movement, for being a union that enshrines democracy and we remain proud of our record.

There was overwhelming agreement though, that in the midst of this huge crisis in our workplaces and communities, it would be wrong to just carry on regardless with the inevitable campaign activity that comes with these elections.

PCS reps are working incredibly hard on behalf of members in what is an unprecedented situation, the significant majority view was that to go ahead with these elections would not only be seen as incredibly self-indulgent, at a time when members are so worried for the safety of themselves and their families, but would detract attention from dealing with all of the many urgent issues that arise from the crisis.

The view of the independent scrutineers (CES) was that, whilst it is still technically possible to go ahead and that it would still be possible to post papers out, and then count the returned ones, there is great uncertainty about the period ahead, not least regarding the impact on their own staff and the postal workers, our comrades in CWU.

The Cabinet Office informed us that approximately 76% of civil servants are not currently in the workplace, many working from home. Approximately half a million people have claimed Universal Credit in the last 10 days with over 110,000 trying to sign up in the 48 hours prior to the NEC meeting. The system really is being tested like never before, and continued under-resourcing is being exposed.

Against this backdrop, most NEC members, although not all, agreed that it was the only correct option to take. We had already agreed at our meeting on 19th March not to proceed with our annual conference in May, the period when the virus is expected to peak in the UK, another decision that will be kept under careful review.

Most members would expect, at a time like this, for there to be unanimity on the NEC and the vote was certainly overwhelming, but unfortunately the recently formed Broad Left Network (BLN) faction, argued that ‘there is no good reason for these elections not to go ahead’ at this time, with a longer ballot period (meaning that they would continue throughout the predicted peak in the UK) and with increased electoral activity throughout the extended ballot period.

The BLN argues that democracy is sacrosanct and that nothing should get in the way. This argument was put forward, despite hearing from two fellow NEC members, one who lost a family member last week and another whose granddaughter has been hospitalised.

The arguments put forward, and the lecture on democracy, demonstrated a breathtaking disconnect from reality, and the very real fears most of our members are experiencing, whilst their main concerns are their attempts to practice social distancing and keeping their families safe.

After the BLN proposed amendment, to extend the ballot period but continue with a ballot in May, was resoundingly defeated, the four BLN supporters, and one member of the Independent Left, voted to oppose the recommendation that the elections do not go ahead as planned, and that the situation is kept under review.

Nobody wants to be in this position. Nobody takes any pleasure from everyone’s lives, workplaces and working practices being turned upside down. The coronavirus is dominating the life of every rep and member, and for some this will be a time of sadness and loss.

PCS reps are doing a fantastic job of supporting our members, and interest in PCS is at an all-time high. Our members, many of them designated key workers, are keeping this country afloat and the services that they provide must be recognised, not just in words, but in their pay packets.

PCS is adapting fast to an ever-changing situation because it has to. Being in a union, and experiencing the support that gives, has never been so important.

Senior officers are in almost daily virtual meetings with the Cabinet Office to make demands and get improvements to guidance being issued, both centrally and at a delegated level.

Reps at every level are working flat out to take up members’ concerns and, as a result, are winning practical, and in many cases, longer term benefits for members.

Members recognise that it is PCS that is winning these improvements for them.

We all need to work together, with as much unity as possible, to ensure that PCS members get the support that they need, not be distracted by attempts to paint these difficult decisions as in any way anti-democratic.

We urge all activists, regardless of factional loyalty, to work with us to defend our members’ interests at this unprecedented time. We owe it to our members.

Coronavirus is a trade union issue

The Coronavirus presents us with a significant threat, and it is one we need to respond to carefully, but clearly and urgently.

For most of us it is difficult to know the truth about the threat that the virus presents; while some people are responding to the hype in the media, creating panic buying, there are others who think it is no more serious than the flu.

Regardless of where our opinions lie on this as trade unionists and socialists we need to see this as a trade union and a class issue, as we would any other. The response to the crisis should be driven by the needs of the population, not profit.

While the government have currently taken limited measures to assist workers affected by the virus, allowing SSP to be claimed after day one instead of day three, we know that millions of people in the gig economy will get little support if they are forced to go sick. Our movement is rightly demanding that there should be sick pay available for these people so they don’t continue to work if they, or their family, are sick or self isolating.

In the Civil Service we know that serious preparations are being made for a major pandemic and it’s impact on our workplaces. Yet basic day to day precautions should be taken immediately. Public facing offices have been told that they can use sanitising gels and wipes, but a recent attempt to buy them through the central ordering system in one department found that none were available. We need our employer to act to protect us, not just talk about it. Local offices could hold meetings to discuss what steps we will take if we are not protected adequately.

Many offices complain that there are not enough cleaners. In many front facing offices desks are touched by dozens of hands every day, yet the desks are cleaned just once a week. We could be demanding more cleaners for our offices and should highlight the strikes by ISS cleaners in Bootle, Liverpool and Birmingham who are demanding the living wage.

In one office a member of staff was sent home because they had been in an at risk country, but the cleaning company refused to do a deep clean until the person had been confirmed with the Coronavirus. Fortunately they were clear, but had they not then staff had been exposed for no good reason except that the cleaning agency wanted to save money. We need to demand urgent deep cleaning, with staff advised to stay at home until it is done, wherever there is a possibility of a Coronavirus case.

The Chief Medical Officer has advised that in 2 weeks time people with coughs and colds may be told to self isolate. There is a possibility that schools will be closed. This will have a significant effect on our workplaces. We need to demand that everybody who has to self isolate, or to look after a family member who is self isolating, is guaranteed that no action will be taken against them. We need to demand that there is no increase in workload on those who continue in work.

We should also be raising concerns about unnecessarily exposing staff with vulnerable heart and lung conditions to the public.

As many of our services impact on the public we need to to demand that they don’t lose out. In the job centres if an office suffers from significant staff shortages or is forced to close claimants could lose benefits. This can be resolved by focussing remaining staff work on making sure claims are paid, not the trivia of meeting pointless targets.

Whichever department or office we work in our colleagues will be talking and worrying about Coronavirus. Our job as trade unionists is to work with them to make our offices as safe as possible, and put the PCS at the front of health and safety in the civil service.

Birmingham ISS cleaners prepare to strike

PCS-LiverpoolAt conference last year our Branch Secretary made contact with the people co-ordinating the campaign for ISS cleaners on Merseyside . We discussed if we could get our cleaners to join PCS again as they had all previously left. If we could get them to rejoin could we then get them to a position to where they felt able to take action?

I had previously been in touch with the organiser before on the subject. He kindly offered to come down to speak to the cleaners and I was able to get a few of the cleaners to meet with him.

From that initial meeting two of us agreed to go up to Bootle on 21 June to meet with Phil and some of the cleaners who had been balloted for strike action on 16 &17 July.

Since returning from Bootle I started having regular meetings with the cleaners.The important thing is that we all keep in touch now either through meetings or WhatsApp group which we set up as not all cleaners are able to get to the meetings. We have succeeded in re recruiting them to the PCS.

Staff from the Regional  Office were very supportive.They have attended some of our meetings. We had leafletting session outside the office 16 December with a few of the cleaners to try and raise their profile.

After a few false starts we finally got NDC submission accepted. We had a fantastic turnout and vote to strike.

So now we are looking forward to Monday. We will be leafletting staff from CCH to get them behind us. We will be holding a rally assisted by the Town Committee with PCS President Fran Heathcote, Midlands TUC and  councillors speaking.

This is the first time any of the cleaners have taken action, they are nervous but up for the fight.

ISS cleaners in Birmingham, Bootle and Liverpool will be on strike on Monday 16th and Tuesday 17th March.

Radical rank and file campaigning in PCS – The experience of Central London Town Committee

26 Whitehall PCS reps and activists met with Mark Serwotka and Fran Heathcote last month to discuss how we build the national campaign in our local area.

PCS members in 2020 face a Boris Johnson government intent on attacking the civil service with Dominic Cummings plotting reorganisation and the most intense pressure ever on services and staff.

PCS is launching a campaign over the attacks expected in the near future:

  • further pay freezes
  • attacks on redundancy pay
  • refusing to pay back the money we are owed for our pensions.

We can’t wait another 5 years and have no choice but to fight these now. We will work with other unions like the FBU who have successfully challenged pensions inequality through the courts. UCU members in universities are taking another 14 days of strike action and CWU are about to re-ballot their postal members.

Harnessing energy from the rank and file

Learning the lessons from our previous campaigns, organising and rebuilding our strength on the ground needs to go hand in hand with campaigning and can’t be done separately.

We want a radical approach to revitalising the rank and file of the union.

Of course we need a lead from the NEC and national officers, but we don’t want a top down union and are calling for campaigning organisation in every area.

It’s up to us as activists on the ground to make this happen, and we want our new reps and advocates to come to the fore.

Getting to know each other!

It had always amazed me that although there are so many PCS members and branches concentrated in the Whitehall area, there were so few links between the branches unless they were in the same group. Activists working just a few hundred yards away from each other didn’t know each other or would only meet at the national Conference if at all!

Like in many areas, the town committee had not been active for a while when PCS launched the national industrial action ballot over pay in 2018. I had just become one of the NEC Liaison Officers for London & SE and decided that getting people together to help organise around the ballot was a key part of my role.

We started meeting informally in the bar of the civil service club, later getting money for a room for more formal meetings. Because people found it useful to meet up with other activists we agreed to meet weekly during the ballot.

There was a lot of good will to help out with leafleting at other branches and organising stunts and other actions, as well as an appetite for discussion about how to take the campaign forward. That side of our networking continued into the second ballot. for example by supporting activists to go desk to desk to try and make contact with all of our members and to try different ways of organising.

A campaigning network

Our network of 150 on email and 70 on a whats app group has been built both as a forum for discussion and through taking action together over various campaigns.

Organising solidarity for strikes, planning ways to take union action over climate, opposing the far right and campaigning during the general election have all brought different activists together at different times.

We have also mapped private sector contracts in the area to roll out the outsourcing action to other workplaces, and would like to organise the new anti-racist training locally.

We now have a core network of activists that know each other and have an idea of the different strengths and weaknesses in our area.

Joint branch committee?

We have experimented with meetings in the evening or at lunchtime. Currently we are trying to encourage branches to organise their branch committees to coincide with our meetings which are 12:30-2pm, with the longer term aim of quarterly joint branch committee meetings in the area. This is something hubs as well as other areas might like to try.

Pensions campaign launch

We are launching the national campaign with a pensions campaign briefing meeting with a q&a session on pensions and a UCU striker.

We then plan to roll this out with the aim of organising similar meetings in every workplace in the area.

Candy Udwin

Candy Udwin is standing for nomination to the NEC as part of the Democracy Alliance