Unprecedented times – Protect PCS members

PCS, like everyone else is having to get to grips with whole new ways of working. Reps at every level are in a seemingly constant set of negotiations to get the best for the members that we represent, and to keep them safe.

Negotiating to protect our members

At national level, PCS is literally in daily talks with Cabinet Office to engage over coronavirus crisis issues concerning health and safety, terms and conditions and safeguarding issues to keep people safe and maximise the number working from home. Seeking to identify the workers whose attendance in the workplace is critical and maximise safety measures for those workers.

The Cabinet Office say that overall, 80% of the Civil Service are at home, this figure is very different though, in departments like DWP, where as many as 60% of members are required to be in the workplace, all designated ‘key workers’, a term originally used to secure them access to school places, but quickly leapt upon by operations managers to try to ensure that even those who could feasibly work from home, were not allowed to.

We have the Passport Office attempting to start bringing staff back into the workplace to carry out non-essential work, begging the question, how many of us need a new passport processing right now? Having successfully delayed the reopening of two offices whilst proper risk assessment processes took place, PCS has now issued detailed guidance, including legal advice, inviting members to contact a dedicated address individually with any concerns so that they can be given comprehensive advice, tailored to each individual in order to protect them.

PCS has pressed hard on the issue of workplace closures in sites where Covid-19 has been identified, with some successes in HMRC, where PCS was able to close the Salford office, all credits to local reps there, alongside group negotiators, after the initial complacency by management. This has led to an agreed HMRC protocol for workplaces where cases are identified.

In the Border Force at Heathrow, following the death of a member, PCS pressed for proper PPE. When management refused and members started to wear facemasks, astonishingly, they were instructed to remove them due to concern it gave the ‘wrong impression’.

All of this has led to PCS seeking to reach agreement on a protocol for what to do if a case is suspected.

Evidence is starting to become apparent of instances where management did not act quickly, or decisively, enough. In DWP we are seeing more confirmed cases, and offices being closed, because proper procedures were not followed and subsequent time was not allowed, following deep cleaning taking place. The long- awaited testing is being used as a means to getting people back into the office once they have tested negative, rather than being used to ensure the wellbeing of staff.

At a time when the Government advice is ‘Save Lives, Stay at Home’, some departments seem to be panic-running in the opposite direction. The latest correspondence from Cabinet Office dated 24th April indicates though, that they do not foresee any sudden movement of civil servants currently at home coming back into the workplace which is to be welcomed, and negotiators will continue regular dialogue in order to closely monitor this position.

No Going Back

Reps are all grappling with the complex conundrum of keeping our members safe, but also ensuring that we can continue to provide essential services during the pandemic.

One thing is clear and that is that during this national crisis, it is our members and many others across the public sector and the NHS, that have been there to help people, delivering invaluable services to the most vulnerable, paying out from the Job Retention Scheme those workers that have been furloughed, providing the support to keep the country running.

What unites these groups of workers is that they have been under-resourced by successive governments and attacked by the Tories under the guise of Austerity. And whilst it’s great to hear our members praised by celebrities (thanks Pete Andre), we need to ensure that when this is all over that the recognition is not forgotten, that you cannot have everyone banging pots and pans on a Thursday night in recognition of key workers, carers and the NHS, yet continue to support policies that see them privatised, demonised and sold off to the lowest bidder.

None of the warm words will mean anything if government and employers don’t reward them with a pay rise above the rate of inflation and put the same investment into public services and their workforce, as they do into their friends in big business, because we will not forget. It is our job, as trade unionists to ensure that nobody forgets.

The PCS Outsourced Workers Committee agreed the ‘No Going Back’ campaign to ensure that gains made such as sick pay from day one and the civil service agreement to pay workers 100% pay etc must be retained after the COVID pandemic and that ultimately, the best way of achieving this is to bring the work back in-house.

All of this excellent work being done by reps at every level is being appreciated by our members, and interest in PCS is at a real high.

Making Demands

Members will remember that at the end of February PCS wrote to the head of the Civil Service, setting out national demands over pay, pensions and the CSCS.

Then, recognising the crisis that everyone is dealing with, and the need to get every department focusing on what they should be doing, getting as many as possible working from home, but still delivering essential services, often to the neediest in society, PCS set out a number of interim demands, to be implemented centrally, by the Cabinet Office. If government can be run centrally when it suits, with staff interchangeable between departments, this makes future arguments for delegation harder for them to justify.

These were interim demands, and in no way detract from our national demands set out at the end of February, a point acknowledged by the Cabinet Office, which was made abundantly clear in all material.

1. A suspension of the delegated pay process, and an immediate above inflation pay increase for all staff implemented across the civil service from the centre.

2. A 2% reduction in pension contributions.

3. No changes to the CSCS for at least a year.

4. A moratorium on office closures and redundancies.

  1. Any key coronavirus issues not resolved at departmental level, including enhanced health and safety, to be subject to national bargaining.

Most activists and members recognised these as a very positive step forwards, at a time when delegated talks are not taking place, and that if these could be achieved, it would take PCS forward in pursuing our national demands at the appropriate time.

Wrong time to sow division

Only those seeking division attempt to portray this as “parking our key policies and instead put forward watered down demands at this time of crisis.” as stated in this week’s Broad Left Network article entitled ‘Bold Response Required Against Government on the Run’.

Broad Left Network is the Socialist Party electoral front in PCS. At a time the union has been frantically working to protect our members and those in society who rely on the services our members provide, PCS has been churning out materials and briefings. This was the only thing they have published on the BLN website since a call for election nominations in January.

Not a word had been said about Coronavirus or the situation facing members, despite a plea on their website to ‘Follow my blog’. Their slogan ‘Action not Words’ looks a little hollow in light of their lack of activity, and with what little activity they do indulge in limited exclusively to attacking their own union’s democratically decided policies and strategy. It is extremely disappointing that BLN are seeking to spread division during this critical time for our members.

The PCS National Executive Committee overwhelmingly voted to postpone the annual elections to that body in order to prevent unnecessary contact during lockdown and in light of social distancing measures in order to protect the health and safety of activists, members and CWU postal workers.

Incredibly as recently as last week the SP members within the union, including their leader within BLN, have continued to argue there is no good reason why the PCS elections cannot take place, while acknowledging the electioneering that would create.

This, at the very time when casualties from the virus could be at their peak and the impact this would have on PCS members and their families, adjusting to life in their second month of lockdown. It is almost beyond belief that they are prepared to make such comments intended to attack the union’s efforts to protect workers’ health and safety as “anti-democratic”.

Even their own BLN supporters do not support them in this, they were amongst those writing to PCS requesting that the elections be called off at this time. SP are completely out of touch on this issue but see anti-PCS leadership as their priority for factional and electoral purposes.

Socialist Party Scotland ran an article by an SP NEC member from the DWP group, in relation to members at Paisley jobcentre being sent home after national PCS intervention, for which he attempts to take credit. He makes the deceitful statement “Police visited the protest and agreed it should carry on. This undermines the view of some in the union that face-to-face activities should not be carried out during the Covid epidemic”.

No-one in the union has ever said that no face to face activity should take place, but many of us have stressed the point that every efforts to social distance should be made and guidelines carefully observed.

It is telling that this “revolutionary socialist” was prepared to accept the view of the police as more important than the concerns expressed by our own reps and members.

But the motivation behind his baffling comments is explained by the fact that the Socialist Party had, with little or no regard for the health and safety of members who were doing their utmost to practise social distancing, carried out a paper sale outside an office in London, where the casualty rates are amongst the highest in the UK, aimed at collecting signatures to send their factional and electoral material to.

It is worth noting that when branch officers and members complained to PCS and the matter was discussed at the NEC, this same individual hypocritically and dishonestly accused the general secretary and senior officers of ‘politicising things’.

In actual fact the general secretary, supported by senior officers and endorsed by the NEC, responded in a low key manner to the concerns raised by members by writing to SP acting general secretary, a letter aimed principally at securing a commitment from them that the party would not repeat this activity that may endanger members’ health and safety during lockdown.

The response from the SP was a bizarre suggestion that PCS was trying to prevent a socialist organisation, but not the capitalist press, from selling papers.

Their response, in which they still refused to give assurances that they would not repeat the activity, attacked Mark Serwotka and the PCS leadership. When this correspondence was debated at the NEC, it was pointed out by members of Independent Left that this was not a Left Unity decision, but in fact a stance supported by the branch and London regionally committee, many not Left Unity supporters, who had raised the issue.

The acting general secretary of the SP has now replied to say that “clearly there are profoundly different views between us on these vital questions of how the labour and trade union movement should operate in these extremely challenging times which it is in the interests of the movement to discuss out. Consequently we believe it would be useful for the movement for us to publish this correspondence on our website and in the pages of the Socialist.” SP have now published this correspondence.

In their replies the SP give little or no acknowledgement of the concerns of our members and certainly no commitment that their activity would not be repeated.

Keep members safe, Campaign for better

Left Unity welcomes all efforts that are being made by reps and members to stay safe and supports every member who wishes to challenge any situation which they believe puts their safety at risk. We need to keep our members safe, that is after all a key priority for any trade union, but the conundrum is how we continue to deliver services, including those to the most vulnerable, whilst keeping as many members as possible at home.

At a time when our services have never been more vital, when union membership has never been more crucial, let’s do what we have to, to keep members safe. But when this is over, we need to remember, we cannot allow things to go back to the way they were and understand that they have been changed forever.

It is PCS’s priority to ensure health and safety, and whilst sadly we have lost PCS members to Covid19, we will not stand by and allow our members to suffer and will do all that we can to protect them.

The Left Unity leadership supports all members who feel that their safety is being jeopardised and who want to challenge their employer, PCS will back them completely. But, as socialists, we also have a responsibility to keep services running in what is literally, a life and death crisis.

Our members deliver vital services, the media and certain celebrities are currently recognising that, but we need to keep the pressure on Government to reward our members, not just with warm words, but with recognition through our pay, terms and conditions. That is what the PCS leadership must continue to fight for.

Up and down the country, and across PCS Departments and Groups, it is Left Unity members and activists who are leading negotiations and are at the forefront of the campaigning and organising activity that is required to build PCS during these unprecedented times.

If our members are key workers, providing invaluable services, let’s treat them like key workers and reward them accordingly.