Organising at work in the Covid-19 pandemic

My PCS branch in a non governmental public body and has worked hard over the last ten weeks to ensure our workplaces and staff are safe in this crisis. We felt our senior management was slow to react to the growing crisis and was still waiting on 16 March for government advice. We called an emergency branch committee meeting that day and drew up a list of what we needed from our employer as workers, parents and carers. This included full pay for anyone who wouldn’t be able to work their hours due to childcare and other caring. We included our cleaning colleagues who are outsourced and our agency staff and we recruited some more of them to the union. We immediately wrote to management with our list of needs including that all cleaning or agency colleagues who cannot work during this crisis are paid in full. We said we wanted our offices deep cleaned by properly trained and protected cleaners.

In that first week we called an online members meeting and managed to get over 210 members involved at short notice. The branch committee talked to loads of members by email and phone calls. We called directors again and again and firmly insisted on our requirements for the health and safety of our colleagues whether they are in the union or not. By Friday we had got almost everyone sent to work from home, including staff who had not previously been given tech to work from home. We got assurances that noone with caring responsibilities or health issues would have to be on-call, go to external meetings or anywhere they didn’t feel safe.

In the following two weeks we won ‘care plans’ with time off on full pay for parents and carers who cannot work their full hours. We pushed for the same emergency leave for anyone whose mental health suffers in this crisis but the take up of this has been patchy and anxiety levels are very high. Our senior management talks up our mental health support systems in usual times but staff still report bullying and a lack of support for their mental health and that situation hasn’t been completely solved. The anxiety also affects managers and we have had to try to diffuse situations exacerbated by the lockdown and fear of the virus.

Our online meeting system struggles with more than 200 participants so we repeated our weekly members’ meeting in the morning and afternoon of the same day. Some 300-350 members have joined these meetings weekly and of course there have been arguments and political disagreements but they have kept the committee and members focused and engaged. There are worries about the coming economic crisis and the cuts we may face but we have discussed and agreed we must resist being made to pay for this crisis.

Members’ voted recently to move to fortnightly meetings and we stuck to the plan despite Johnson’s chaos inducing message to stay alert, because our Director General sent a message that our organisation remains in lockdown and working from home. The branch committee continues to meet weekly.

Currently all our offices are closed and two or three individuals go into one office once a week to deal with post. This is on a voluntary basis and anyone else has to get written permission from a director to go into an office. We have been invited onto the working group for the eventual reopening of our offices but it’s moving slowly and it is clear we will be working from home for the foreseeable future.

Many members have been extremely worried at the prospect of sending their children back into schools on 1 June. So we invited Peter Middleman, National Education Union (NEU), NW regional Secretary to our online members’ meeting last week. Over 80 members heard Peter explain the NEU’s campaign to restrict schools to the most vulnerable children and children of key workers until it’s safe to open them further. He answered lots of questions and members said they felt reassured that their instincts to keep their children home was the right thing to do. We shared the NEU petition and template letter for members to write to their MP’s, councillors and head teachers before 28 May when the government is to make another announcement on schools. We encouraged members to join a Covid19 action group, People before Profit meeting this tuesday 26 May for teachers, parents and concerned members of the public. Our branch is clear that we will support any parent who keeps their children home and needs their ‘care plan’ to continue. Our management subsequently announced that care plans will continue for the foreseeable future.

There is still a lot to do. We have to ensure that our offices don’t reopen until our health and safety is assured with proper risk assessments and social distancing . But our buildings are relatively small so most of us will have to work from home for months ahead with all the problems that can cause. We have asked for written assurances that every staff member will be equally safe because we know that black and ethnic minority people have been disproportionately affected by Covid19. So we need to know what measures are going to be in place to ensure that none of our colleagues is at risk. We also want our cleaning colleagues and agency staff directly employed by our employer on the same terms and conditions as the rest of us and we need to work out how we are going to achieve this.

What we have achieved has not been easy, particularly when our HR dept rewrote all sorts of policies and assumed they could be “approved” without proper consultation in the middle of this crisis. But because the members have been so active we have been able to get proper consultation back on track.

Our union branch is stronger, better organised and larger than it was at the beginning of this crisis. So if anything good can come out of this horrible virus it will be that our PCS members have shown an extraordinary tenacity and determination to support each other through the worst time in our working lives that most of us have ever faced.

Organising with other unions during the lockdown

The impact of coronavirus and the lockdown on the way we had become accustomed to organising was incredibly sudden and brought most planned activity to a halt.

A couple of weeks in our Town Committee met on Zoom to discuss how things were going in the different groups and workplaces and to see how we could support each other. At the meeting we agreed to work with other West Midlands unions to find ways to organise and campaign in these new circumstances.

The first meeting had nearly 40 people involved from across the major unions and the following week had 45 people in a public meeting with Fran Heathcote, PCS President, UNISON assistant secretary Roger Mackenzie and others speaking. Now called the West Midlands Coronavirus Action Group – People Before Profit it is one of many similar initiatives that have sprung up across the country. The People Before Profit Health Worker Covid Activists group has helped raise the confidence of health workers to demand and campaign for the PPE they need.

The West Midlands Action Group has been sharing news, raising arguments for PPE and Testing and is now campaigning against an early return to work. We have organised for a small group of socially distanced members to show solidarity with the weekly clap at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Around the country similar initiatives are being taken. We are organising virtual meetings, filming interviews and producing propaganda.

Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in we know that our rulers and the Tories will be looking to continue to run society in the interests of profit, and our class will always have to find ways to fight back. We are all probably tired of online meetings, but they have provided a way to continue to organise and build in these restricted times.

Pete Jackson

Birmingham PCS Town Committee convenor

The People Before Profit Health Worker Covid Activists group is holding a “No return to unsafe workplaces” public meeting on Wednesday 6th May at 6pm – click here for details