Stunning vote for action at Heathrow Airport

PCS members in the Home Office group working at Heathrow Airport have delivered a stunning vote in favour of strike action.

In a ballot closing on 29 January members voted by 96% to take strike action and 98% for action short of strike on a turnout of 68%.

This means that the results beat the 50% turnout threshold, but also crucially, the additional requirement of 40% total of those covered by the dispute voting in favour of action. This additional restrictive measure being imposed by the Tory anti-Trade Union Act on the basis that border security is deemed an “important public service”.

The dispute originates in Border Force management’s decision to impose a fixed shift roster at the airport, replacing the more flexible arrangements preceding it. The local Heathrow and West London Branch clearly set out reasons why the new rostering was unacceptable including how reduced flexibility would affect carers, work-life balance, disabled members and that these would be further exacerbated by compulsory midnight shift starts.

Despite these clearly valid concerns and the strong support of members, management pushed ahead. Stating that the changes were part of creating bubbles and ensuring Covid security, the new roster was slated for implementation on 6 January 2021. Members were obviously sceptical that the Coronavirus pandemic was being used as a pretext to implement what they felt were deleterious changes. This scepticism was backed by their experience of Border Force’s response to Covid, which included slow implementation of masks (including reports of members being asked to remove them in the beginning stages of the pandemic), slow implementation of screens at primary control and continued absence of temperature checking.

Although the roster changes were supposedly in response to Covid there was no guarantee that they would be temporary, and members could remember a previous failed attempt to implement fixed rosters in 2011. In response to this intransigence and the announced implementation date, the Branch began campaigning amongst members.

There was clear anger, in part evidenced by over 130 new members joining the branch in the three months leading up to the ballot. The implementation of the roster at the start of the balloting process did nothing to assuage membership anger as confusion over rostering, enforced breaking of bubbles and general chaos reigned. During the three-week balloting period targeted emails were sent and peer to peer texting via Callhub used. However, most importantly individual one to one contact was made by local reps.

Delivering a positive ballot result is not easy, especially under pandemic restraints, however on the afternoon of 29 January the results came through. The huge vote for action can be attributed to the branch acting swiftly, at the right time on an issue where members were furious at changes which would make their working lives harder. Furthermore, the local reps and members who worked so tirelessly in delivering the result, chasing up members, talking, recruiting and spreading the message.

There is still a long way to go until this is resolved, action has not yet been called and of course further discussions with the employer will be sought. But within the Home Office Group we are proud of what our comrades have achieved so far, and this is acts as an example of how members can fight back even when faced with what seem inevitable changes.

James Cox, Home Office Group President, personal capacity