One year on, organising in the pandemic

On Tuesday 17th March 2020 Birmingham ISS cleaners were due to strike and we had planned a strike rally with Fran Heathcote, the Midlands TUC secretary, a councillor and a Bootle striker. We also had a meeting planned for the evening. We had been organising for the events and were looking forward to them, but we were aware that the pandemic was looming.

Fran rang me the Friday before the event to tell me that she would not be able to come as the union had decided to suspend all travel and all meetings in response to the growing threat of Coronavirus.

That was a year ago.

Over that weekend the reps in my office were talking about the pandemic and the danger it posed. Working in a job centre means having hundreds of people coming through the building every day. We decided to call a members meeting the next day. On Monday 16th March we held the biggest lunchtime meetings we’d ever held in our office, attended by almost every member and some of the few non members, and people expressed their real fears for their safety. We came away with two demands – Firstly that anyone with an underlying health condition should be removed immediately from face to face contact with claimants. Secondly that the doors should be closed. Management agreed to the first, but they had been told the doors had to remain open.

That evening the DWP recorded a message to staff that anyone with certain health conditions was to remain at home. I went in the next day and worked with our management to identify anyone who shouldn’t be at work and we sent more than half the office home. It was a challenging day. At one point I found myself persuading a member that she should go home – her son and mine had been in the same class in primary school and had recently started in secondary schools, we cried as we discussed how much we wanted to survive to see them grow up. By lunchtime I was at home. I haven’t stepped foot in the office since, although I have held a socially distanced car park meeting and it was a very emotional reunion with my colleagues.

I’m sure we all remember the fear and chaos of those first few weeks. In our office we had established a good communications system. As a result of the work previously put into the pay ballots I had most members phone numbers. I was able to use WhatsApp to keep in touch with everyone and make sure everyone was kept up to date with PCS bulletins and information. In fact I was the only person with such a list at first, and when managers wanted to send information such as mental health support to those at home they had to ask me to forward it.

For the first 6 weeks after we had been sent home nobody had any kit to work. Our colleagues who were still in the office did a remarkable job, making sure that claims continued to be processed and helping those who needed it. All 3 reps in our office were at home, so we had to rely on the eyes and ears of other members to alert us to any issues that needed responding to. Equally the members in the office had to start to organise without us there. Those at home were frustrated about not being able to help and we were continually lobbying for news of when we would be able to work.

Prior to lockdown we had a tradition of holding car park meetings over events like pay, we held a picnic for Love Unions Day and had speakers in for International Women’s Day. The union had a strong presence in our office and people felt they belonged. This has stood us in good stead over the last year.

We have had quite a few staff from our office sick with Covoravirus, and one person was hospitalised. Several people have lost family members. One day we heard that 2 staff members based in the office had contracted Coronavirus and one had recently been in work. We were concerned that the cleaning process was moving too slowly so I took advice that said the office would have to close for a deep clean. I contacted the staff in the office and told them the management should be coming to them to tell them to go home. Members didn’t wait for the instruction, they just got their coats and walked. That’s how worried they were. Next day it was suggested that I had incited a walk out!

As the lockdown started to ease in the Summer and the department was trying to increase the number of claimants in the office our members stood their ground and only allowed very limited claimants to be booked in. They didn’t involve the reps, they just told us that it had been done. We were incredibly proud of them.

Like every Job Centre we have had an influx of new staff as the department tries to keep up with the horrific unemployment level. Most of the new staff in our office have joined PCS. Partly this is because we are on the ball and contact them quickly after their arrival, partly because of the union culture in the office. Several times new starters have said to me that people had already talked to them about the union and why they should join.

Birmingham town committee didn’t take long to recover from the disruption caused by Covid. We were soon back to meeting roughly monthly, on zoom of course, and it was really useful to hear how things were going in different groups. We had come together initially around the pay ballots, touring offices leafleting and supporting initiatives and working alongside the local PCS full time staff. None of this has been possible in the past year, but we have still been able to organise. We held a Black History Month zoom meeting with Zita Holbourne and Tracy Hylton and we recently held an International Women’s Day meeting with a variety of local trade union speakers. Both were attended by around 30 people, helping to bring new energy to the group.

As Co Chair of the Midlands Region I edit the regional newsletter. We have used this to help focus the region on internal and external events. The Coronavirus issues of the newsletter have led on: Coronavirus is a Trade Union issue; Why we say Black Lives Matter; and stories from Mentors and Advocates. The current newsletter is in production. It leads with an article by Paul Williams over his victory in his Employment Tribunal and has impressive contributions from the two branches in the Midlands which have had the most consistent recruitment. I’m keen to track where we are growing and to share their stories so other branches can think about how they can reproduce their success.

If the pandemic continues to recede, and society starts to open up, we know that there will be many more struggles over the number of staff in our offices, the number of claimants, blended working and a host of other issues. How successful we are partly depends on our negotiators, but it also depends on the work that is done in every office, branch, city and region.

Leadership isn’t just about who we elect, although I think it is very important that we re-elect a Democracy Alliance NEC and Left Unity GECs. Leadership is also about what you do day by day and week by week in your area. As activists we need to support each other and be honest with each other about how we are getting on, eg discussing our ballot turnouts and recruitment stats, rather than hiding them away like dirty secrets if they could be better.

We need to be bold and proud of our union and the work we all do. It’s been a tough year and this crisis is far from over, but we have no choice but to continue learning and continue fighting.

Pete Jackson