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For the last few months, a team from the PCS NEC have been working with the DVLA Swansea branch to enable them to resolve a serious health and safety dispute that has arisen during the course of the pandemic.
Despite initially taking a sensible approach during the first lockdown and ensuring that the bare minimum of workers remained on site, by the middle of 2020, DVLA management had bought into Boris Johnson’s mantra that everything would soon be back to normal and they started a rapid escalation of returning staff to being physically on site.
Soon, the number of Covid 19 cases dramatically increased, until there were over 600 positive cases, the highest number in any UK workplace, alongside a tragic and avoidable fatality.
The DVLA’s woeful appearance at a parliamentary select committee hearing did nothing to reassure anyone, and the local PCS trade union side, who had continued to negotiate with the employer, in good faith, realised that things were now out of control and they were unable to convince DVLA of the need to change their approach.
PCS members were raising serious concerns, and a climate of fear and intimidation of anyone who spoke up quickly took hold.
A team led by myself and general secretary, Mark Serwotka held a number of ‘crisis meetings’ with the branch early in the new year, and it became clear, following the sad and unavoidable death of a worker at the site, that thing had to change, and fast.
We quickly organised a series of meetings for all PCS DVLA members. These have all been incredibly well attended, and gave a very clear indication of the climate of fear and strength of feeling that exists amongst the membership. The branch had been ably supported by DFT group president and NEC member, Paul Williams, and forming a core team of eight, made up of branch chair, Sarah Evans, Paul, Mark and myself, alongside AGS, John Moloney and PCS FTOs, we entered into a series of meetings with the employer and the Cabinet Office, aimed at bringing about a shift in DVLA’s position.
After every meeting, we held a PCS members’ meeting, making sure that members were fully engaged in the campaign, and quickly PCS membership, alongside the number of reps and advocates, started to rapidly increase. A feature of every meeting was a report back from Mark on negotiations, followed by a report from Sarah about everything local. These meetings soon grew in popularity and were used as a barometer to test members’ views.
DVLA, backed up by DFT management, were now under significant pressure, with widespread interest from MPs, the media and the general public.
At every public meeting I spoke at, someone would send solidarity greetings to PCS members at DVLA and the dispute became a talking point within the movement. Although there were some small shifts in management’s position, clearly these were not enough to reassure members that they would be safe at work and eventually, when other avenues had been exhausted, we indicated our intention to ballot. This was put to the subsequent members’ meeting for endorsement, where over 96% of those on the call, supported this without hesitation.
DVLA didn’t believe that we would win that ballot, or beat the 50% threshold, but as new joiner forms flooded in, and the updates for members continued, it became clear that members at DVLA Swansea had had enough.
The ballot result arrived, and massive kudos to the branch, and to our members there, they’d done it!
We immediately informed the employer of the result, and a period of two weeks intensive talks commenced, with PCS making clear that if talks didn’t produce significant progress, our members would be out.
The initial hostility from DVLA was quickly dealt with, and intensive talks followed. Some progress was made, including removing a further 300 desks, revised risk assessments leading to over 300 more staff being sent home and a commitment to continued negotiations over the months ahead about extending home working, site safety and how any future return to the workplace might be managed, but it was clear that DVLA were not willing to accept that more needed to be done immediately, as well as in the longer term, in case of further outbreaks, or a 3rd wave. A lot more work can be done remotely – they refuse to share the findings of the Deloitte report about this with PCS.
Action was called from 6th to 9th of April, immediately following the long Easter weekend, and the number of contacts and new joiners we received, quickly told us it would be well supported.
Due to the nature of the dispute, it was agreed not to hold a picket line, but we ensured the visibility of the action in lots of other ways.
- A large-scale social media campaign, the branch now proudly claims large Facebook and Twitter accounts, with hundreds more members joining the Facebook page throughout the ballot period alone, a total of nearly 1800 members now.
- A mobile billboard (or battle van) quickly drew attention as it toured Swansea letting the public know why these government employees have been forced to take action.
- High profile supporters all over the UK, including a number of politicians and leading activists.
- Two public rallies with a range of speakers– one on day one of the action, one on day four.
On Tuesday lunchtime, I was proud to chair the first rally, which hundreds attended. Messages of support came flooding through thick and fast, alongside donations and pledges. These were read out throughout the rally and it was clear that the action has massive national support, alongside thousands of pounds raised in donations.
The first speaker was branch chair, Sarah Evans, a stalwart of this dispute who has spoken at every meeting and grown in confidence and stature throughout the campaign. Wales TUC general secretary, Shavanah Taj spoke next bringing solidarity from all over Wales. Supportive MPs, Carolyn Harris, Tonia Antoniazzi, Christina Rees and Stephen Kinnock shared the platform with PCS branch activists Sophia Wickstead, Phil Evans and Maciej Krzymieniecki, talking about their experiences. Our last speaker was PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka.
The whole rally had an upbeat vibe, backed up by a real determination to win, despite intimidation. What shone through in the messages of support was the fact that these brave members have the backing of the whole movement.
It takes real guts to stand up and fight back against hostility, and the stakes in this dispute about safety are incredibly high. But this branch, many of them new or inexperienced reps, have shown their determination in spades. It is a real lesson in activism, showing what is possible when every layer of PCS pull together to effect change.
What has come out of this is a bigger, stronger branch, with more reps, more advocates, more activism and more clout. We told the Cabinet Office today that we want further talks asap and we remain ready to meet DVLA next week to find a way forward. The ball is now very much in their court. The biggest question from members at DVLA Swansea is “When do we strike next?”
Showing that the branch is changed forever in terms of outlook and activity.
The next rally takes place tomorrow, please join us at 12 noon if you can.
Let’s give these brave members our full support. In the words from one message of support “They are fighting for all of us”.
Fran is standing for re-election as PCS President as part of the Democracy Alliance. Click on the image below for more information.