DWP Left Unity GEC leadership agree strategy for building campaigns

The DWP Group Executive Committee (GEC) of PCS met on 21st and 22nd July to debate the critical issues facing our members, including the disgraceful and insulting pay award from the employer, the ongoing dispute in Jobcentres, and the risks to our members following the post-19th July lifting of restrictions.

GEC rejects pay offer

Following the government’s announcement of a pay freeze across the civil service and related bodies, PCS rightly called out this callous, ideologically driven move to make workers pay for the pandemic.

Our members in DWP, as elsewhere across the public sector, have delivered throughout this crisis, keeping the benefits system afloat. PCS members have ensured much needed financial assistance was given to those most in need, including to millions who had never previously had to rely on benefits, whilst also ensuring the delivery of other vital services.

Our members have not been immune to the effects of Covid-19 themselves; as has happened throughout society, many have been taken ill or worse, seen loved ones suffer, or lose their jobs. Despite this DWP workers have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, stepping up time and time again, ensuring the most vulnerable in society received support, at great risk to themselves and their families.

The warm words of praise that came from politicians and the public alike were welcome, but warm words do not pay bills or feed the family.

Whilst having been too often seen as the enemy due to the harshness of the benefits system, the hard work and the support provided by our members to those in financial difficulty had begun to change the negative narrative, going some way to repairing DWP’s reputation. This being the case, government had an opportunity, and a duty, to deliver more than warm words to our workers – they could have given due recognition to the magnificent work of our members, and public servants in general, by rewarding all with a proper pay rise as a thank you for their efforts, whilst giving the economy a much needed boost.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they have chosen another path and allowed their ideological loathing of the public sector to target workers, including our members, to foot the bill for the pandemic.

The Left Unity leadership of PCS have a proven track record of taking on this abhorrent government, and only narrowly been prevented from taking industrial action on pay twice by the Tories anti-Trade Union legislation.

This GEC will not let this latest, disgraceful pay award go unchallenged and has agreed to continue our campaign with members in every workplace, in line with the GEC motion passed at last month’s group conference, outlining the group’s opposition to any offer linked to the pay freeze and supporting the national union’s demands. Now, following the recent publication of the imposed 2021 pay award, the GEC is fully committed to working with branches to build the confidence of members to get over that 50% hurdle imposed by anti-union laws in any future ballot.

The vast majority of our members can see the harsh reality, that they will receive no increase at all in their pay this year, with only the lowest paid in the department – those earning £24k or less – getting a paltry £250. In truth, this is a real terms pay cut for all of our members, with inflation forecast to rise.

Jobcentre dispute goes on as lifting of restrictions poses new threat

Following the recent consultative ballot, which once again delivered an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote for industrial action amongst Jobcentre members, the executive had already tasked the Organising Sub-Committee with reviewing the ballot data and producing a report to last week’s GEC to consider the next steps. In the meantime, the union has also received an increasing number of enquiries from concerned members outside of the Jobcentre network as to what the recent announcements about lifting restrictions from 19th July in England, and in the coming weeks for Scotland and Wales, will mean for them. Many have stated openly that they fear being forced back into the workplace before it is safe.

The Group leadership have continued to demand that DWP reduce the amount of face-to-face activity across our Jobcentres, with our members seeing in person only those customers who cannot be dealt with remotely, and that the employer honours the commitment they had previously given regarding work coach empowerment – with work coaches having the autonomy to decide how best to interview customers. Equally, due to the changing picture across the rest of society, recognising the risk that lifting restrictions could result in a return to the workplace for many of our members, the GEC has reiterated our further demand that there should be no mass return to offices until the pandemic is under control, and both infection and mortality rates have significantly decreased for a sustained period.

Right now, the trajectory for both is upwards and this, alongside the lifting of important safety measures across society, places our members at greater risk.

The GEC leadership have already made clear to members that they will be supported if they remove themselves from an unsafe working environment using Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, and we will continue to work with branches to identify where there is a collective mood to take action over threats to safety.

The Left Unity led GEC have been at the forefront of prioritising our members safety since the beginning of the pandemic, and we have been in dispute due to the risks faced by our members in Jobcentres since last August. The latest government announcements create the very real possibility that the concerns faced by our members in Jobcentres will now be extended to other directorates, and we have agreed to consult members across the whole group about the threat these developments pose to safety, building on our existing campaign.

Further details will be announced by the GEC in the coming days and weeks.

Campaigns to escalate

As part of this overarching picture, the GEC has agreed a strategy that will place an emphasis on working with branches to build our campaigning from the workplace up. The socialist leadership of our group has always understood that it is critical for that grass roots agitation to take place if we are to be successful in our campaigning, and in any industrial strategy we produce. It should, therefore, be welcomed that the GEC have overwhelmingly agreed both a branch organising plan and a template branch campaign plan, that can be central to our agitational work. Alongside the Sectoral Pay Group Campaign Plan also agreed at the GEC last week, they provide branches and the group with a template to be used across our various campaigns.

If used properly by engaged branches, both plans can be instrumental in building branch and members’ confidence in our ability to win our demands. While generic enough to be used by branches in any local campaigns, they should also prove a valuable resource in our ongoing safety and pay campaigns.

Campaign to win

The Left Unity led GEC have repeatedly argued the importance of membership engagement and the need for us as a group to respond collectively. We have committed to working with every tier of PCS to build our campaigns and to ensure that members have the confidence that we can be successful in achieving our demands.

It is that approach that has served us well throughout the pandemic, has delivered thousands of new staff into DWP, has seen the majority of members be able to work from home despite resistance from operations management, has seen us re-negotiate safeguards and HR policies at each key stage of the crisis, removed the threat of 8pm working in Jobcentres from the table, and delivered the initial rollback to escalation of face to face activity.

The key strategies on organising and campaigning, and the linked plans agreed at last week’s GEC will put us in a strong position to up the ante when, strategically, the time is right.

Sectarianism cannot be allowed to derail our membership campaigns

The GEC has in the last 6 weeks built on existing policy, and the new Left Unity led GEC agreed a number of recommendations at last week’s first full meeting that will help to implement these policies.

Despite these positive steps, and the need to unify our membership to move forward in our campaigning against an irresponsible employer, one which is hellbent on implementing the hostile and draconian policies of this Tory government, we have seen the Socialist Party dominated Broad Left Network (BLN) continue to sow division.

At a time when we must maximise unity, BLN are producing material that bears no resemblance to reality, with unnecessary and unjustified criticism of the LU leadership being the main feature, refusing to acknowledge that everything being put forward by them as ‘additional demands’, was a rehash of existing union policy, proposed by Left Unity and previously agreed by last year’s GEC.

Of course there is no mention of the Group Organising Plan, Branch Campaign Plan or Sectoral Pay Group Campaign Plan – all proposed by the LU leadership and agreed at last week’s GEC – in the BLN material. Just the false narrative that this leadership wants to do nothing to support our members. We should all be shocked and saddened that such important decisions have been omitted from an article purporting to be about a meeting of the DWP Group Executive, but sadly this is all too commonplace, symptomatic of the political degeneration of some.

It must be baffling to many members as to why the BLN faction continue to produce article after article, focusing their opposition and vitriol towards our union leadership, at both national and DWP group level, rather than the real enemy – the Tory government.

Left Unity have a proud tradition of being an open, democratic, socialist organisation, one that welcomes debate and embraces the diverse opinions that members have on a variety of matters. It is this healthy debate that saw PCS become unrecognisable from its predecessor unions, Left Unity having defeated a rabid, undemocratic right-wing leadership, transforming PCS into one of the most progressive and socialist trade unions in our movement.

This was only made possible by welcoming debate and the airing of differences, whilst ultimately understanding who our real enemy is – the successive right-wing governments who impose horrendous conditions on our members and invoke oppressive policies across society.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with disagreement and alternative strategies, but we all have a responsibility to ensure they are based on legitimate, not manufactured, differences.

Left Unity call for unity!

Now is not the time for disingenuous and destructive actions, it is the time to put aside any political, or sectarian, differences and collectively work in the best traditions of our movement, to build a campaign on pay that can win for members, while ensuring we maximise the pressure on DWP to keep our members safe.

The desire by some to bring down Left Unity, and the current leadership, must not be placed above our members’ needs. Winning for our members must be our ultimate goal.

Left Unity, including the GEC leadership, are totally committed to a united approach and call on others to join us in building a positive campaign, to work with us in the best interests of our members.

Martin Cavanagh

DWP Group President (in a personal capacity)