“Now is the time to be combative”

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We spoke to a comrade who is an activist in the civil service union PCS and a member of its National Executive Committee.

How have your union and its activists operated in this crisis?

As you can imagine there’s a wide range of job roles PCS members have; the issues vary from bargaining unit to bargaining unit and within them. In many government departments, particularly in Whitehall, the employers have been slow to provide the kit and support we need to work at home but in general they’ve accepted the principle pretty easily.

In the two big departments delivering Universal Credit and the job retention programme – DWP and HMRC – there’s been a bit of a need to push, as there are a lot of people working from home and management are reluctant to spend the money necessary to set people up properly.

Beyond that however there are many roles and functions which can’t be done from and a lot of workers who are having to work. This creates a particular kind of two-tier workforce. The union is having to fight to make sure work is done as safely as possible. In those cases, which are also generally lower-paid and less privileged workers – including sometimes outsourced ones – employer foot-dragging has been worse and we’ve sometimes had to threaten action to bring them to heel.

PCS has an agreement with the Cabinet Officer that all government-contracted workers, if furloughed, will be on 100pc pay, that if offices are closed they’ll be paid, that they’ll be paid if they have to quarantine, but there are an obscene amount of contracts with different companies and so implementation on the ground was patchy.

In the end, because of the pressure of the situation as well as pressure from the union, the great majority of contractors accepted what they were told. But I think we’re going to see pressure to roll it back, to fall back to 80pc of wages and limit things in other ways, or demand concessions from the government to cover costs.

Among security guards we’re not the recognised union, the GMB are, and it seems they’ve accepted some things that are less than ideal, for instance about people being moved unnecessarily between jobcentres, so we’ve had to take it up.

There’s been a number of unofficial actions about safety issues, when management have been reluctant to do what’s necessary. In HMRC at Salford Quays, there was a case of Covid-19, in fact later a member died, but they refused to close the office, and it took the threat of a walkout for it to happen. DWP workers in Paisley walked out and the office closed.

In the Passport Agency management have tried to insist everything will carry on, but members have argued instead they should have control over which applications are processed – for instance those who need a passport for compassionate reasons – and which aren’t. Management have dug in there and there’ll have to be a discussion about what to do next. In the DVLA we’ve actually won that kind of control: the management were turned over early on and now tests aren’t happening or in some places the driving examiners have drawn up a list of those that can go ahead.

There’s a bizarre situation in the Border Agency where people are being denied PPE, even when they’re coming into contact with people from countries with high infection rates. Some brought in their own PPE and were told they couldn’t wear it as “It would give the wrong impression”. As if the issue is wearing a mask or gloves rather than existing, intimidating military-style uniforms or more to the point the anti-migrant policies and practices the government is pursuing.

Union membership has grown, but not spectacularly. I think it was a thousand a week and now in the hundreds. It’s less to do with increased activity than people just feeling the need – seeing the union acting or just wanting to be part of a solid collective to back them up.

In some areas the employers are taking on more people, certainly in DWP where they recruited hand over fist to cover all the Universal Credit claims. An issue is emerging there about whether they’re allowed to use agencies to recruit, something we’ve opposed.

In terms of deciding about industrial action going forward, unofficial action has major advantages, particularly in the current situation. It means you can move fast, it hits hard, it avoids problems about balloting in the lockdown and I think the reality is that the government doesn’t want these kind of fights at the moment, especially in workplaces they’ve designated as key. However there are risks and I don’t think our union leadership will be very bold this. That doesn’t mean workers aren’t going to continue to take this kind of action.

There is ambiguity about whether organisations like Civica (previously Electoral Reform Services) can still run ballots or not. I know it’s been reported that they don’t feel they can, but that wasn’t my understanding for PCS. It needs clarifying.

What should the labour movement’s broader political response in the crisis be?

Well, straight off we come to the anti-union laws. Whatever the exact situation about the possibilities for balloting those laws are clearly hamstringing us in this situation. We need to take that up again and relaunch campaigning for them to be overturned.

I’m interested in developing the elements of workers’ control I described above and seeing how that can be expanded in this crisis.

More broadly, there’s going to be a vast amount of social turmoil created by this. The economic and social fallout is going to be enormous. The benefits system needs thoroughly transforming so it actually supports people. In the short term that might involve some form of a Basic Income to get money to people fast, but there are much wider issues of how the system works and treats people.

Under a bit of pressure but fundamentally because they were worried about their system collapsing, the government has resorted to a kind of crude economic planning, backed up by massive public spending. That begs the question of public ownership. There is no money or less money to be made in public services at the moment; things have to be operated by the government to keep going. We should forcefully assert demands for public jobs, public provision, public ownership to be majorly expanded.

We also have to raise the question about how public organisations are run, whether it’s a centralised state thing or whether as I would advocate an important element of power and control lies with workers in these institutions and those they are serving.

Both on immediate workplace issues and the wider demands, now is the time for unions and the labour movement to be combative as we have leverage we may not have later on. To some extent that leverage is being used but a lot of is being squandered by unions pursuing policies of class collaboration and accepting the government’s argument that we’re all in it together. We need to be much bolder. If we don’t push hard the employers will start to push us back and then after all this we’ll be coming under attack in a very bad situation, opening the way to horrendous austerity.

Some, even on the left, are arguing that now isn’t the time to demand, because we’ll look selfish and so on. That kind of argument is almost always wrong, but it is totally out of step with the current situation, both in terms of the need to fight and actually the positive way the public see workers providing essential services.

We’ve got an NEC meeting coming up and Independent Left members will be pushing for strong responses across the board.

Where do you see the Labour Party as being after the leadership election?

Measure Starmer against what I advocated above. I’ve not heard him demand anything much beyond talking about an “exit strategy”, and his argument seems to be that it will be good for small businesses being able to reopen. So it’s not just lacklustre, it’s supporting fundamentally the wrong class of people! If we get what Starmer wants, workers will be put at risk.

Forget about workers’ control or public ownership, they’re not even demanding stronger immediate support for people, like exposing the holes of the job retention scheme or raising the suspension of rents. They seem to be basically agreeing with Sunak, but saying the details need looking at.

The result is huge open goals being missed, for instance not raising demands on the NHS and social care. They’re not saying anything about the right to strike either.

This is very bad, obviously, but it also strikes me as stupid even in their own terms. The Tories are riding high in the polls.

They’re also being really weak on Brexit. We have this surreal situation where the main bourgeois party that has built itself on the image of being a pair of safe hands is about to massively sabotage the economy, and the main opposition party claims to speak for workers and also wants to be seen as competent – but won’t oppose this.

It’s not just an economic issue either. In the crises that are looming, for instance around climate change, we’re going to see big movements of people and it is totally wrong for socialists to support closing our borders to people who are escaping disaster. A hard Brexit gives people like Priti Patel and Dominic Raab and the hard right of the Tory party the opportunity to accelerate their cherished agenda of Fortress Britain and that’s something we must oppose.

If we do have a destructive hard Brexit in January, the big capitalists won’t like it, they’ll soak it up and some will make money, but there’ll be terrible misery for millions of workers. All socialists and trade unionists should oppose this whatever their wider views on Brexit.

From my point of view, however, we need to demand an extension but also re-raise the question of whether leaving the EU is right at all. We should be unapologetic about this, take the opportunity and keep kicking Brexit until it breaks.

Why do you think Starmer and co are so reticent about this specifically?

Are you surprised? Starmer has been part of Labour triangulating on this ever since the referendum, and it’s part of his general stance of not really opposing the Tories.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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