Yesterday, the Public and Commercial Services union announced that strike action due to be taken by HM Revenue & Customs workers on Monday had been suspended. This supposedly followed "significant progress" in negotiations with the employer. The reality is quite different, in a campaign that has been mismanaged (at best) for coming on two years.
Firstly, some background. The current dispute in HMRC actually began life as three separate disputes - over job cuts and office closures, the imposition of strict sickness absence measures, and the "trial" use of private sector companies to take calls on two sites. They were officially rolled into one campaign with a ballot around the time of the PCS Annual Delegate Conference, though this had been in the pipeline since the Revenue & Customs Group Executive Committee became aware of just how pissed off lay reps were with the way things were being handled.
It was last February when HMRC imposed new, stricter sickness absence procedures on its staff. PCS was not consulted on the measures and viewed them as "totally unacceptable." A positive strike ballot led to walkouts on the 7th and 8th June.
However, not long after that, industrial action was suspended on the promise of further talks. Nothing concrete was offered and, indeed, nothing was gained - bringing industrial action back on the cards in December. This in itself was a massive cock-up, as the momentum gained from the walkouts (and supplemented by the 30th June pensions strike) was pissed away for a wink and a prayer. But, of course, the union had rectified what for them was the real issue - they had a seat at the negotiating table again.
As the GEC considered strike action again, another issue came up. HMRC was contracting call centre work out to two private sector companies - Sitel and Teleperformance - in a 12-month "pilot." However, despite reaffirming the union's policy of opposition to privatisation, the GEC were in this instance prepared to accept a series of weak "assurances" from HMRC, including that "PCS will be kept fully informed and updated throughout the trial" and asked only that Branches "collate views and concerns from your members."
This caused an uproar, particularly amongst contact centre reps, angry at negotiators soft-peddling the issue. The GEC was forced to admit that there was a demand for industrial action and ballot. But with their concern clearly with maintaining their role as a credible negotiating partner rather than putting up an effective fight, they found ways to play down the action.
The action over privatisation was a three-hour walkout for HMRC members in the Personal Tax directorate. The action over sickness policy was a two-hour walkout for all HMRC members. In a particular stroke of genius, both were called for the same time on the same day! Aside from effectively halving the disruption for the employer, this also created the horrendous situation whereby those not in Personal Tax had to cross the picket line of those who were when their walkout was over.
The sickness dispute then effectively disappeared from view, whilst PCS members in Personal Tax staged a further walkout in mid-January, followed by a one day strike at the end of the month. The latter was the worst experience of my time as a militant worker, having to stand on the picket whilst a hundred plus people had to cross it because they hadn't been balloted. Nor was I the only one, as anger over this as well as how the disputes of the past year had been handled forced the GEC to pull all ongoing issues into one HMRC-wide dispute1.
This renewed dispute came with four key demands:
- There are no further job cuts
- There are no compulsory redundancies or moves of staff beyond reasonable daily travel
- Privatisation trials in contact centres are brought to an immediate end
- Consideration points are removed from the attendance management policy
Following debate at conference, the strategy for achieving these demands was also agreed: strike action, followed by an escalating campaign of action short of strike over the period of a month, with further strikes to follow if the four demands above were not met. Hardly the most militant strategy in the world, but certainly a step up from what had gone before and radical enough on its own terms. But it was beset by problems.
The logistical issues that arose such as leaflets arriving late, though annoying, cannot be put down to anything more than human error. But tied into them were other problems which clearly demonstrated that the GEC's heart was not in the fight.
There was small stuff, such as when promise of a variety of literature to meet the needs of different branches and staff in different circumstances, as well as for public campaigning, never materialised. There were also big issues, such as "asking members to take strike action throughout the week at specific times and in specific areas" becoming a two-hour walkout on Monday morning and on Friday afternoon - times when significant numbers across the department either wouldn't be in work anyway or could choose not to be in work thanks to flexible working arrangements, thereby circumventing the strike.
All of the above, in itself, is a two-year-long catalogue of errors. Equal parts sheer ineptitude and the interest of the union to maintain its seat at the table over-riding the interests of members to stop their conditions being eroded and their jobs being cut. On its own, this lays bare the reality of a "fighting left leadership" in a union where an active rank-and-file movement is largely absent.
But then, HMRC made a last minute offer.
Thanks to delivery problems, my branch was handing out leaflets announcing the strike (a week after it was actually decided upon) as the GEC met and decided that the action should be suspended. This just gave an ironic flavour to what was, ultimately, another case of the union maintaining the balance between the workers' needs and the bosses' trust by selling a managed defeat as a victory.
It's true that there have been a number of concessions granted. I cannot discount the hard work of reps and members on the ground in campaigning against austerity and giving the campaign life and momentum almost despite the GEC. However, it remains that most of the tangible gains listed as reasons for calling off the strike are also listed in the flyer we were handing out as important successes but not enough to meet our key demands.
On said key demands, HMRC has given "commitments" and there will be "detailed discussions." Much as there were when the sickness dispute was suspended, a cynic might think, with the only result being that the momentum is wiped out when the dispute resumes. The improvement in the position of temporary staff2 is something that was likely to happen anyway with the increased investment of jobs mentioned on the leaflets arguing for a strike.
As for "giving PCS full involvement in the evaluation of the trials," this is where HMRC really has made a concession. Except it is a concession that allows the GEC to backtrack on its own concessions to workers' anger. After all, this was where the union planned to be before it was forced to actively dispute the privatisation issue. It is a tacit acceptance of private sector contractors being used, as long as the union maintains the privilege of having a say on how this happens. Which might suit PCS, but not those members who have to suffer a second tier of workers undercutting their pay and conditions whilst their union has "full involvement."
What this proves, ultimately, is that even with pressure from below to act in our interests the union tops will still have designs that rival our own. This is not because of their character or their politics, and I know a number on the GEC who I get along with great on a personal level and who consider themselves socialists. It is because of the position they hold within the structure of the trade union as a legal entity and that said position ultimately requires meeting the material interests of that structure.
We do not need new faces in the same positions. We do not need those people lobbied and pressured to act the right way. We need the rank-and-file of the workforce to organise and act for itself, outflanking the union leadership from below. This will force the leadership leftward to a degree but, more importantly, it will give workers the confidence and the power to leave those same leaders behind altogether.
Reaching such a point is not a simple task. It requires a lot of hard work and organising by militants in the workplace, practically from scratch in most places. But until such work is done, sell outs such as the one witnessed by Revenue & Customs workers are all that we can reasonably expect.
- 1. In addition, it is also true to say that the national union's use of already ongoing group disputes to present a "programme of action" to disguise that they were winding down the pensions dispute added to the imperative for reviving disputes that might otherwise have been left to die.
- 2. "TFTA" stands for Temporary Fixed Term Appointment - the distinction between a TFTA and an FTA largely being invented by the Cabinet Office to put those deemed as TFTAs in a more precarious employment position.