PCS members working for ISS as cleaners in HMRC’s Merseyside offices have returned a 100% vote for strike action. They are due to strike initially on 15 and 16 July for a living wage, improved terms and conditions and guarantees around job security.
This same group of workers took action back in 2016, again with a 100% strike vote, which forced their employer to reverse cuts to their hours which had been made to offset increases in the minimum wage. ISS also settled out of court to pay back the money members lost before cuts were reversed and in doing so admitted that the negative press attention from the strikes had forced their hand.
Similar disputes around outsourced workers are also happening in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), where Interserve workers have been striking over pay and attacks on terms and conditions, and BEIS, where escalation of the dispute with ISS and Aramark now includes one group of workers moving to an indefinite strike.
These disputes are happening in the wider context of successive victories for precarious workers in a number of areas. Action by new unions like United Voices of the World (UVW), Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU) have shone a spotlight on the pay and conditions for cleaners, security guards, cycle couriers and others across London in particular but also wider.
These disputes, and the victories they rack up, can give confidence to other workers that it is possible to fight and win. That won’t occur in a vacuum, however, and we all have a role to play in linking up different groups of workers in order to spread the threat of a good example.
The task for PCS now has to be to spread these disputes of facilities management workers and build towards a more generalised fight against outsourcing. That will require coordination across the union and dedicated resources to support organising efforts in branches.
In the meantime, however, it is crucial that we engage in this organising work wherever we are able. Many reps are of course already extremely busy in their own work areas, not to mention the day job itself, which is why wherever possible we need to keep in contact with and support each other to lighten the load.
The PCS Rank & File Network includes organisers who are actively involved in this work and more than willing to offer what support they can. Please get in touch if we can help.
Advice for organising outsourced workers
What follows is not a comprehensive blueprint for organising outsourced workers. The specifics of your organising campaign will depend on how things look on the ground – the demographics, the issues the workers face, the history of union involvement, and so on. But the points below hopefully offer a useful starting point for an organising campaign that can build towards disputes like those in HMRC, BEIS and the FCO.
Like all organising, organising with facilities workers fundamentally comes down to mapping the workforce and having one to one conversations. Mapping is vital as it allows us to identify who the workers are that the campaign is targeting and to make our recruitment efforts more systematic, whilst of course talking one to one allows us to draw out the issues that matter to the workers and of course to ask them to take action that gets them a step more involved than they were previously.
There is plenty written on the basics of organising elsewhere, which we don’t intend to repeat here. PCS’s training modules on mapping and charting, one on one conversations, identifying workplace leaders, and so on, are highly recommended for any reps who feel they aren’t familiar enough with these methods.
Building the workplace committee
Whilst it is good to develop some of these outsourced workers into reps where possible, we wouldn’t suggest then creating a reps committee to act on the members’ behalf. This will only succeed in separating off the reps from the wider membership and removing the members from decision making around the issues that directly affect them.
Instead, it is worth trying to build what the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW) calls a workplace or shop committee. This committee isn’t elected or limited in the number of people on it, but rather grows as the workplace organisation becomes stronger. Initially, this committee would be made of the workers most willing to get active in the organising campaign, but as more workers are drawn into the campaign it would grow to encompass (hopefully) the whole workforce.
This approach may be seen as unwieldy with an office of several hundred civil servants, but is ideally suited to the smaller groups of facilities management staff that this work typically involves.
Building up this type of committee rather than the traditional reps committee also means that you give the affected workers a direct say in the shape and direction of the campaign at every step. This doesn’t mean just the big things like whether to move to a ballot, but all of the details which take the struggle forward.
This means that the workers are more engaged with the union and the campaign, as it isn’t something a third party is doing on their behalf but something they are actively doing for themselves. This also builds their confidence and increases the amount of active participation in the union.
Beyond taking the decisions on what happens in the organising campaign, as far as practical the workers should be the ones trusted to put it into practice. Of course, there may be certain specific steps that have to be done by a rep or a full time officer for various reasons, but beyond that the workers are the best placed to run their campaign.
Of course, the first thing they do to increase their participation is to join the union and be a part of the workplace committee. After that they can talk to their colleagues in order to recruit them, assist in mapping the workplace, help hand out leaflets, and so on. Every activity that they haven’t previously participated in builds their confidence and builds them as an activist.
The other thing that this approach achieves is that it lightens your own workload, and allows you to help these workers organise without taking on more than you can manage.
Unlike working for employers who recognise the union, for these workers “going public” with a campaign is a conscious choice and can have real repercussions. Particularly if the employer has a reputation for union busting.
The workplace committee should take the decision collectively of when to announce to the bosses that there is an organising campaign. This will be a judgment call, but will generally be at the point when all or the majority of workers are part of the union and ready to move towards a ballot.
Navigating the union bureaucracy
Once the workers decide that they are ready to be balloted for industrial action, in order to make that happen you need to navigate PCS’s internal procedures. Beyond strike ballots and other activity with deadlines and rules imposed by the law, it is usually far easier to avoid the bureaucracy than contend with it, but as that isn’t the case here we want to ensure activists are equipped to deal with it.
The process for getting a strike ballot and taking industrial action isn’t readily available on the PCS website, or otherwise publicised by the union’s officials, which is why we are laying it out below.
Get ballot ready – This is what all of the above organising activity is about. Once you’re in a strong position to deliver a decisive ballot result and strong action, then you’re ready to go. This is generally the point at which you would “go public.”
Issue demands to the employer – Before you can ballot, you need to have a trade dispute with the employer. This means that you have formally written to them to set out members’ demands, and they have either failed to respond or have refused to meet your demands by a deadline that you set.
Make a submission to the National Disputes Committee (NDC) - The NDC has to authorise all industrial action and ballots in PCS. To get their authorisation, the relevant full time official (the National Officer) needs to send them a completed submission form, and this is the most common cause of delays or blockages in the process. We would advise that you complete the form and send it to your Group Secretary, but copy in the secretary of the NDC in order to ensure they are aware of it and that your submission doesn’t disappear into a black hole at Group level. The email address for the NDC secretary is in the form, whilst you can find out contact details for the Group Secretary through the relevant pages of the PCS website. On the form itself, you can find guidance for filling in all of the relevant sections. This includes detailing the steps you have taken to raise your demands with the employer and to establish the will of the members for a dispute, evidence of the latter being their participation in the workplace committee and ideally also a hand vote in favour of going to a ballot. Where possible, you should give the NDC advance notice that you are building towards a ballot and will make a submission in due course.
Chase up – In order to avoid unnecessary delays, it is best to set reminders to follow up on your submission with the union, and to keep doing so until you have confirmation that the ballot will go ahead and a timetable for that.
Don’t organise alone!
Be sure to work with other activists from your branch and neighbouring branches wherever possible, and as stated the PCS Rank & File Network is more than willing to offer what help and support we can.