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Pay and Contract Reform: The argument from powerlessness

Updated: Mar 3

One of the most pervasive arguments being made for accepting the Pay and Contract Reform offer is that the union doesn’t have the power to fight for something better. This is perhaps the hardest position to challenge, and that it holds such weight signals the failure of the current union leadership in building the union.


The employer and the government are responsible for the austerity policies, attacks on pay and conditions, sweeping job cuts and union busting efforts we have seen since 2010. The union leadership, however, have failed to deliver serious resistance to this situation. As a result, our membership density is at an all time low, membership confidence in our collective strength even lower, and there is no plan to rebuild and resist.


Membership decline despite workforce growth


Cuts to the workforce due to austerity and efforts to break the union have undoubtedly had an effect on PCS membership. The removal of the check-off system for paying subscriptions through payroll forced activists to effectively re-recruit the entire membership in the Direct Debit campaign, and that Herculean effort cannot be commended enough. That not everybody re-joined and our density dipped as a result was perhaps inevitable.


What was not inevitable was the lack of any coordinated effort to build on the success of that campaign. When the employer’s union busting strategy was leaked, the leadership declared that they would resist this with all their might. They singularly failed to do so, and instead were on the verge of signing an agreement in 2015 that would have stopped them fighting attacks such as office closures in return for leading activists having their facilities time restored. Ironically, it was the announcement of the Building Our Future programme to close all 170 offices and move everyone to regional centres that saw this proposed agreement vanish into the memory hole.


Despite much noise made about opposing closures and the swathes of job losses that would result, the leadership and their factional allies voted down proposals at Conference for Group-wide industrial action. HMRC’s plans inevitably changed, and some offices stayed open longer than planned whilst the number of long-term sites grew, but across the UK long-standing offices were shut and long-standing members left the job and the union. Meanwhile, the union has failed to recoup those losses through sustainable growth in the new centres.


Union density in HMRC now sits at roughly 48%, with most of that membership rooted in lower grades, longer-serving members, the Customer Service Group, and the sites facing closure – in other words, those with more to lose from the PACR offer.


The 50% threshold and evaporating momentum


Twice, the national union has failed to surpass the restrictive 50% turnout threshold for industrial action ballots. This has reduced the national campaign on pay to one of lobbying and publicity, which a majority Tory government is wholly unsympathetic to.


Despite the again heroic effort of activists to deliver high turnouts, there was a lack of any proper lead-in to those ballots, and coordination of activity all but ceased once the vote ended until it was time to do it again. This is because, despite claiming to be an organising union, the PCS leadership is still wedded to mobilising – viewing the activists and membership as a force to be ‘activated’ when needed and left alone when not – rather than a culture of ongoing activity that builds the confidence of members and their collective power in the workplace.


This same mentality is why, despite the turnout of HMRC Group in those ballots exceeding 50%, the leadership saw fit to do nothing with the leverage that provided. The employer held the prospect of a PACR offer over the union’s head for nearly two years before talks started, and although there was a consultation which led to the leadership declaring that they recognised how highly members value their terms and conditions (a position which in light of the offer has not aged well) there was literally nothing else. No attempt to formulate demands for positive improvements, no agitation ready for the possibility of fighting any proposed detriments.


Instead, the leadership waited and waited and finally went into secret talks for six months. They viewed telling workers that they had to join the union in order to get a say on the offer as an adequate substitute for serious organising and agitation. Even the Group Executive Committee was kept in the dark until a decision was necessary – and then provided copies of the proposed collective agreement only at the eleventh hour and harried to make a positive decision.


Those running the Group point to the sizeable influx of new members for the ballot as proof that their approach has worked. The sustainability of that membership growth is not mentioned, nor that Employee Relations know the union’s weak membership position and have been engaged with PCS and ARC about this.


In short, even the flawed mobilising approach has now been abandoned in favour of the utterly humiliating position of seeking the employer’s help to recruit and grow.


There is an alternative


Once upon a time, it was the union leadership who were challenging the governmental narrative that there is no alternative to their policies. Now they are the ones saying we’re out of other options than to accept what’s in front of us, and (whilst not accepting their culpability for it) they invoke the argument from weakness as much as those who post so enthusiastically on Departmental Yammer forums.


However, trade union power is not a once-and-done thing. The leadership’s acceptance of the principle of secret negotiations and letting them roll on for so long without member engagement would have made it much harder – had the GEC voted to recommend opposition to the offer – to build a campaign framed around demanding the positive aspects of the offer and resisting the detriments given the insistence that everything is off the table at the end of March. But this wouldn’t have meant it was impossible.


As that hasn’t happened, we’re stuck with the situation that the offer is being recommended by the union and the employer. What we need to look at, then, is what ought to happen once the ballot is over.


If the offer is accepted, unfortunately the more likely scenario, then what we face is an exodus of members. Many of those who lose out and have already been voicing across various forums their discontent with the union for recommending the offer are likely to jump ship, and there will also be those who have joined purely to vote who will then leave again once that is done. This means that we need to rebuild the union in an environment where much of the potential membership feels betrayed by PCS or alternatively feels that it has served its purpose.


Challenging this will feel like an uphill struggle. But one accepted offer doesn’t remove issues of contention in the workplace or reasons that people feel fed up or frustrated with their lot. The task is to turn frustration into anger, to build a coherent set of positive demands we can agitate and fight for and to argue for an alternative to the present union leadership. None of this is simple or straightforward, but it never was, and it was looking for cheap shortcuts that got us into this position to begin with.


If the offer is rejected, this task is much the same, but there is one key difference: we already know what members want. Division in the workforce will likely be just as bitter in either scenario, but rejection at least offers us the chance to demand the positives we know HMRC can deliver (universal flexi, faster leave progression, and so on) without detriments like increased unsocial working and leave reductions. We can do what the current leadership has failed to do over two decades: reject the two-tier workforce and organise in favour of a levelling up to best practice terms and conditions for all.


Leadership change and culture change


None of this can happen overnight, but it is unlikely to happen at all under the current leadership. The last decade has been one of defeat, and they are relying on the PACR offer and employer cooperation as a salve for those wounds. It isn’t even a short-term answer, let alone a serious long-term one.


PCS’s culture needs to change. We need to become an organising union in more than just name, we need democratic accountability in the union’s full time officers, we need to develop and mentor a new generation of activists rather than letting the same old face cling to positions in perpetuity, and we need a leadership willing to put the members front and centre at the bargaining table rather than shut them out and keep the employer’s confidence. Voting in different members of the Group Executive Committee isn’t enough on its own to achieve that, but it is a crucial start to tearing down the barriers the union has placed in the way of its own effectiveness and real workplace power as well as .


That is why we’re asking you to support PCS Rank & File Network candidates for the GEC – but also to get involved in the network to help organise for real union power in your workplace and branch!


Click here to get involved in the network.


Our candidates for the GEC:


Deputy Secretary

Phil Dickens

Assistant Secretary

Richard Jones, Pete Smullen

Group Executive Committee

Phil Dickens, Dave Gibbons, Georgina Griffith, Nigel Hesdon, Richard Jones, Helen Sheridan, Pete Smullen, Christine Spinks, Annette Wright

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