Updated: Mar 4
PCS members in HMRC voted in favour of Pay and Contract Reform by an overwhelming margin. 79.6% in favour on an 82.4% turnout.
A decisive result, a lack of alternative
The result is a reflection not of how great the offer was, but of how the union leadership in HMRC has singularly failed over many years to build PCS as a fighting force that can credibly take on management.
There has been no visible challenge to the two-tier workforce in the department, meaning that not only were there members working side by side in the same roles with wildly different conditions (and often pay rates, too), but there was absolutely no sense that this was being challenged. Unsurprisingly, therefore, those members saw this offer as the only game in town to improve their lot.
At the same time, even as a lot of members on traditional contracts voiced their anger over the offer, many more felt that such a change was inevitable and therefore it was better coming with a pay rise. The employer’s forums made it clear that workers felt contractual changes were going to happen regardless – not even in reference to the possibility of ‘fire and rehire’, but simply because they didn’t think there was any force that could resist the employer’s wishes in that regard.
The argument from powerlessness, and the idea that the union simply could not resist change by the employer (let alone win improvements without a trade-off) was decisive. Add onto that the use of an electronic ballot in an environment where everything is being done digitally and a relentless propaganda barrage by the employer, and in a sense the result was inevitable.
What comes next doesn’t have to be.
Fight for the union we need
Some members may well feel utterly betrayed by the union and on that basis decide to leave. Others may feel that now that they have voted for this offer there is nothing else the union has to offer, and similarly leave. Many more who remain in the union will be reduced to passivity – either from a feeling of defeat or because the Group leadership has spent months embedding the lesson that their role is to wait patiently for news and then vote when required on the basis of a recommendation from the top.
All of this is entirely counter to what a union should be. It is reflective of a passive and paternalistic culture those running the Group (and the wider union) have worked hard to embed over at least a decade. It is crucial that we resist it.
Even if you agree with the offer and voted for it, the process isn’t over yet. Many of the changes in the offer are policy changes, and the detail of those is still to be worked out. With this offer meaning the end of collective agreements like the MIS Agreement, PFW Agreement and more (crucial to ensuring we cannot be micro-managed and over-monitored, among other things), there is now the need to negotiate what will replace them. Beyond that, one pay offer for three years does not change HMRC’s management culture or make it suddenly more benevolent.
For all of those reasons, we still need a union – even if we don’t need its current leadership. The question then becomes: what happens next? Do we leave PCS as the union unable to resist attacks by the employer over years and passive to the creation of a two-tier workforce through new contracts – or do we fight to build a different kind of union?
Here are a few simple but crucial things we believe need to change in our union.
The PCS briefing around the pay ballot suggests that thousands of members have joined to have their say. However, the number of eligible members in the ballot still only represents 52% of staff in the department.
In December, only 48% of staff were members, and that was the result of a consistent decline over many years. It would be great if the joining rate that saw our density grow by 4% in two months continued now the ballot is over, but this is highly unlikely without something to offer.
Imagine if we had 52% of staff (or more!) as union members before the negotiations started, we would have had a better chance at being successful in our demands. If we had 52% of staff that were actively engaged and confident in their union, the threat of marching over half the workforce out on strike would have given us a lot more leverage.
When the membership doesn’t have confidence that anything is possible, it is a resounding and overwhelming indictment on our leadership.
Membership confidence is not something that is built overnight, but something that takes a long time and hard work to develop. Then work needs to be done to maintain that confidence.
Do we believe that PCS would win extra pay, without staff having to give something in return? Unions did it in the past, why can’t we do it again?
We disagree with secret negotiations. Members have the right to draw the union’s battle lines and demand that negotiators don’t cross them. In the PACR negotiations, not even our elected GEC were able to draw the lines for the negotiators.
We believe members should be consulted at each and every stage of the negotiations.
National Pay Campaign
We must question the merits of taking over 33,000 PCS members out of the national pay campaign for the next two years. One of the largest groups in the union being out of the campaign seriously weakens the union’s credibility in making demands of Government. Is it really a national pay campaign when one of the largest departments is not actively involved in building that industrial leverage?
Next steps for us?
We will not win the things we should have demanded from the start without building a fighting union. Our union leadership always says that we are a fighting union, but the industrial impotence that we have at the moment is as a result of poor leadership.
This is why members need to take control of the union. This isn’t about just standing in elections to have a fighting voice at the table, but it is actually about building real union power in our workplaces by standing together with our colleagues against the employer.
Contact us to get involved with the Rank & File Network.
Read more about our candidates in the GEC elections.