Winning on pay: a view from the grassroots

Between 18 March and 29 April, PCS will be balloting civil servants for industrial action over deepening pay injustice.

The strictest anti-union laws in the west require a 50% turnout for the ballot to count. Despite a heroic effort by activists, and both the highest national turnout and national yes vote in PCS’s history, we fell short in the last vote. That cannot be the case this time.


One of the immediate responses to the last vote, amongst some activists, was anger towards those who didn’t vote. Whilst understandable, this doesn’t actually achieve anything.

A saying from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) actually points to the truth of the matter. “Some workers will know the union, some will hear the union, but others have to see the union.” Those workers who ‘know the union’ attended pay meetings and voted almost without having to be asked. Those workers who ‘hear the union’ voted once they got the leaflets, had a conversation with a rep, and so on. But the larger mass of workers need to ‘see the union’ – they need to see for themselves that organising works and is worthwhile. They’re the non-voters, and it’s not on them to be converted, but on us to reach them.

Far less understandable, in the aftermath of the last pay ballot and the lead up to this one, was how it became a proxy for factional in-fighting. This made it more difficult to have the necessary, serious debate over strategy and tactics and, frankly, it is only that this stuff happens a world away from the majority of members that prevented it making PCS look like a bad joke.

There’s no point going into any detail on that here, as it is a sideshow.

Lessons learned

Despite the factional nonsense, there are a number of important and useful differences in this ballot to the last.

Firstly, the pay claim. 10% is hardly a radical figure, and it does nothing to address the structural pay inequalities across the civil service (there is a notional demand to do so, but it remains divorced from the actual figure we’re asking for and will likely be lost in the wash). However, it is underpinned by the call for a £10 per hour (£11.55 in London) living wage – effectively a 28% pay raise for the lowest paid. Not only does this claim actually address pay loss over the last decade, it changes the conversation. Our claims should be aspirational rather than (to use the conservative term) ‘realistic’. After all, if we can’t demand what we deserve in the abstract, what chance is there we’ll actually win it?

Other changes are smaller, but far more crucial. The promised branch app, which shows in real time who has either let ERS tell us they’ve voted or who confirms they’ve voted when asked, makes it even easier than last time to map the vote and target those who haven’t.

This will be absolutely vital to achieving a high turnout, and it’s exactly what the best organised branches did last time around.

Organising on the ground

Being well organised is exactly what success will come down to in this ballot, and seeing this union become well organised from the grassroots up is exactly what the PCS HMRC Rank & File Network is aiming for. Fundamentally, winning the ballot in each workplace will come down to these few things:

One to one conversations: Whether at their desk, at the tea point or out in the smoking area, we need to speak to every single member in the workplace. This is our chance to see what they think of the pay campaign, and any other issues, and what they remain to be convinced about. It also needs to end with an ‘ask’: will they update their details? Will they speak to a colleague about joining the union? Will they vote? Will they help us with the campaign, even in a small way? It’s good practice to get together and practice responding to what members could say with each other as these could be difficult conversations. Remember to support one another and listen to criticisms.

Mapping the vote: Workplace mapping should be a fundamental part of union activity. Knowing who the members are, where they are, who can be relied on to help and who is hostile to what we’re doing, and so on. It’s also what makes those one to one conversations systematic rather than scattergun. Branch Officers and PCS staff can do a ‘walk around’ the office and ask everyone they find to vote but (presuming they aren’t barred from doing so when the employer shuts down free association during the ballot) they’ll likely be asking the same cluster of people every time they do so. If all reps and advocates have a ‘patch’ they’re responsible for, ideally around where they work, they can chase up those who get missed, prompt those who’ve yet to vote, and keep chasing to boost the turnout. This is what will push us over the top, ultimately.

Leaflets: Standing outside the office handing out flyers is no substitute for mapping the vote, but it’s still important. It is a useful prompt for those who ‘know the union’ and ‘hear the union’ and it makes the campaign that much more visible. This should happen continually throughout the campaign, and ideally branches should supplement national leaflets with their own material.

Supporting one another: None of us, especially in areas that are better organised, should be too parochial during this campaign. Yes, we need to win in our own workplaces, but we should also look beyond and help other branches where we can. We should be actively involved in town committees. We should use the networks that modern technology gives us to talk to and support other activists across the country. We should share resources.

There will be many branches who are on top of this already. The union’s organising department is also developing materials aimed at giving all reps the confidence to organise in the workplace. Their approach to mapping, identifying workplace leaders, structure tests and taking direct action drawn from the ideas of US union organiser Jane McAlevey, who in turn draws it from the likes of the Wobblies, the Black Panthers and others. These aren’t new ideas. However, they are ideas a lot of us need to relearn.

There are still enough people at the top of the union, in both the lay structures and the full time officer cadres, who remain dismissive of this approach. It’s just “Bernie Sanders stuff,” to quote one derisive reaction to it. Then, at branch level, there are hardworking and committed activists floundering. Their branch densities are low, there aren’t enough other reps to support them, and they’re drowning in personal casework, and so on.

The reasons for this are many. The union’s conversion to an organising model in practice is belated and far from universal. Support from full time officers can be scattergun, with periodic ‘blitzes’ but nothing systematic. An older generation of union reps have had it drilled into them that negotiations and casework are the priority and organising is secondary. Departments like HMRC have ripped branches apart and rid themselves of huge numbers of experienced activists through office closure programmes whose opposition has little to no central coordination. Perhaps you can come up with a host of additional causes.

Regardless of the reasons, our choice is simple. We let those things be the reason for our defeat, or we use the four week build up and the six week ballot period to get as organised as we can and win the ballot. If we do it right, along the way we will draw more workers into union activity and lay the foundations for the longer term task of building real workplace power.

Contact the PCS HMRC Rank & File Network for support in organising where you are or if you want to get more involved.

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