Public sector workers are facing attacks across the board: on jobs, pay, and conditions; and over health and safety in the workplace. Socialist Appeal spoke to president of the PCS union, Fran Heathcote, about the struggles that lie ahead.

Public sector workers are facing attacks across the board: on jobs, pay, and conditions; and over health and safety in the workplace. Socialist Appeal spoke to president of the PCS union, Fran Heathcote, about the struggles that lie ahead.

Workplace struggles are breaking out all across the UK, as workers begin to move into action.

As part of the public sector, members of PCS (the Public and Commercial Services Union) are being hammered by the pay freeze and other Tory attacks. This comes alongside concerns over health and safety, due to the callous risk-taking of management when it comes to the COVID crisis.

PCS also represents workers in the culture and museums sector, who have mobilised and taken strike action over the last year in defence of jobs and conditions.

Socialist Appeal recently spoke with PCS President Fran Heathcote about the challenges the union faces in the period ahead.

Socialist Appeal: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Fran. The COVID pandemic has obviously made things very difficult from the perspective of union organising and activity. How has PCS dealt with these challenges?

Fran Heathcote: Well, we had to adapt very fast when the pandemic hit, to ensure that we could support and keep in touch with all our members; reach out and offer advice; and also recruit those workers not yet in a union.

We developed our digital technology so that we could offer better membership support. This  included expert legal advice – particularly in respect of health and safety legislation – to make sure that members felt protected by PCS, throughout what has been a very uncertain time.

PCS pay rise

One size really doesn't fit all across the civil service. We have members who have worked from home since the pandemic started; others have been going into the office throughout.

We have actually learnt a lot from all of this though. And we are now reviewing our approach on a number of fronts to make sure that we learn lessons from what we have done, and hopefully come out of it stronger and better organised.

SA: We have already seen PCS members move into action to defend themselves, most notably at the DVLA offices in Swansea. Broadly speaking, what other battles do you see on the horizon for the union?

FH: The members at DVLA Swansea have been fantastic, and we are determined to give them every support to successfully resolve their dispute. But there are a number of other big concerns right now.

We start a consultative ballot next week over safety for our members working in jobcentres, and the government's drive to get ‘back to normal’ without adequate safety measures being put into place – either for PCS members or for claimants. I think that this will be just one of a range of battles over safety in the period ahead.

Then we have our ongoing campaigns over the public sector pay freeze, the government's latest attack on our pensions, and their attempt to water down our redundancy terms, despite an embarrassing loss for them in the courts. 

We know that the Tories are seeking a return to austerity. In fact, austerity never really ended – although they want to call it something else, in their attempts to make workers pay for the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

The Tories’ obsession with handing out lucrative private sector contracts to their mates – for what is public sector work – spells trouble for our members. And I have no doubt these attacks will continue as long as Johnson and his cronies are in power.

The public sector is being hit particularly hard. So we know that we'll be in for some big challenges over the period ahead on a whole number of fronts.

SA: Given that our class will be attacked on all fronts in the coming period, the struggle clearly can't be left to one union alone, however well organised. How can unions support one another in the struggle to overcome these attacks? What role can PCS play in generalising this fightback across the union movement?

FH: PCS – with its Left Unity leadership – have long been advocates of joined up, coordinated action. We have always argued that we should join up our struggles with other unions, wherever possible; that we are strongest when we fight together; and that if we are all in dispute over the same, or broadly similar issues, that it makes absolute sense to coordinate our campaigns.

The pensions dispute in 2011 – where 30 unions joined together against the government's attacks – gave us a glimpse of what was possible. Now, of course, we know that didn't end with the outcome we all wanted. But it doesn't stop us always seeking to build the most well-coordinated, joined-up campaigns possible.

It is why PCS works as closely as we can with other unions in the movement, and with campaign groups – so that there is no room for the division that can easily build up, and so that we strive to strengthen our position through well organised campaigns. 

SA: Finally, the NEC elections for the union are now underway. What are Left Unity's priorities for the NEC, given the things we've discussed?

Well, obviously at this time our key priority has to be fighting to keep everyone safe; fighting for improvements to pay, pensions, and conditions; and fighting to defend jobs and the good quality services that we provide. So that's a lot of fighting!

We know the period ahead will be hard. Members need a leadership with the experience and strength to stand up for them – but also one with the ability to negotiate for them, and the commitment to get the best for them.

The stakes this year are very high. And that's why I would urge all of those with a vote to support all Democracy Alliance candidates in these elections.