As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt society as never before, considerable pressure has fallen on public sector workers. Many are having to operate under difficult conditions in order to ensure essential services continue to operate.
Fran Heathcote is the National President of the main civil service trade union, PCS. She was the DWP group president for seven years, and is now the chair of the Northern Regional Committee. Fran spoke to Socialist Appeal about the challenges facing the union at the present time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest issue facing workers at present, particularly key workers, how has PCS responded?
Well, like the rest of the world, we’ve had to adapt the way we do everything. Nothing has been ‘business as usual’. The NEC is meeting fortnightly (now by Zoom) and we’re in negotiations with the employer virtually daily.
The pressure on our members, often the ‘unsung heroes’, has been tremendous. Whole departments have been designated key workers, and the demands on our reps have been huge.
Everyone has responded really well. We’ve set up a dedicated coronavirus response unit to support members. Like many others, we need to ensure that we keep our members safe, and that means keeping them at home wherever possible. But as socialists, we recognise the need to continue to deliver services to the most vulnerable, and those who’ve lost their income.
One thing is for sure, when this is over, there can be no going back.
The Tories say now is not the time to raise issues like pay etc. What does PCS say?
We are already seeing signs of the government raising the spectre of the cost to business versus the loss of life. A hint here and there about who is going to pay for all of this.
One thing is certain, it must not be our members that pay the price, either through a loss of life or a return to harsh austerity. This crisis has shown who provides the really essential services in society, who the real key workers are, and we’re hearing lots of warm words of praise.
I saw a message from the Cabinet Office Secretary today to all civil servants praising them for their work in the lockdown. Whilst that is great, we cannot have people clapping for essential workers, whilst continuing to impose cuts and austerity on those same people as soon as the worst is over.
We have placed a set of interim demands on the government, in terms of pay, pensions, redundancy, office closures and job cuts. This is to apply pressure on the government prior to detailed negotiations taking place on our full demands. We are currently awaiting a response from Michael Gove.
What key demands will PCS highlight in light of the experience of the pandemic for your civil service and outsourced members?
What has been shown throughout the pandemic is how much people need our services. Years of under-resourcing and under-staffing has left some of the biggest departments, like DWP, wholly unable to cope.
With the HMRC dealing with furloughed cases, and DWP picking up the huge number of new claims to Universal Credit, what has been abundantly clear is that the government’s previous plans for office closures and job cuts are not sustainable.
They have now identified that they need tens of thousands more staff to cope with the workload, and the continued economic downturn which will surely follow this crisis. Their previous decisions not to invest in adequate IT are really coming back to bite them now. They need more estate not less.
So of course we will want to talk to them about our pay, and getting a proper pay rise that recognises the worth of our members. But there are those other key issues that need addressing now too.
In terms of our outsourced workers, whilst we have reached some good agreements for them throughout the crisis, we recently agreed to a ‘No Going Back’ campaign. This is to ensure that gains made – such as sick pay from day one and the civil service agreement to pay workers 100% pay whilst out of the workplace – must be retained after the COVID pandemic.
Ultimately, the best way of achieving this is to bring the work back in-house.
How has PCS developed its organising strategy in response to the pandemic?
With approximately 80% of the civil service not currently in the workplace, we have had to quickly adopt our strategy to embrace a lot of digital working.
We have proactively contacted over 7,000 reps during April to check on them, make sure they’re ok, that their details are up to date, and find out how they have been keeping in touch with their members.
It’s been incredibly well-received, and several hundred of them have now volunteered to work with PCS staff to ring up all members for whom we have a number; to find out what support they need from their union and how we can get them engaged.
So it’s exciting at the moment, with lots of new stuff on the horizon. But I think we’re all looking forward to a time when we can engage face-to-face again in a way that’s safe for everyone.