The talks, which began on 8 October and were scheduled to run until 4 November, were over a number of issues which PCS remains in dispute with the department over. Staff in HMRC are facing job cuts and office closures in a number of areas, alongside the privatisation of work and a draconian performance management system.
PCS had taken strike action in late June and late July, as well as industrial action short of a strike including an overtime ban. The Group Executive Committee voted to suspend action in order to engage in talks without preconditions at the insistence of HMRC, who refused to talk while any action was going on.
Lin Homer’s announcement comes thirteen days after the announcement of considerable job cuts and office closures by HMRC, and only underlines that the department never had any serious intent to resolve the dispute.
According to the Chief Executive, HMRC withdrew from talks because:
We’ve become increasingly concerned that PCS isn’t willing to talk openly and honestly – either with ourselves or its members – about the issues facing us all. In this month’s Oracle, they say that their recent strike action in Dundee led to HMRC offering permanent positions to 39 people on fixed term contracts. This simply isn’t true. In fact we worked hard, as we always said we would, to secure permanent roles for nearly 1,400 FTAs right across the UK who wanted to stay with us.
Those 39 FTAs would have been offered alternative roles anyway – the threat of PCS strike action made no difference.
Set aside the question of whether or not an announcement made in the eleventh hour before planned strike action was as a result of strike action. That argument can go back and forth, but ultimately it will always be subject to rival interpretations by the employer and the union.
The union laid out its interpretation in its own publication, as it has every right to do. How does this harm talks or ‘breach trust’ as Lin Homer has claimed? Can trust now only be based on every last communication by an independent trade union agreeing exactly with the interpretation and ideological line of the employer?
What this shows us isn’t a breach of trust by PCS, but rather an employer who engaged in talks in bad faith now clutching at any excuse to get out of them.
Eight days after talks to resolve a dispute over jobs and staffing began, with the union having suspended all industrial action related to the dispute, HMRC made an announcement which really was a breach of trust and borne of a refusal to engage constructively and honestly with talks.
On 16 October HMRC announced that:
- 14 offices have been earmarked to close between April & December 2015;
- 453 people currently working in these offices will be placed into the Redundancy Pool;
- 690 AAs at 22 PT Operations locations can apply for voluntary exits;
- The Regional Post Rooms currently sited at 4 locations are scheduled to close with 46 AAs at Cumbernauld & Shipley declared surplus & offered Voluntary Redundancy;
- 20 people at a number of locations have been declared surplus & offered Voluntary Redundancy, with a further 20 people invited to apply for voluntary exits;
- 40 people at Wellesley House Stockport have been invited to apply for voluntary exits.
Despite this considerable attack on jobs and staffing during dispute resolution talks on jobs and staffing, PCS elected not to walk away from talks. We consider this a mistake, as we will discuss further on, but even so: when PCS keep to talks dispite such an announcement while HMRC walk away over an editorial disagreement, who is really acting in bad faith?
From the start, Lin Homer and ExCom have been unwilling to seriously address the issues of the dispute. Instead, they have been playing games and trying to paint PCS as the bad guy whilst trying to undermine the union so they can proceed with the cuts without disruption.
The game they’re playing
PCS balloted its members over jobs and staffing earlier this year because efforts to resolve the issues were going nowhere. In response to the ballot result and the likely action the union would take, HMRC offered talks, which PCS agreed to.
However with no concrete offer on the table, in line with Conference policy, the union still issued notice for strike action. This policy was set for a very simple reason: it is a long-established HMRC tactic to offer talks if action is suspended, then drag them out for months to bury a dispute and kill its momentum. Delegates voted for the policy recognising that we’ve fallen for this too many times.
HMRC responded by calling off talks. While employers serious about resolving disputes will stay in negotiations right up to the eleventh hour in the hope of averting strike action, the department walked away. They claimed that it was PCS unwilling to talk constructively, but in reality they remained determined to force their tactic to derail our dispute upon us by any means.
Thus began the war of attrition. Strike action was well supported, and caused considerable disruption, but HMRC would not budge. Their demand remained the same: no talks as long as action is ongoing.
PCS unfortunately played right into the department’s hands. The GEC not only failed to publicise the department’s reticence and make the clear argument that workers need leverage in order to have a hope of gaining concessions and that if HMRC were serious about wanting resolution they would continue to engage while we were still taking action, but the GEC eventually broke Conference policy and conceded to the employer’s demand.
Smelling blood, the employer was then able to string the union along in talks in order to announce massive cuts without fear of an industrial response. It also continued to offer shed loads of overtime to cover staffing shortfalls whilst the overtime ban is off and has now unceremoniously dumped dispute resolution on the flimsiest of pretexts.
The fight of our lives?
It can be argued, and indeed has been argued including by GEC members, that defeat in the jobs and staffing dispute would be a blow from which the union would never recover.
This dispute pits the austerity vision for the department against the PCS alternative. The union is arguing for more staff and investment to tackle the tax gap, but if HMRC wins then the result will be a tiny nucleus of permanent staff supplemented by casualised, outsourced, temporary recruits. All union strength will be gone, with eager, cheap replacements all around us, and without bargaining power our pay and conditions if we still have a job will only decline.
The stakes are very high, and that is why it is absolutely vital that PCS stops letting HMRC lead it by the hand and starts fighting. How we fight is also important, and we would argue that there are a few key, important points to take on board:
Follow Conference policy: This should be a no-brainer for a democratic, member-led union, but it still needs to be spelled out. As one example, policy commits us to not suspending action without a concrete offer. Had we listened, while it might not have prevented the employer’s petulance, it would have put us in a better position to respond to it.
Use action short of strike properly: Members cannot sustain a constant slew of strikes, at least without a strike fund, and there are certain times of year when our action will have greater impact. But that doesn’t have to mean silence in the interim. Action short of strike is one way of hurting the employer without hurting staff, but it has to be done right.
After the most recent strikes, we were promised that action short of strike would be escalated week on week. This would mean piling up the things that slow down work, but just as importantly it would mean regular reminders of how to take action on the job. Calling a work to rule and leaving it at that for several months, as actually happened, will just make members lose interest. Action short of strike can have an impact, and not just with overtime ban, but it has to be creative and it has to capture the imagination.
Communicate regularly: Another important point in building and maintaining momentum is regular communication. For example, updates on negotiations, circulating details of local activities by one branch to the rest, reports back from GEC meetings so we know what was decided, and so on. Sometimes this happens, but all too often the gap between strikes sees no or few updates.
Why, for example, was HMRC’s intention to enter formal consultation over removing check off not passed on to members when it was first mooted on 1 October? Given that the national union’s priority is signing members up to Direct Debit, and that members are more likely to sign up when the removal of check off is imminent rather than a remote possibility, this seems an odd thing to keep quiet.
Another important reasoning behind this is that we can use such communications to get our message across. For example, when HMRC was refusing to talk, we should have shouted this from the rooftop and argued vociferously as to why we were right not to call off action without a concrete offer. Instead, the issue was mostly buried in silence.
Listen to criticism: Too often, the response of the GEC and its supporters to criticism of any kind is hostility. They will dig in and push harder up the path they’re treading, decrying all who disagree as divisive opportunists. But it is clear that mistakes have been made and we need to learn from them here. No matter what path is taken, there will always be criticism and it won’t all be valid, but here’s a good rule of thumb – if you can’t defend your course of action without trying to deflect from the argument to the person making it, maybe you need to stop and have a rethink.
Finally, for those at the coal face in workplaces and branches, our advice remains the same: organise. If the GEC are able to regroup and take the fight to the employer in line with Conference policy, then we should be strong enough to win. If the GEC flounder, we need to do what we can without them. This means giving members the confidence not merely to follow a lead but to fight for themselves.
This is an attack on the union itself not just an industrial issue and if it’s not resisted on that basis then before long individual reps and members will be left vulnerable to attack and dismissal for expressing views. HMRC has been leading us up the garden path. They will not talk in good faith and will only continue to attack us. Let’s make sure we give as good as we get!