Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A day on the taxman's picket lines

Yesterday and today, staff at HM Revenue & Customs took part in a number of targeted walkouts over the sickness absence policy being imposed upon them. Action took place across the country, and will continue in the form of an overtime ban and a work-to-rule. After writing on why the action matters here, I took the opportunity to join the picket lines.

A week earlier, Liverpool Solidarity Federation had put out a call on Facebook asking people to support today's morning and lunchtime actions. The effects of this were felt in particular by the Liverpool and Bootle branches, both of whom thanked "those not directly involved in the dispute who came to show support and solidarity."

In the morning, due to the nature of the action, the picket line was often more informational than anything else. The Revenue & Customs GEC had determined that those on restrictive contracts - particularly in call centres - only had to walk out for half an hour at 9.30. This was because the aim of the action was maximum disruption to management with minimal disruption to staff. With the range of contracts staff were under, including flexi-time, this translated into some not working at all before 10 and others walking out for half an hour.

Despite this, and the apparent confusion over it before-hand, the action was remarkably well observed. Most of those going into work were coming out at half-nine, and only a tiny minority responded to a request to support the action with a flat "no."

This support was reinforced at 10am, when people gathered for the walk-in. Standing on a picket line in Bootle, I witnessed a crowd of two dozen quickly become 800 - the queue on either side of the doors blocking the streets. As they waited to go in, one of the reps thanked them for their actions over a megaphone and reminded them to record their start time as 10 o'clock, no matter what time they returned to their desk. The queue took about half an hour to get into the building, leaving only an hour to go before the next action.

At the start of the two-hour lunch strike, most branches held rallies and car park meetings. In Bootle, myself and others from Liverpool Solfed helped distribute leaflets (PDF) to the public whilst the reps talked about the attacks that staff were facing. In both the talks and the literature, the link was made from the current action to the broader struggle, and to the effect on the public and the need to support each other's struggles.

Public sector staff are facing a pay freeze in the next two years, which with the current rate of inflation amounts to a 5% pay cut. On top of that, the increase in pensions contributions will likely be between 3 and 6%. Effectively, we're talking about an 11% pay cut and having to wait longer for a worse pension. On top of which those in HMRC now have a sickness policy which makes it easier to sack them, which as it's not a redundancy would go towards the government's target of how much to reduce by "natural wastage" alone.

The knock-on effects to the public being the reduction in services and welfare, but also job losses in the private sector as a knock-on from public sector jobs going. Not to mention that overtime is being used to drag us closer to the universal credit and massive welfare cuts.

The key message from the rally was the need for everyone to stick together and stand up against the attacks. Again and again, this message was repeated. Only united are we strong, and this is an issue that goes beyond just the workforce and has a direct impact on communities as well. Fortunately, despite the few reactionaries and ignorant fools who crossed the picket line, there was a mood for a fight. As there is across the country more generally.

The key question is how we tap into that feeling and where such a fightback goes. I would argue, as ever, for rebuilding the rank-and-file and utilising the power of direct action to cripple the state and the bosses. Reaching such a point remains a long slog uphill. But having seen the levels of support at today's action, I reckon that hill might not be quite as steep as first thought.