Monday, 12 December 2011

Revenue & Customs staff take strike action

Today, PCS members in HM Revenue & Customs took part in lunchtime walkouts. The action was called over two ongoing disputes - a change to sick absence procedures which has seen strike action previously and the planned privatisation of contact centres. Both actions took place concurrently.

The sick absence dispute revolves around management plans to punish people for being sick. Though they of course insist this isn't the case, they have reduced the time for "consideration points" so that action can be taken against people for shorter absence periods in a policy rushed through without union consultation. The ballot for strike action back in March forced them to the table, but after suspending the action all PCS were able to secure was a "clarification" that the consideration points should not be seen as a rigid framework for one-size-fits-all discipline.

As the union themselves state, this does nothing to allay the worry that "that these consideration points are still being used to inform a mechanistic approach in some areas of HMRC to managing attendance." Moreover, "members are coming in to work when they should in fact be taking sick leave because of a fear that they will be subject to disciplinary procedures." As such, though there is "progress in many areas," action is needed to push for the removal of the points altogether.

The privatisation dispute arose from HMRC's plans to trial the use of private sector staff in two contact centres over a 12 month period. When this first arose, the response of the Revenue & Customs Group Executive Committee prompted concern from PCS members as, though they declared they were "strongly opposed to any privatisation of the work our members carry out," they made no mention of pursuing industrial action. Instead, they relayed a series of weak "assurances" from HMRC, including that "PCS will be kept fully informed and updated throughout the trial" and asked only that Branches "collate views and concerns from your members."

A briefing to branches states that "the feedback we have from members, reps and branches overwhelmingly expresses firm opposition to the trial and support for industrial action." But this mutes the fact that there was a considerable uproar against the union's negotiators soft-peddling the issue. Though there was initially a defensive backlash against this criticism - including some of those who were outspoken on social media like Facebook receiving messages from GEC members in an attempt to mitigate what was aired publicly - ultimately the union tops had to ballot on the issue.

Today's walkouts represented the current culmination of both disputes. Staff across HMRC walked out between 12pm and 2pm over sick absence procedures, with staff in the Personal Tax directorate staying out an extra hour over privatisation. I attended the picket line of the tax office in Bootle, and from what I could tell the action was strongly supported.

Many staff not only took part in the three hours of strike action, but took the rest of the day off and went home. Several workers coming in for the evening shift also agreed to support the action and not go in until it was finished. There was also good support from the public, with a courier refusing to cross the picket line to deliver mail and an elderly woman offered her cane so that when dealing with the bosses the pickets could "shove it up their arse." Tempting though the offer was, they had to turn it down!

The question for workers now is where the disputes progress from here. The privatisation battle will now see a work-to-rule in effect indefinitely, but in terms of further strike action the rank-and-file need to push to make their voice heard. Holding both actions concurrently effectively halved the disruption for management. It also risks demobilising members, making it easy for the union tops to accept a couple of concessions and call it a win even as attacks go ahead. Given both the lukewarm initial response to privatisation and the fact that sick absence action was previously suspended on little more than a promise from the bosses, this is a real concern.

The other issue is the divisive nature of an action limited to one directorate within HMRC. Not only did this in practice mean some members effectively instructed to cross picket lines by their union, but narrowing the scope of action is something that should be opposed in principle as in all cases we ought to be fighting to generalise it.

The task for workers who do not want to see this repeated is to stamp their own will on the dispute. This means making strike meetings a matter of course and rebuilding a culture whereby the rank-and-file vote not only on whether strike action takes place but the form it takes and where we go from it. At first, this may be tokenistic in nature since industrial action is currently managed from the top-down, but by enacting direct democracy we can change that and take control of our own struggles.