Ten employees of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) were sacked with immediate effect on Thursday 9 February by email — whilst they were on strike! They were told to come into work the next day to clear their desks.
PCS and Unite members were taking part in the first of five days of strikes in the latest round of action against compulsory redundancies. The stated reason for their dismissals was redundancy — despite the availability of 30 vacancies in the EHRC. In the civil service and government agencies it is unprecedented for employees under notice of redundancy to be dismissed en masse with immediate effect. Under civil service rules you have to be given three months notice of a compulsory redundancy, effectively giving you time to look for another civil service job. EHRC have decided to pay the notice period in lieu rather than let the individuals work the notice. There is precedent for this but only with union agreement. Without agreement this is unprecedented and, to be frank, a provocation.
If EHRC get away with this, this will happen in other parts of the civil service. Irony is clearly not lost on the EHRC — trade unionists, disabled members of staff, and BAME members have been disproportionately represented in the 10 compulsory redundancies. The PCS and Unite have pointed out to the EHRC that suitable alternative employment to which the employees at risk of redundancy could be redeployed is available amongst the current 30 vacancies. But none of the dismissed employees were offered any of these vacancies — or training to ensure that they could carry out the vacant roles — before they were dismissed. Now that they have been paid in lieu of notice — although none of those dismissed had requested or agreed to this — they are no longer EHRC employees and therefore no longer eligible to be redeployed into the vacancies.
At short notice, protests against the sackings were organised in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham at lunchtime on Friday 10 February. Over a hundred turned up to the protest in Glasgow, with big contingents from the PCS itself and from the GMB, though oddly not Unite even though they represent workers involved in the dispute. The EHRC will certainly face claims for unfair dismissal as a result of the sackings. But trade union and industrial action pressure also needs to be maintained and increased. PCS used to have a policy that one compulsory redundancy would trigger a national ballot. It was our line in the sand – An injury to one is an injury to all. However one NEC member said on social media that a national ballot would be ″industrial suicide″ — so much for an ″effective campaigning leadership″. This is one of the many reasons why PCS members should elect a new Independent Left leadership in the NEC elections in April.
Further strikes had already been scheduled for 1st March, 20th March, 18th April and 17th May.
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University threatens campus closure
Over 180 workers at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Crewe site have been put at risk of compulsory redundancy through management plans to close the campus. The institution, which has £378.9 million in reserves, cited financial problems in its justification of the decision.
The recent history of higher education tells us that once restructuring such as this takes place, it becomes the opening to further management aggression. In response the local UCU branch has held its largest ever meeting, which raised confidence for fighting against the cuts. They are undertaking a consultative ballot of the membership to gauge appetite for industrial action -- which was strong amongst those at the meeting.
Last Friday they held a lobby of the MMU Board of Governors meeting. Morale was strong, with a good attendance of reps of different campuses and faculties. However an obvious weakness of the campaign is that there were very few students in attendance. Union activists must do more to reach out to those they teach and to the student activist left, such as those in Manchester Labour Students, which has a small presence at MMU.
During the industrial disputes at the University of Manchester last year, student support was crucial for building confidence and for escalation; in the second dispute of the year, a battle to save catering jobs, the student-staff alliance and disruption of management meetings was pivotal to the union victory.
A further weakness is that Unison, which organises amongst the lower paid workers at Crewe, is far behind UCU in responding to the closure. Indeed in the earlier dispute down the road at UoM last year, the regional bureaucracy of UCU constrained a live strike ballot on the grounds that the unions which they organise alongside on the campus had not balloted. Fortunately there is time and appetite yet to prevent a repeat of that betrayal.
Mass Job Centre closures
After months of secrecy, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced on 26 January plans for large scale closures. 108 sites are to be closed by March 2018, while a further 40 could be closed at a later date, affecting almost 6,000 jobs.
These closures will have a significant impact on workers, on DWP customers and on the wider community. The proposals include: 78 out of 714 Job centres to close ,with work and staff transferring to the nearest job centres 18 of these fall outside the criteria of 2 to 3 miles distance or 20 minutes by public transport from the old site to the new site. A further 80 Job centres to be co-located with local authority premises 30 out of 150 Back of House Operational sites to close (e.g. Child Maintenance Group, pensions centres, benefit processing and contact centres) Corporate centre hubs to be limited to six, with two current corporate centre sites closing.
A further 40 Back of House Operational sites have been labelled transitional sites, which means their future is only secure for the next three years, or five years for six of the 40 sites. 18 sites where DWP is unable to make an announcement as commercial negotiations have not yet concluded. Closing over 10% of Jobcentres will impact on claimants, especially as many of those identified for closure are in areas of high unemployment and social deprivation. It is likely to cause serious difficulties for claimants who will have to travel further to visit their Jobcentre, incurring increased costs they can ill afford, disproportionately affecting disabled claimants and claimants with caring responsibilities, and increasing the risk of being late and therefore the risk of sanctions.
The DWP claim that the world has changed and many people use digital channels to communicate with government. However evidence shows many claimants still prefer to talk to a person rather than trust a machine to handle their claim. A significant number will also be unable to use digital channels due to lack of access or of IT skills. Some parts of the country have been disproportionally affected by these job centre announcements.
For example, Glasgow has already seen proposals to halve the number of jobcentres serving the city. London and the Home counties also has 24 proposed Jobcentre closures – a third of the total.
The DWP have refused to give assurances of no compulsory redundancies. While some staff may be able to be redeployed to another nearby DWP site or other government departments, for many this will not be possible, leaving redundancy as the only alternative. The impact on service users is likely to be far greater than the impact on staff. Clearly PCS should support branches that wish to take action over closures but, initially the emphasis of the campaign should be on services.
DOO fight at Northern
Rail union RMT has declared a dispute with Arriva North (who run Northern) over a failure to provide assurances over the safety critical role of the guard on the train. The union is now preparing to ballot its members.
RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “The union’s position on Driver Only Operation (DOO) is perfectly clear. We will not agree to any extensions of DOO and will fight to retain the safety critical role of the guard and to keep a guard on the train.”
There has long been a threat of DOO imposition on Northern, one of many attacks on the role of guards on trains across the country.