“Conditionality” for benefit claimants has been restored, which means claimants can be “sanctioned” — i.e., have their benefits revoked — for things like being late for appointments. This is a spectacularly cruel decision on the government’s part, which PCS completely opposes.
At the moment, bosses are still proceeding with a light touch and often not insisting that frontline DWP staff impose conditionality. But that’s likely to change, especially as claims continue to rise. We oppose conditionality both in terms of its impact on claimants, and its use as a productivity measure to discipline our members. PCS wants a welfare and benefits system where our members’ role is to help people access support, not to deny it to them.
In the Department for Work and Pensions, our consultative ballot of members in 291 Job Centres and Universal Credit Service Centre nationwide closes on 7 September. The dispute there is over a management plan to extend opening hours, meaning workers would have more public-facing work. That’s a risk from an infection control perspective, as it means more face-to-face contact and greater numbers of people potentially gathering together in confined spaces. That puts both workers and claimants at risk.
DWP bosses’ ability to extend opening hours is a legacy of a deal agreed four years ago, which allows them to do this in exchange for salary increments. Our immediate challenge is to the safety implications of the extended opening, but many workers also, and entirely legitimately, simply don’t want to be forced to work longer hours. We’ll assess the result of the consultative ballot, but if it is “Yes” then I assume in the face of no change from DWP that a formal ballot will take place.
Our members’ strikes at Tate galleries, where workers are facing over 300 job cuts, have been tremendous. We held particularly lively pickets at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries in London, with Jeremy Corbyn speaking.
The Tate cuts are typical of what workers are now facing across the culture sector. At London’s Southbank Centre, we’re considering industrial action, as our members there are also facing job cuts. There are also struggles around workplace safety, as museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions reopen to the public. At the British Museum, our members are challenging management’s inadequate risk assessments which we believe put both staff and public safety at risk.
In HMRC, our cleaner members in offices on Merseyside conclude a month-long strike on 28 August. They’re employed by ISS, and are demanding living wages and full sickness and isolation pay.
There are also ongoing struggles across the civil service over the return to physical workplaces. Each department is drawing up plans for what senior management calls an “accelerated return”. We’re fighting for the maximum scrutiny of union reps over these plans; so far, in most departments, they don’t involve a push for masses of people to return to workplaces but of course under political pressure that may change.
• John Moloney is assistant general secretary of PCS, writing here in a personal capacity