PCS London benefits strike backs victimised reps

Submitted by on 20 November, 2002 - 9:43

Chris Ford is secretary of the Central and West London Branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union in the Department for Work and Pensions. Along with fellow rep Phil Henry he is facing disciplinary proceeding and the threat of the sack.

Here Chris Ford explains the dispute.
Over 600 of our members have just undertaken two days of strike action on 11 and 12 November. It is the first time we have taken strike action in defence of our own union. In the past we have seen leading activists such as Rob Howard Perkins sacked without any mobilisation of our membership.We have broken the mould of responding to victimisations simply through grievance procedures and legal action.
We have also shown that the rank and file do recognise the importance their union and are prepared to make sacrifices to maintain an effective organisation.

The strike involved staff in social security offices and jobcentres across central, northwest and west London. The response to the call for strike action far exceeded to our expectations. The postal ballot was won on a 70% margin. It was a disappointing 33% turn out. Nevertheless the vast majority of our members have respected the democracy of the picket line.

The strike caused widespread disruption, closing four offices and reduced nine to limited services. This is one in the eye to the bosses who did everything to undermine the ballot, including threatening staff with disciplinary action if they attended union meetings. Management were caught off guard, we called the action quickly after the ballot result giving them little time to put their strikebreaking efforts into operation.

The origins of this dispute are in the strike over office safety in the DWP, which ended in April. Our branch was at the forefront of the campaign with our members in Brent striking for seven months. In the course of the dispute, the management, backed by the New Labour Government used every means at their disposal to break the strike. Branch representatives leading the action organised to the best of their ability in the face of an aggressive employer.

An agreement was reached which we backed which ended the national dispute. But in Brent, strikers returning to work have faced extensive discrimination and difficulties in keeping management to the agreement. Against this background, management has singled out two us who led the strike out for victimisation.

Management claim to have received over 100 allegations of "misconduct" by PCS pickets nationally. They issued notices that they were investigating seven of them, all relating to the strike in Brent. However, from the start it was only myself as Branch Secretary they proceeded against. For eight months I've been subjected to three investigations and local management have been boasting that I'm for the sack. A series of trumped up allegations have been thrown at me including physically assaulting a scab. In a dispute where the police were constantly called in by management to picket lines on this occasion surprise, surprise, they have not sought police involvement. The police have confirmed in writing that I am not under investigating in respect of any criminal or other allegations.

In a belated attempt to give their approach some credibility, management has now begun proceedings against Phil Henry, another long-standing rep in Brent. Phil was first notified in September 2001 by that an allegation had been made; yet they did nothing for more than a year in his case. He is a victim of management's plan to claim that I am not being singled out.

This cynical abuse of their own procedures and power by management is further highlighted by their steadfastly refused to investigate any of the numerous documented complaints made by strikers about their ill treatment, including assaults on pickets and cars being driven into pickets. Management's treatment of us has been backed all the way by Government Ministers, who have echoed the anti union attitudes of the DWP management.

We are clear that the management aim is to dismiss us if they can get away with it. It will create a climate of fear and will undermine our ability to function effectively as a union. There is wider agenda than simply getting rid of us. These victimisations take place against a background of the intention to impose new harsher attendance rules and disciplinary procedures.

Management aim to introduce massive staffing cuts, and further privatisation. This attack is a key part of their strategy to neuter the union. The response of the union leadership in the Department for Work and Pensions since the end of safety dispute has been compounded this situation, they abandoned the strikers, failed to consolidate gains made and effectively been on the run from management for months. Initially they sought to deal with us as purely individual cases. It has been the persistent actions of our Branch and rank and file activists that has secured a change in approach. In so doing we have shown that our union is not beaten and our members are in a position to fight back.

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