2021: An inspiring year for PCS activists
There’s no denying that 2021 has been an incredibly difficult year for many people.
When it feels like challenges are still coming at us from all directions, it’s good to remember the positive things we have achieved and the stellar work our activists have been doing, in spite of the circumstances.
Organising our workplaces and branches, recruiting new members and activists, supporting members and engaging them in our campaigns, and encouraging a more diverse spectrum of people to get involved – this work has become more important than ever, and so many PCS reps and advocates have stepped up to the plate.
We’ve been through the Activate archives for the year and brought you some reminders of the incredible hard work and successful campaigns our activists have carried out over the last 12 months.
Our union is its members. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to all our dedicated activists for their efforts in 2021, and wish you a happy, healthy and safe new year.
PCS women: your union needs you
Women in PCS kicked off the first Activate with a special edition for International Women’s Day, in which we heard from activists and PCS stalwarts who have long championed a better gender balance among our advocates, reps and lay officials.
With activists going through a testing time due to the added pressures of the Covid pandemic, Bristol and Reading Revenue and Customs branch secretary Gemma Criddle explained what it had been like to juggle working from home, home-schooling and personal health concerns, while representing members and helping keep the branch running.
“There are times when I have my wobbles … In those moments, I reach out to experienced reps, who support me, reminding me of some of our significant cases and campaigns. It helps to remind yourself why we do it – we have had some incredible wins.” – Gemma Criddle
We also heard from PCS national president Fran Heathcote, DWP group equality officer Bridget Corcoran, NEC representative on the PCS national women’s forum Angela Grant, and PCS national vice president Zita Holbourne on the importance of encouraging more women to become active in the union.
Benefits of reps’ networks
Organising and engaging members at every level of PCS was a big talking point in the spring. By then, members were in the midst of a major dispute at the DVLA in Swansea, and branch reps were harnessing the strength of feeling around Covid safety at work and using it to organise, recruit and galvanise members.
We also heard from DWP Benton Park View workplace rep Euan Stuart, 23, on efforts to boost union organising at the large multi-agency site, including engaging more young members and developing activity via PCS Locals.
“Normally I would like to go round chatting with people. But we can use social media to keep those people in contact with each other, and with us.”
And reps were reaping the benefits of networking, including a Zoom get-together for branch organisers in north-west England, who shared ideas on organising virtually and talked about overcoming some of the challenges presented by Covid. Active members across PCS groups in the Midlands also created a women’s network to discuss common issues, campaign and work with community organisations.
Keeping new activists engaged
DVLA members were still fighting on in the summer, when branch rep Louise Phillips explained to us how they had kept going and stayed united.
“A big factor in keeping members going through such a long dispute is reassurance, and not letting people get intimidated. We make sure we are always available for members to speak to us, because if they can't ask a question, they might be frightened, and they won't go on strike.”
Increasing activism across the union and, critically, keeping new activists engaged and involved was as important an issue as ever this year. R&C Leeds branch organiser Max Darby talked to Activate about how their branch is ensuring there is a role for the many reps and advocates they have recruited.
“We're very open and direct with members, and never shy about writing to people and asking who's interested or asking people on an individual basis. We look at people who we think have the right skills and ask them, as well as doing the blanket approach. And then when they do come in, we give them the opportunity to actually do what they said they wanted to do.”
For rep Sarah-Jane Holtam, realising there should be more union activity and representation in her relatively unknown FCDO workplace was a “lightbulb moment” when she realised, 'why not get involved and do it myself?'
“It’s a good place to work and in many ways it’s like a family, but just as in families there are issues. I’m trying to help give people that confidence to call things out.”
Rep Ash has also been working on building the profile of the union, in HMRC workplaces, including by helping run online recruitment sessions during inductions for new staff across different departmental hubs.
“Getting involved in this was putting myself out there. At the beginning I was camera shy. Now, I'm comfortable putting my camera on. I speak about what we can do as PCS reps. We’re open with them. I say, ‘we're not magic workers, but we try hard to get the best outcome’.”
Using union learning as a way to highlight the broader merits of PCS is the passion of HMRC regional learning coordinator Anne Grier, who helps organise all sorts of workshops on topics such as wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, and digital.
“What we're trying to do is let people know that there are other things that happen within PCS, such as learning and development. Learning helps people with their career, too.”
At the core of the union is its democracy, and while our national and group conferences in June had to be held online, one benefit of this was an increase in the number of women attending. We heard from DBS rep Maz Gaskell, who says she only managed to go because it was virtual.
As we entered autumn and started building up to the UN climate change talks, COP26, PCS green rep Charlotte Smith explained what her branch was doing to build knowledge, interest and activism, including online lunchtime sessions on various environmental issues.
“These topics can be quite daunting as a conversation starter, especially when you are [working] at home and not having those ‘kitchen conversations’. So I set up some meetings, using speakers, with content that people could start to learn from.”
The ongoing Covid situation coupled with a spiralling cost-of-living crisis has meant this winter is another critical time for our members and the union. Putting ourselves in the strongest possible position to win a national ballot for action is the task at hand, and so many of our activists have already shown this year that we have the skills, knowledge and power to build the union, engage members, bring on new activists and effect change.
With that in mind, in November PCS president Fran Heathcote highlighted some steps we can all take to get ballot-ready.
By way of inspiration, a couple of our branches were celebrating successful campaigns to head off threats from their employers and win improvements in their terms and conditions.
DVSA rep Caroline Oliver told us about their successful campaign to see off plans to impose an increase in the number of daily driving tests – thanks in no small part to a huge yes vote for strike action.
“DVSA management were stopped in their tracks by the strength shown by the ballot result.”
And in the Royal Parks, members were jubilant after making great gains in their campaign to break down the two-tier system between outsourced workers and directly employed staff.
“When we started to take action, [the employer] Just Ask said they wanted to negotiate with us.”
Looking ahead, we all know that getting more young members involved in shaping the present and future of the union is absolutely vital. So it was a fitting end to the year to hear how they are revitalising the PCS young members' networks and putting their passions on fairness and empowerment into practice.
2022 will see a national consultative ballot on pay and pensions running from 14 February – 21 March. Sign up for the Activist Forum on 29 January for more information on what activists need to do to win this ballot and engage with more members to get them involved and ensure they vote.