A previous PCS walkout, photo Helen Pattison

A previous PCS walkout, photo Helen Pattison   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Socialist Party members in PCS

On 24 April, civil servants at Paisley Jobcentre held an outdoors union meeting following an outbreak of Covid-19 in their office.

More than twenty civil servants, whose numbers have already been drastically reduced by the need for colleagues with underlying health conditions to stay home, met and voted to agree that their office was not safe to work in.

Among their concerns was the lack of information provided about the coronavirus outbreak, the failure of social distancing in the office, the inability of anyone in a position of authority to explain exactly what kind of cleaning had been carried out once the outbreak had been identified, and the generally poor standard of cleaning observed.


Cleaning in the Department for Work and Pensions has been privatised to corporate giant Interserve, which has millions of pounds worth of public sector contracts – including building the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Birmingham. Yet its staff are poorly paid and are rarely allocated sufficient hours to clean a building.

At Paisley, Jobcentre staff reported that cleaners regularly have to borrow appropriate cleaning materials.

Reps from the PCS trade union, which represents thousands of civil servants and contracted-out staff, attended the site to support members and to lead the meeting.

After the vote that the site was not safe, members stayed out of the building for several hours while they waited for the union’s national negotiators to get a deal out of senior managers.

National managers, however, were unwilling to budge. They insisted, despite the concerns raised by staff at the site, and by health and safety reps about the quality of any cleaning, that a thorough clean had been conducted and that staff should return to work.

A compromise was eventually reached that allowed staff to go home – for which they applauded the work of the union.

Importantly, reps and members attending the outdoors meeting were able to keep socially distant. Police visited the protest and agreed that it should carry on.

This undermines the view of some in the union that face-to-face activities should not be carried out during the pandemic.

Without face-to-face work, with suitable safeguards, staff would simply have gone into what they considered to be an unsafe office.

Multiple civil service offices are reporting the same concerns. One of the key elements is that suitable social distancing reduces the number of people an office can hold.

Reports suggest this is being glossed over, and that staff are being told that where they are sitting is safe and socially distant, even when it isn’t. This reinforces the need for a roadmap that would see the maximum number of civil servants working from home.

Socialist Party members in PCS participate in the Broad Left Network, a group of activists aimed at rebuilding the union’s democracy and forging serious campaigns that can win for members.

The pressure exerted by Broad Left Network supporters was absolutely crucial to this initial, local victory; they had confidence in members to act and to win. This victory will be followed up by inspections designed to keep staff safe.