Dave Warren, PCS Member and retired DVLA worker
The dispute at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) over Covid safety is now in its third month. The dispute is unusual, in that the leadership of PCS, the union representing the workers, is taking direct responsibility, with regular Zoom meetings for members chaired by the President Fran Heathcote and addressed by General Secretary Mark Serwotka.
This national intervention was prompted by headline media coverage, with over 500 Covid cases since September, including an outbreak at the contact centre in December.
Whereas only a skeleton staff of around 250 was required to attend the workplace during the first wave of the pandemic, over 2,000 of the agency’s 5,500-strong workforce had been forced to return in September.
After balloting members in March this year, PCS embarked on a strategy of prolonged targeted strike action, bringing out selected groups of members at different times and paying them £40 a day strike pay.
Originally, the main demand of the union was to drastically reduce the numbers required to attend the workplace, by offering more homeworking. However, this has since been amended to focus on a demand for agreement on a phased, controlled return to the workplace.
The employer made an offer in late May, which included a commitment to an agreed timetable to return to the workplace, as well as a one-off financial payment of £200 to all staff, and up to two days leave. It appears that this offer would have been recommended to members to end the dispute, but the offer was withdrawn at the last minute due to intervention at government ministerial level.
The targeted action is continuing, with further strikes planned for 28-29 June. Mark Serwotka has pledged that PCS is prepared to fight on for months to come if necessary. In the meantime, DVLA has commenced a unilateral return of staff to the workplace. Unless action is taken to prevent this, there is a danger of another mass Covid outbreak in any third wave of the pandemic.
Supporters of the Broad Left Network, the organisation supported by Socialist Party members in PCS, have consistently put forward suggestions with the aim of supporting and strengthening the action. BLN supporters have advocated:
- Decisive action by collective use of Section 44 legislation back in December/January when the outbreak occurred rather than wait until March to ballot with action commencing in April
- Escalating the targeted action to include all DVLA members, linked to a move to an all-out strike if management do not agree to the union’s demands
- Working from home has to be the default position, with the necessary investment in technology to enable this. Any exceptions to be agreed with PCS
- Challenge DVLA’s punitive sick absence regime that treats sick absence, including Covid-related absence, as a disciplinary offence
- Stop the forced return to the workplace now taking place by deploying collective Section 44 notices
The PCS leadership has to act now to bring forward a programme for action which builds on the sacrifice of members at DVLA, which prevents management’s move to force members back to the workplace, and which brings about a speedy and successful conclusion to the dispute.