Tax Workers Walk Out Over Sickness Discipline Measures

A PCS picket in the north east

At 4pm today, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) workers walked out, in protest at the imposition of draconian sick day restrictions, which could result in disciplinary measures being taken against the ill. However, if the workers are to hold back these attacks, this afternoon needs to be just the start of a broad-based, democratically-controlled fightback.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) executive called the action on 31st May, in response to grassroots anger at HMRC’s proposed ‘attendance management policy’. Under the new system, it appears that three occasions and five days will be used as a disciplinary threshold by bosses, instead of five occasions or ten days. Having exhausted the artificial limit on their sickness, tax workers would feel intensely pressured to come into work, no matter how severe the ‘extra’ illness over their allotment. In winter, when viruses are most common, this would lead to increased infection of their colleagues. For the rest of the year, staff could be hauling themselves in with all kinds of ailments and injuries, which would be better treated by spending time at home. At a time when HMRC is cutting 13,000 jobs, this will cause significant stress for employees, which could feed back into increased sickness levels. If the new system is implemented, it would be represent a huge attack on the rights of workers across the public sector, as similar moves could be expected in other departments.

Tax staff walking out in East Kilbride, Scotland

The PCS executive is “not, at this point, asking members to take any full day’s strike action”. Instead, it called a one hour walk-out from 4pm to 5pm on the 7th, followed by an hour later start and a two hour lunch break on the 8th, plus an effective ‘work to rule’ over the two days of the action.

Were the HMRC to give way after such a small act of rebellion, it would set a dangerous precedent, from the perspective of the ruling class and government cuts agenda. So PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka and his executive will be hoping that these two days of mini strikes will be sufficient to let their membership vent their anger, without seriously disrupting revenue collection. Though union leaders such as Serwotka are publicly talking a good game following Business Secretary Vince Cable’s threat of further restrictions on the right to strike, privately they are negotiating to force through the bulk of the coalition government’s attacks. This is because they know that their own well-heeled lifestyles are dependent on the unions demonstrating that they are able to manage their members’ anger.

The PCS threat to join the one day ‘general strike’ called by the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Lecturers and Teachers, the University and College Union must also be seen in this light. Just like in Greece – where they have been ten one day general strikes since the onset of the financial crisis, all to no avail – union bosses will put their own class interests ahead of that of their membership. The need for a democratic, horizontally-organised working class movement has never been greater.