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Every worker has a right to a safe workplace 

Public and Commercial Services Union national president FRAN HEATHCOTE reports on the union’s four-day PCS strike action at Swansea DVLA earlier this week

THIS week PCS members at the Driving Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea took strike action for four days in response to management’s refusal to take their health and safety concerns seriously.  

During the first Covid-19 lockdown, management adopted a cautious approach, ensuring attendance at the huge site that employs thousands of workers was kept to a minimum.  

But by mid-2020, management — no doubt under departmental pressure from Transport Minister Grant Shapps — had bought into the Tory government’s mantra that everything would soon be back to normal and a rapid escalation of returning staff to the workplace began.

The number of Covid-19 cases dramatically increased, until there were over 600 positive cases — the highest number in any UK workplace — alongside a tragic and avoidable fatality.  

DVLA’s woeful appearance at a parliamentary select committee hearing did nothing to reassure its own workers or the wider public in the large catchment area from which the workforce is drawn.

Local PCS reps tried hard to negotiate with the employer in good faith but realised things were getting out of control as they were unable to convince management to change its approach.  

PCS members became increasing concerned. A climate of fear and intimidation took hold, not least at the intimidation toward anyone who spoke up. 

The local branch contacted PCS nationally, and general secretary Mark Serwotka and I led a team in a number of crisis meetings with local and Department of Transport reps early in the new year. 

It became clear, following the sad and avoidable death of a local DVLA worker, that things had to change, and fast.  

PCS organised a series of what were very well-attended meetings for all DVLA members and despite the climate of worry and fear, members were heartened by the support from the national union and their departmental union reps.

Our union campaign team led by Mark and I, and composed of local, departmental and national officials, began negotiations with the employer and the Cabinet Office. 

We reported directly back to members following each negotiation to ensure they were fully informed, and engaged in the campaign which resulted in a rapid increase in membership and members volunteering to become reps.  

These meetings were a reliable barometer that demonstrated members’ engagement and commitment to the campaign, something that placed local management, now supported by Shapps’s departmental bosses, under considerable pressure. 

Public, media and political pressure grew, too. Messages of solidarity came in from all over the country, the dispute became a talking point across the movement as workers identified with the fear and concern of the members at DVLA. 

Some concessions were made, though not enough to reassure members their workplace was safe and, when we told members of our intention to ballot, 96 per cent of those on the Zoom meeting were in support.  

DVLA bosses didn’t believe we would win the ballot, or beat the 50 per cent ballot threshold.  

As new membership forms flooded in, it became clear members had had enough and 72 per cent voted Yes and the threshold was broken.  

While further progress was made in subsequent talks, it was not sufficient and it was clear management was not willing to accept that more needed to be done immediately, and there was a lot more work that could be done remotely.

Action was called from April 6-9, immediately following the long Easter weekend, and received strong support.  

Due to safety concerns and the nature of the dispute, it was agreed not to hold a picket line, but we ensured the visibility of the action in lots of other ways including a large-scale social media campaign (the branch now has Facebook and Twitter accounts with hundreds of members joining during the ballot period); a mobile billboard (battle van) that toured Swansea and quickly drew public attention; high-profile supporters all over Britain, including MPs and leading activists; two public rallies with a range of speakers — one on day one of the action, one on day four.

On Tuesday lunchtime, I was proud to chair the first rally, which hundreds attended. 

Messages of support came flooding through thick and fast, alongside donations and pledges and it was clear that the action has massive national support.  

Speakers included branch chair Sarah Evans, a stalwart of this dispute who has spoken at every meeting, Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj, who brought solidarity from all over Wales, supportive MPs Carolyn Harris, Tonia Antoniazzi, Christina Rees and Stephen Kinnock shared the platform with PCS branch activists Sophia Wickstead, Phil Evans and Maciej Krzymieniecki, talking about their experiences. And finally, of course, Mark Serwotka.

At the second rally on Friday, local strikers Dot Jones and Gareth Payne who spoke were joined by Frances O’Grady from the TUC, MPs Geraint Davies, Nia Griffith, alongside Grahame Morris and John McDonnell, John Hendy QC and finally again, Mark Serwotka. 

This just further demonstrated what great support our strikers have.

Both rallies showed a real determination to win, backed up by widespread solidarity.

It takes real guts to stand up and fight back against hostility, and the stakes in this dispute about safety are incredibly high. But this branch, and PCS, is determined. 

We believe campaigning works and action gets results. These workers are fighting for us all and deserve our full support.  

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