Victimisation of a militant

Graham Cooper reports the DWP attack on Lee Rock and the PCS

Union militant and CPGB member Lee Rock has been charged with “serious misconduct” by the department for work and pensions (DWP) - for giving an interview to BBC Look North in December 2007. Another branch officer of the Public and Commercial Services union in Sheffield, Steve Lloyd, also faces disciplinary action, but is yet to be told the details of any charge.

Lee was interviewed regarding the loss of 800 applications for ‘budgeting loans’ from claimants while they were in transit from Sheffield, and his appearance was innocuous by most rational standards. The full transcript of the very brief interview can be read at www.pcssheffield.org.uk/latest/latestnews.htm. He was asked to appear as a PCS rep (he is assistant branch secretary), not as a DWP worker per se. He stated the facts of the foul-up and made its implications clear. He advised the public to contact their local DWP office if they were concerned. He stated the union was unclear about whether or not management had records of which claims were missing.

All his statement concerned matters that needed to be made public, not hidden away as a guilty secret. It was the latest case of people’s confidentiality being jeopardised through bureaucratic mismanagement. Lee may have labelled the loss of these personal details “outrageous”, but he did not incriminate the department any more than it had already incriminated itself - through enforcing job cuts that were ultimately to blame. The facts themselves spoke eloquently of DWP incompetence, but management, as is so often the case, chose to shoot the messenger.

The case of comrades Rock and Lloyd follow a pattern of victimisation. The fact that Lee’s comments related to an incident that should have been made public by management itself is proof of this. Sheffield DWP PCS is a militant, campaigning branch whose members have staunchly resisted job cuts and defended public services.

The attitude of some members of senior management were revealed in an extraordinary email sent by department director Neil Couling to branch secretary Steve Lloyd. He wrote: “My views on Lee’s case are a matter of public record. I thought his actions were foolhardy, disproportionate and caused needless alarm for our customers. I thought, though, my gentle ridicule was sanction enough [Couling had posted comments about comrade Rock on his blog!]. Managers locally, however, took a different view, as is their right. And I back them in that. After all, on behalf of everyone in Sheffield, they had to pick up the pieces of Lee’s foray into the media.”

According to Couling, instead of defending his members’ interests comrade Rock should have knuckled down to improving “productivity” by cooperating with management attacks on the workforce: “Sheffield PCS is already renowned as having probably the worst relationship with management in the country. Sheffield also has productivity figures, across JCP operations, at the bottom end, and absence management figures at the top end, of the ranges. So you might start to wonder if the time has come to engage a little bit less in activities, which I would describe as sub-student politics, and engage a little bit more time in working with us in putting right these local issues.”

Management was clearly ruffled. The infantile references to “sub-student” politics aside, the email blames the activities of the PCS branch for the performance of the DWP centre - as if union organisation aimed at ameliorating the misery of unfulfilling call centre work, low pay and high targets should be blamed, not those who impose the misery. No wonder the staff are taking time off. The raft of cuts and imposed ‘offers’ of below-inflation pay rises hardly make the DWP a happy place to work.

In his reply, comrade Lloyd pointed out that the branch had approached the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield to discuss the problems of attendance and productivity in the call centre network - but management was not interested, and refused to support the initiative. Clearly the bosses do not care about “putting right” these particular “local issues”: ie, the universal alienation arising from wage labour. It prefers to try and suppress workers’ resistance and use the problems caused by DWP policy as a stick to beat the union with.

Comrade Rock’s case also reveals the hypocrisy endemic to British state institutions. Lee’s remarks were undoubtedly in the ‘public interest’, however that is defined. But his appearance was deemed to have breached the arbitrary standards of comment permitted as a so-called ‘public servant’. But ‘public servants’ are not supposed to serve ‘the public’ at all, if truth be told. On the contrary, facts vital to people’s lives must be concealed if they are inconvenient or embarrassing for the state - things are so much easier if ‘the public’ are kept ignorant.

Communists call for maximum transparency in the running of state departments. Information should never be suppressed simply because it may show organisations or individuals in a bad light. This is reflected in the organisation of our own affairs - all our decisions, discussions and theory (as opposed to confidential personal details or matters of security) are explained openly. Such openness should be generalised - it is in the interests of our class, but is detested by state bureaucrats and capitalists alike.

Management had threatened Lee with a written warning (which would have meant summary dismissal had he committed any further ‘offence’), but has since downgraded the charge. Nevertheless, the pressure must be kept up.