Pay talks, hybrid working and strikes: PCS’s new general secretary Fran Heathcote sets out her stall

The union’s first ever female chief discusses following in the footsteps of Mark Serwotka, her immediate priorities, and why strikes could soon be back on the agenda
Fran Heathcote at last weekend's GCHQ trade union ban anniversary march. Photo: Jess Herd.

By Tevye Markson

01 Feb 2024

Fran Heathcote has big shoes to fill. Today, she takes over as PCS’s new general secretary from Mark Serwotka, who has spent more than two decades in the role. In doing so, she becomes the union’s first ever female leader.

A 30-year veteran of the civil service, all spent in the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessor departments, Heathcote joined the union – then the Civil and Public Services Association – in her first week as a civil servant.

She quickly became a local rep, and gradually rose up through the ranks, becoming DWP group president in 2012, and then moving to a national role as PCS president in 2019.

Now, for the first time in three decades, she’s no longer a civil servant. Instead, she is in charge of the civil service’s biggest union, representing more than 190,000 officials.

Having been part of the union for 30 years – many of which were spent working closely with Serwotka – Heathcote is as cognisant as anyone of the union’s evolution under his leadership.

“It's been a massive transformation into a campaigning union where it's activist led, democratic,” she says. “We've got a tough time ahead of us with all the government attacks we're facing. But I think Mark's legacy is having the union in a state where it's up for the battles ahead.”

As a close ally of Serwotka – who backed her in the general secretary election – is she looking to pick up where he left things off or shake things up? “If it ain't broke, why fix it? But there are always tweaks and improvements you can make,” Heathcote says.

Early on, she wants to get out and meet as many members as possible, to “get a picture of what people think PCS does well, but also where they think we might do things better”.

This is an approach she learned early in her career.

Growing up in Somerset, Heathcote’s first job was as a groom for race horses. She joined the Department of Health and Social Security in 1993, with the “clear intention” of returning to her old job when the horses came back from holiday. However, she stuck around, which she attributes largely to being involved in the union. Within a month of joining the CSPA, she stood on her first picket line, striking over market testing, a policy introduced by the Conservative government of the early 1990s to test the efficiency of public services by exposing them to competition from external providers. Soon after, she took on her first union role. “They didn’t have a rep in the office and somebody pointed at me and said ‘She's young and gobby, she'll do it,’” Heathcote recalls.

It was here that she learned the value of on-the-ground work.  

“I was always very enthusiastic about recruiting people, so we quite quickly ended up with 100% membership in my office,” she says. 

In the days before emails, she would photocopy and place leaflets on every desk in the office.

“[Colleagues] would see me and say: ‘That's that girl from the union, we need to ask her why there's not enough loo roll on the fourth floor, why the blinds in the kitchen don't work’. And obviously more serious issues like ‘why aren’t there enough staff?’ or ‘why are we not getting a cost of living pay rise?’. Through that constant discussion, people were gradually getting more and more involved.

“And it's a bit of a lesson, really, in old-school organising. The more you've got somebody on the ground talking to people about the issues, the more likely they are to join a union. In what wasn’t exactly an industrial heartland, we had 100% membership because everybody knew me or knew what was going on and it was a very good education for me.”

Heathcote also believes her route to the top, rising from the lowest ranks of the union, has allowed her to “get a real feel for the issues at all grades”.

“It's likely that we will be part of quite a big campaign across the public sector in the months ahead if the government doesn't change its stance on the way it treats the public sector” 

She is stepping into the general secretary position in turbulent times that could, perhaps, be described as “between storms”. After an extended pay dispute across the public sector last year, which saw tens of thousands of civil servants stage strikes, the government relented. Civil servants got higher-than-rumoured pay deals for 2023-24. But, due to high levels of inflation, it was yet another real-terms decrease. In fact, recent Institute for Government analysis found salaries at every civil service grade have fallen by between 12% and 26% since 2010 in real terms.

Meanwhile, the government has begun to crack down on industrial action, introducing strike-breaking legislation, and pledged to cut around 66,000 civil service jobs. Other potential flashpoints include ongoing battles over pension payments, redundancy packages and the new 60% office attendance policy.

On the 60:40 office attendance announcement

“It’s one of those statements that the Tories make without any proper analysis of how it could actually work in reality. Parts of the civil service have made big plans based on 40% office requirements. So the idea that, even if they wanted to, they're going to impose that 60% any time soon is a bit farcical because they've closed offices on the basis of hybrid working. There are negotiations taking place across the civil service on the 60% requirement. Like pay, it's delegated and it'll be different in every employer.

"There will be places like jobcentres where people have been physically in offices from the outset because they have to be, and other places where there just isn't any will to impose the 60% and so it'll be a matter of working that through with the various employer groups and seeing what the outcome is. But I think there are many employers scratching their heads about how this could actually work. It's also quite clear that a number of officials have signed up to hybrid working arrangements based on 40% as a means of avoiding redundancy and so there’s an awful lot that needs to be picked through about how it could actually work.”

 

What is Heathcote’s message to civil servants? “We face a hostile government,” she says. “People are expecting a change of government this year and, if that happens, then no doubt that will present a whole range of different challenges. But there's never been a more important time to be in a union. This government has an ethos of a leaner, meaner civil service, with less civil servants doing more work. The best way of combatting that is people being prepared to stand up for themselves and for each other.”

Given the backdrop, it looks like more civil service strikes are on the cards.

“It's likely that we will be part of quite a big campaign across the public sector in the months ahead if the government doesn't change its stance on the way it treats the public sector,” Heathcote says.

“There are lots of issues that have the potential for a dispute. Our members are incredibly angry about the way they've been treated by the government. We want to negotiate as much as we can. But we’ve left the Cabinet Office under no illusions that if that doesn't have a significant impact, we will be back in a dispute situation very quickly.”

Last year, PCS demanded a 10% pay rise. While Heathcote doesn’t have a figure in mind yet for 2024-25, she wants civil servants' wages to get back in line with the cost of living, and says the union will seek “an above-inflation pay increase” which addresses the long-term fall in real-terms pay.

For now, PCS is holding talks with the Cabinet Office and analysing the roughly 200 separate pay talks that have taken place across government departments and agencies, a product of the delegated pay system. 

“Our members are incredibly angry about the way they've been treated by government”

“It’s been a disaster,” Heathcote says. “It means basically all the time they're robbing Peter to pay Paul. They might make a good offer in one department, but there will be another department that's really suffering.”

PCS and other unions have long called for a coherent pay system across the civil service. “If you're doing broadly similar work of a similar grade, you should be paid the same amount of money for doing that. I don't think that's over-ambitious,” Heathcote says. Scrapping delegated pay talks could also help the government’s drive to cut waste and bureaucracy, she suggests.

The incoming general secretary also wants to see an end to the “cycle of low pay”, where every year tens of thousands of officials fall below the National Living Wage.

“The government, not surprisingly, prides itself on being a living wage employer,” she says. “So it's a nonsense that in their own backyard they've got people falling below the minimum wage every year and on April 1 have an enforced uplift by law just to keep them within the law.” She says this has “an impact all the way up through the pay scales” as such a large amount of the money available for pay rises is being used to keep salaries in line with the law.

“If you're doing broadly similar work of a similar grade, you should be paid the same amount of money for doing that. I don't think that's over-ambitious” 

The union’s executive will start to refine the details of its demands this month, before deciding whether to ballot civil servants for industrial action. Heathcote predicts there “may be some progress made” through meetings with the Cabinet Office but adds that “it probably won't be enough to avoid a dispute”.

Last year’s strikes included coordinated walkouts with fellow civil service union Prospect and other public sector-wide unions, an approach Heathcote is keen to continue. “If you have broadly similar issues that affect members in a number of trade unions, then why wouldn't you try and coordinate that action to maximise the pressure?” she says. “So we are in quite a number of discussions, via the TUC, with other unions that are likely to be in dispute in the coming months about where we can join up and coordinate action.”

She believes the public’s reaction to strikes last year means even more civil servants will be willing to take action in 2024. “When all that began, I think there was an assumption that the public would be quite annoyed about the strike action that was happening. But in fact, what became clear was the opposite was true and there was a lot of sympathy. And I think that has given a level of confidence to some of our newer reps and activists and it's meant that we're now having discussions with greater groups of workers about what action might look like.”

Heathcote feels there is “a bit of a mood for action growing at the moment” and so expects to start consulting with members “fairly early” on what action to take. “From our conversations with some of those other public sector unions, I don't think we'll be alone in that,” she adds. 

On becoming the union's first ever female general secretary

“About 66% of people who are eligible for PCS membership are women. So it’s probably about time. But on the other hand, I don't really buy into tokenism, so I don't think people should be there to tick a box. We've had a fantastic general secretary. Mark Serwotka announcing his intention to retire has meant that the two candidates that stood for the role were women. So whatever the outcome, we were going to end up with a female general secretary.

"Even in the 30 years I've been involved, things have changed a lot. When I first started going to national meetings and conferences, it was a sea of white, male faces. There's been a lot of work to try and encourage more participation by women and other underrepresented groups, because we really want the union to reflect the workforce. And I think having strong role models means that more women have the confidence to put themselves forward. What we found through the wave of strike action last year was a whole new layer of people getting involved in PCS from all of the underrepresented groups. So what we want to do is make sure we reflect that.”

 

Some factions in the union have expressed frustration with the level of action by the current PCS leadership – ie. that there isn't enough of it. The mood for more disruption was perhaps reflected in the tight race in the PCS general secretary election, with Heathcote getting just 783 more votes than her rival who wanted to see more strikes. The election was effectively a battle between two left-wing factions, one of which demanded more immediate action. 

How does Heathcote plan on unifying the membership? She says both the groups want the same outcome but have “often quite heated debates about how we get there”. The executive’s strategy has been based on three things, she says: which areas are ballot-ready; whether industrial action in a particular area will be effective; and what will put maximum pressure on the government. “We wouldn't call action in an area where we couldn't beat the 50% threshold,” she says.

“My role in the months ahead is to try and unify people behind a strategy that takes the fight to where the real enemy is,” Heathcote adds. “And that's the government. Not each other. So we'll be doing a lot of work with reps and branches to try and come up with a campaign that doesn't just take odd days of protest action, but actually delivers in a way that we can sustain.”

With a general election due within the next 12 months, a change of government could be on the horizon, with polls predicting a Labour Party victory.  

In 2018, members of PCS controversially voted to lend “national union support for a Corbyn-led Labour government” – a move which stopped short of full affiliation with Labour, but allowed the union to use its political fund to explicitly support Corbyn’s bid for Number 10. Asked today about the status of PCS's relationship with Keir Starmer's party, Heathcote says: "To be clear, we're not affiliated with the Labour Party and we're very clear about that. But we do have very good engagement with some Labour MPs."

Starmer has said Labour will repeal any anti-strike legislation introduced by Rishi Sunak's government if Labour gets into power. Heathcote tells CSW that PCS will need to hold Labour's "feet to the fire" on these commitments. "If all the predictions are right, and we’re likely to see a Labour government at some time this year, we need to be very clear about what we’re asking them, based on the demands of our members," she says. 

 

 

 

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