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Remember, work is a collective activity

A dream for some, a nightmare for others: the push to work from home demands a collective not an individual response. Photo ladyphoto89/shutterstock.com.

Calls for remote working to become permanent and the norm for office workers are misleading and dangerous for the working class, even if they seem superficially attractive…

What’s going on in government offices (and elsewhere)? You won’t find out from politicians – nor it seems from trade unions.

During the coronavirus pandemic many office workers were able to work at home, thanks to good communications and a flexible approach to workplace issues. Of course many other workers, in hospitals, transport, factories, retail, construction and so on had no choice.

That could not last. As an urgent response to a novel virus against which there was no vaccine, it was right to adopt home working. And many of those office workers, like factory workers, had to adapt to new challenges to produce goods and deliver services.

But just as lockdowns took their toll on people’s general physical and mental health, so the workplace changes came at a price. Forget the distraction of headlines about the loss of trade for sandwich bars. The real loss was of workers’ control in the workplace – how and when work is done.

In many offices, especially those where workers are not unionised, formal control has been weakened or was always minimal. But work, production of goods and services, is a collaborative activity.

‘The real loss from lockdowns was of workers’ control in the workplace – how and when work is done…’

Workers decide all day, every day how their work is done; acquiescence to bad employers and over-demanding managers is only ever temporary. Often people work round obstacles informally and without organisation. That’s both a strength, as we saw in response to the pandemic, and a weakness, as success in resisting the employer is also temporary.

It’s hard to assert control of your job if you’re not in the same place or don’t have contact with others. A brief “hello” before another Zoom meeting isn’t personal contact. And employers who resist unionisation know how important informal contact is for workplace control – which is why they limit interaction in contact centres and large warehouses for example.


It’s not impossible to organise where a workforce is peripatetic or spread over many sites. But anyone who has been in that situation will tell you that it’s hard – and relies on knowing your colleagues, having mutual trust and shared experience.

People new to the job or with new responsibilities don’t have the opportunity to learn and develop their skills alongside colleagues. Hence culture and knowledge inherent in the workplace are diluted and not sustained, and existing workers don’t learn from and adapt to new recruits.

This fits a capitalist, globalist pipedream of a unitised, interchangeable workforce which can be swapped from London to Liverpool to Lowestoft – and then follow manufacturing jobs offshore to Lodz or Lucknow.

The trade union response to all of this is paradoxical and at times confused, particularly from those representing government workers. The collective nature of work and union organisation have become increasingly marginalised. All unions support individuals with problems, and offer some individual benefits. But individual rights cannot be treated as central while the collective is sidelined. 

Young, inexperienced workers in particular are excluded and suffer by remote working from home – as do those living in cramped housing (working on the kitchen table was a lockdown cliché for too many). And now there are rising energy costs.

Unions defending members – and trumpeting a diversity agenda – should be taking on this discrimination. Instead, they are embracing home working for at least some of the time. “Blended working is the future” they say – implying that wanting your employer to provide a decent working environment is somehow old hat.

Civil servants

The attraction of not commuting every day with worsening public transport and increased fuel costs is understandable. Travel to work takes longer for most as the government centralises work in major departments. HMRC (Revenue and Customs) for example now operates from only 13 regional centres across Britain and Northern Ireland.

Union opposition has been mostly ineffective and confined to managing redundancies and relocation. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents the civil servants affected, is currently trying to resist the Department of Work and Pension’s latest office closure programme. But the union’s strength is undermined by having spent the past two years insisting that working in offices is not safe.

Failure to secure control in the workplace has come home to roost for civil servants. Even before the pandemic the government drastically cut office space – not only through closures, but also in London headquarters buildings – 6 desks for 10 staff is now common.

Told to “go back to the office” by blustering minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, civil servants had to arrive very early or queue for somewhere to work. Some signed on from libraries, others returned home to work.

Arguing for a right to work from home, as is happening in the Netherlands, will only make this worse. The “right” will become an obligation. Work will be atomised and easily moved to another person – the eternal fate of outworkers since the start of the industrial revolution.

There was little doubt that during the pandemic there were health issues at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency building near Swansea, which spilled over into long service delays, stretching to many months. Workers there tackled a complacent and unresponsive management, despite media attempts to blame them as “lazy” and “skivers”.

But the DVLA action petered out last November after a series of strikes and failure to secure a high enough turnout in a ballot for another round. The union blamed government intervention, a few months earlier, but it should have been clear that another approach was needed.

Back into the workplace

There are more ways to exert control than extended strikes – getting back into the workplace on your own collective terms for example instead of hiding behind health and safety inspections.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, held a “blended conference” this year, whatever that means, when they might have been thinking about a strong return to face to face debate after the pandemic restrictions. The PCS at least attempted a physical annual conference in May, though numbers were down due to the spike in Covid cases that month.

‘The “right” to work from home will become an obligation. Work will be atomised…’

“All members can watch online” is the antithesis of democracy, reinforced by the obsession with working from home. Indeed, on the same day that the government announced 90,000 civil service job cuts, the FDA conference was calling for “flexible” or “hybrid” or “location-neutral” working – in other words continuation of working from home and making that a permanent feature.

One motion declared “work is not a place” in support of that policy and another called for the ability to work from abroad where that was “for personal reasons”. These are foolish notions, meat and drink to ministers wanting rid of the civil service as a check on their madcap ideas. 

What of those job cuts – the announcement was made without warning and the figures plucked out of the air. Most of the £3.7 billion savings are to come from front line staff – not, yet, policy advisors. The public response was generally to see through that ruse – and to ask how that action could do anything but make service delays worse. 

But Rees-Mogg returned to the theme in mid-August as the two remaining candidates for the Conservative leadership were in a Dutch auction about who was going to cut the civil service the quickest and deepest. And linked to that drive, the government, in preparation for job cuts, announced “consultation” about changes (worsening, of course) to the terms for future redundancies.

That looks like a big fight ahead, with no scope for grandstanding. Civil servants will need all of their collective experience and skill to defend their jobs and conditions. And that will be easier when they are back in offices.