PCS members in HM Revenue & Customs are currently undertaking a work-to-rule as part of an ongoing industrial action campaign. But what exactly is a work to rule, and why is it such a powerful tool in the workers’ arsenal?
In essence, work to rule is a form of industrial action where workers use the employer’s own rules to grind production to a halt. Employees turn up for work every day as normal, and get paid for such, unlike a strike – but they “give the rules a meaning which no reasonable man could give them and work to that.”1 It is used as a supplement to strike action or, in some circumstances, as an alternative where strike action is banned or restricted by law.
The Solidarity Federation’s Workmates pamphlet describes the effect of a work-to-rule on the London Underground against attempts by management to get rid of “job and knock”:
Due to the potentially dangerous nature of the work, out on the underground tracks in the night, there were numerous rules and regulations which if followed to the letter virtually brought work to a standstill.
One particularly imaginative direct action was the ‘piss strike’. One of the health and safety regulations stated that on the tracks, all workers must at all times be accompanied by a ‘Protection Master’- a member of the workforce trained to provide safety from trains and traction current. This meant each gang tended to have just the one Protection Master, as management didn’t want to waste money training up any more than they had to. Workers turned management’s thrift into a weakness. Ordinarily if the (overwhelmingly male) staff needed to urinate, they’d simply go on the tracks. However when management tried to stop the job-and-knock system, workers decided they’d have to use an actual toilet.
The toilet could be a good distance from the actual point of work out on the tracks, which meant a long walk. Of course they had to be accompanied by the Protection Master. This then left the rest of the gang without protection, so they’d have to come along too. The whole gang would therefore traipse to the toilet and back, only to return and have someone else realise they ‘needed’ to go too!
The piss strike proved remarkably effective, with very little work getting done. Alongside the other work-to-rules, this had almost the effectiveness of a strike – but without the loss of pay and without the risk of being sacked for taking unofficial action in breach of contract. It forced management to completely cave in within two days, and the attempt to end the job-and-knock system was shelved.
There may not be anything we can do in Revenue & Customs that is as instantly spectacular as the piss strike. But we can still cause untold disruption with a work-to-rule.
Imagine, for example, the effect of every single Contact Centre worker taking their Display Screen Equipment (DSE) break at the same time. Every hour, on the hour, all workers stop and leave their desks for five minutes. You are entitled to do this as part of health and safety law, of course, but it usually occurs during “natural” breaks in work. What would a coordinated five minute action do to call backlogs? What effect would it have as it reoccurred hour-on-hour, day-after-day?
In offices where hot desking is common, most of us readjust our chairs and monitors without thinking about it. But what if we took our time to do a new DSE risk assesment every time, as departmental guidance requires? How much of our own labour are we costing the department, how many worked cases, without picking up a placard or losing a single second of pay?
Management are required to carry out a low-level risk assessment on every type of work that we do. What if we asked to see that risk assessment before we commenced any work? What if we refused to do that work when they couldn’t produce the risk assessment, as is our right under health and safety law? Departmental targets go out of the window and untold hours of production are lost, all for want of a piece of paper.
These are just three of the things that members are going to be asked to do over the coming weeks. As the action escalates week-by-week so does the disruption to the department, which is what counts. Remember – our employers don’t negotiate with us because they care for our wellbeing, but because collectively we hold the power in the workplace.
During this action, don’t worry about what confusion and disruption you are causing to HMRC. Relish it. If you’re a manager, don’t get stressed because you can’t meet targets. Embrace it, and support the action alongside your staff. Demonstrate to the department that its workforce stands together as one and, if they want the disruption to cease, there is only one choice: to meet the demands of the union that represents us.
Further reading – Work to rule: a guide | libcom.org
1 “‘Work to rule’ has a perfectly well-known meaning, namely, ‘Give the rules a meaning which no reasonable man could give them and work to that.'” – Sir John Donaldson, Secretary of State v. ASLEF (No. 2)  2 All E.R. 949 at 959 (N.I.R.C.)