Defending Public Services and Jobs

The Spring issue of SOLIDARITY is now available. This is an article from it.

The strength of the unions depends on the consciousness, organisation, and active involvement of their members …”

As we approach a General Election, whatever the outcome, we can be sure that public sector workers and the services they provide, are facing cuts across the board. For instance, even if the current government were to somehow hang on, the NHS would face cuts in spending of between £15 and £20 billion by 2014. Ken Clarke, for the Tories has promised deeper cuts than those made by Thatcher.

Whichever sector you look at management are seeking to cut jobs or services, or some measure of both. So the trades unions are going to face a severe test of their ability to defend their members and the services. In London the FBU is facing a stiff battle against management which wants to save money by unilaterally imposing new shifts (see Page 12).

Whilst UK union membership is comprised of 40.3% in the private sector, and 59.7% in the public sector there is no comparison in unity density. As Gregor Gall reports (see page 13) union density in the private sector is down to a meagre 15%, whilst in the public sector it is 57.1%. Those covered by collective agreements were 18.7% in the private sector and 70.5% in the public sector.

This shows the scope for recruitment in the public sector where collective agreements apply. Yet, in the case of Health and social work, despite an increase in staff numbers over the period of the New Labour government, union density has declined from 46.1% to 40.7%. Why? The reasons are surely connected with the collaboration of the Health unions with the government rather than mobilising their members against its market driven ‘reforms’. If they have criticised the introduction of the ‘health market’ they have nonetheless signed up to a partnership agreement designed to deliver ‘modernisation’.

This partnership was agreed in the context of the introduction of a ‘health market’ which has opened up the NHS to private companies, demanded Trusts break even year on year, and introduced ‘payment by results’. It has replaced cooperation with competition. This partnership has undermined union independence and meant they have failed to challenge the government’s agenda, despite their criticisms of it. If you look at the NHS Social Partnership Forum website you can read examples of ‘best practice’. Just to take one example, the report waxes lyrical about cooperation between management and unions at the Blackpool Trust, enabling 523 jobs to be cut! There is as yet no movement within the health service unions to break this partnership arrangement. Without such a break there can be no effective rebuilding of independent union organisation opposed to the fragmentation of the NHS.

Yet as the example of the North Devon UNISON strike shows, with determined leadership, even the lowest paid and downtrodden workers can be organised successfully if their interests are not identified with those of the management. As Mark Harper shows in his article (page 4) the key to building union strength is the involvement of union members. Or, as he puts it “a union is at its strongest when the distinction between activist and member is at its most blurred”.

Like the health unions, the CWU in Royal Mail has accepted the need for ‘modernisation’ as good coin. The leadership of the union seeks a partnership with Royal Mail, but the resistance of their membership to the impact of liberalisation on the job, and the service, is an obstacle to reaching one. Ironically a single CWU member, the pseudonymous Roy Mayall, on his own initiative in breaking into the mass media, has done more to explain the issues behind the dispute than the union apparatus has been able to do. As Roy explains (see page 5), there needs to be a campaign to end the ‘downstream access’ which is nothing other than a rigged market in which RM has to deliver the mail of its competitors. The strategy of the CWU – ‘modernisation’ of RM so it can compete with the private companies – can only lead to the destruction of jobs and a worsening of the service.

Defending public services requires an alliance between public sector workers and users of the services they provide. As the campaign in defence of Council housing has shown, such an alliance (in this case between council workers and Council tenants) has delivered successes despite the odds being stacked against them. Of course, there is the advantage of having a ballot of tenants to decide on transfer to the private sector. Other privatisations do not have to go through a ballot. But the principle remains the same. Public sector workers bolster their chances if they win the support of service users.

Local government workers have long been used to the annual budget crisis in which cuts are distributed across departments. Pressure is now being stepped up. For example, 2,000 job cuts have been announced in Birmingham. At the same time the ‘Single Status’ process draws to a messy end, with open discussion barred on the basis of ‘advice’ from the union solicitors.

The weakness of union organisation in local government is reflected by the fact that in only one local authority (Birmingham – see page 9) has there been strike action across all departments against pay cuts resulting from ‘Single Status’. In some areas there has been sectional action from groups with some industrial muscle such as the Leeds refuse workers (page 7). In some areas there was a not surprising outrage from members when local government unions have recommended acceptance of agreements which include wage cuts for a substantial group of their members. Now the situation seems to be that unions are making no recommendation whatsoever, for fear of the legal consequences; leaving their members leaderless.

During the period from 1980 the response of the union apparatuses to the defeats the movement suffered was ‘partnership’ and the ‘service model’ – the provision of individual services. This strategy tied the unions to their employers and encouraged a passive outlook amongst members. All that they had to do was pay their subscription and miraculously a service was provided for them. This reinforced the impact of the defeats on collective union organisation. Yet even when such an approach was abandoned, or half abandoned, the unions were left with the consequence of encouraging a passive membership rather than building collective organisation.

The strength of the unions depends on the consciousness, organisation and active involvement of their members in the workplace and on the industrial level. It depends also, on their independence from management and government, and a recognition that their interests require a struggle. A break with ‘partnership’ in the NHS and elsewhere and the promotion of a vision of public services which are not turned into commodities, is necessary means of changing the unions from service providers to fighting collective organisations.

As Kim Moody shows (page 14) from the experience of the NUHW in the USA, a union with virtually no apparatus can be successful to the degree that it is literally a union of the members. There is a lesson for us there and from North Devon. The enthusiasm of workers for an organisation which they consider theirs, which brings them together in struggle for their interests develops a collective and combative spirit.

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