Public services and public service trade unionism are under attack from an alliance of forces building on the right – and nowhere more so than in local government, where 750,000 of Unison’s 1.4 million members are employed. In the space of just seven days this October, Unison’s local government group had to respond swiftly to a series of threats.
First came Essex County Council’s announcement that it intends to ‘save’ £300 million over the next three years, allegedly with no cuts to front-line services. Then came the revelation that the Daily Telegraph has sent a Freedom of Information request to 200 councils in England, seeking detailed information on the cost of trade union representatives with paid facility time. No prize for guessing their game.
This was followed by the announcement that, under heavy pressure from the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Essex is going to pre-empt the outcome of the Telegraph’s foraging and ‘review’ facility time for trade union duties. While this was going on, Unison’s Northumberland branch was battling against the proposed redundancies of almost 200 home care workers and the closures of much-needed day centres in a large, rural county, having recently survived the headache of local government reorganisation.
In Norfolk, the Unison branch was campaigning for recognition and a better deal for poorly treated home care workers transferred to a new agency following the failure of a large, privatised home care contract. Enough? As Red Pepper went to press, refuse collectors in Leeds were well into their third month of strike action over pay cuts of up to £6,000 a year.
Blueprint for the Tory future
Despite the recent escalation of these struggles, the left seems to have long abandoned any real interest in local government as the potential focus for revived radical left politics, understandably disillusioned with New Labour’s track record in town halls. However, we ignore it at our peril.
Many of the most important universal public services are run by councils. What’s more, Osborne and Cameron have both cited local government as providing the ‘blueprint’ for their future public service agenda. The ideas being applied in Essex will find their way into the NHS and elsewhere if the Conservatives win the election.
Older Red Pepper readers will remember Thatcher’s lowest-bid compulsory competitive tendering and her environment minister Nicholas Ridley’s vision of ‘enabling’ councils, which would meet just once a year to hand out the contracts to multinationals. Younger readers should note that this is no longer a distant fear. Councils, police authorities and others are coming together within so-called ‘partnerships’, such as ‘South West One’ in Somerset, and handing over control of local services to the likes of IBM – that acknowledged fount of public service expertise.
Besides the cutbacks, there will be curbs on the power of trade unions. We are also already seeing attacks on unions’ ability to recruit and organise in Tory councils, with Lancashire and Nottinghamshire – once Labour strongholds – leading the charge. Unison has been described as ‘too powerful’ by Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne. Could it be lined up as David Cameron’s NUM?
Cameron’s councils in England are now confident enough to boast of having made 50 per cent more ‘efficiency’ savings than required by central government in the past four years. Additionally, while council reserves are rising, they are slyly using the recession as an excuse for council tax cuts – the real cause of many redundancies and cutbacks in local services. The orchestrated campaign by the shadow cabinet Tories, Cameron’s councils, the CBI, the Taxpayers’ Alliance and their friends on the right is close to convincing many. Trade unions and the left need to act together swiftly to counter their propaganda and defend the welfare state.
This is a defining moment for unions – and the left in general – to show that there is an alternative to the demise and privatisation of public services. For those of us in Unison and the other public service unions, the challenges are clear. How do we maintain and build our membership and our bargaining power? How do we protect services and provide the quality we want for users when many are already in the grip of neoliberal councils? How do we build effective coalitions with local communities, the left and with other campaign groups to protect services and local economies? And how, just how, do we keep our heads and intervene to do all this when all around are losing theirs?
Sadly, these questions have to be answered against a backdrop of general decline in trade union strength and influence, within and beyond public services. Last year, trade union membership continued its long-term decline, with a drop of almost two per cent to just 6.9 million members. Just 29 per cent of women workers and 26 per cent of men are now union members, and fewer than 50 per cent of all workers are employed in a unionised workplace. Unison is still growing and public service trade unionism is holding up, but according to government statistics, just 57 per cent of public sector workers are now in a trade union.
Compared to a scary 15.5 per cent in the private sector, this doesn’t sound bad, but when most public service employers still recognise and accept us, it should be better. The impact of privatisation can be seen most clearly in the utilities, where union density has declined by 15 per cent since 1998. Nonetheless, public sector unions are still a force to be reckoned with, with resources and influence beyond our numbers, which should prove crucial in contributing to an effective resistance to the current attack on public services.
An attack on women
Any attack on the public sector such as this is also specifically an attack on women. Women make up 60 per cent of all public service workers and 75 per cent of those who work in local government, education and the NHS. Those figures are reflected in Unison’s membership too.
And in many households women will also have to fill the gap left by dismantled services. In the post-war period, the ‘caring’ public services were consciously built upon skills learnt through unpaid domestic labour, transferred, expanded and exploited in an undervalued public sector labour market. Without women’s emotional commitment to care, good health and education, our welfare state could not have thrived. A recent Unison survey of 10,000 of our members in local government showed that teaching assistants, social workers and care workers regularly work up to 15 per cent unpaid overtime just to get their jobs done. This is hardly the image of the ‘protectionist’ task-and-finish public sector worker, blamed, overlooked and undervalued by New Labour in its drive for modernisation.
There has undoubtedly been serious investment by Labour in staff and resources in the NHS, schools and policing. However, Blair and Brown Inc has also privatised around £150 billion worth of public services in the name of ‘modernisation’ and ‘improvement’, including 80 per cent of home care services and most residential homes. Using so-called ‘Best Value’ as their guiding principle, they have required councils to create markets where clearly none existed and ‘compare’, ‘challenge’ and ‘compete’ in homage to market principles.
The most obvious results of New Labour’s adherence to the market model have been little noticeable improvement in the quality of many services despite the funding increases, any number of major disasters with central government IT contracts, alienation of the workforce and the undermining of trade unions. Accountability to users and taxpayers has been eroded too, despite the new rhetoric of public empowerment. Our members’ pay and conditions have suffered, with feeble protection for those transferred to, or starting work on privatised contracts.
New Labour’s mistake
Arguably New Labour’s greatest mistake was to embark on its programme of ‘modernisation’ in the misguided belief that the workforce and trade unions were the main problem – not part of the solution. This assumed self-interest on the part of public service workers is without foundation.
Well-respected research demonstrates that engaging the workforce in reform produces the best results – whether in manufacturing or services, private or public. So, rather than take a sober look at the real problems undermining public services, Blair and Brown turned to the market to provide solutions. The language of new public management invaded every corner of our public service landscape as league tables, performance indicators, regulation and privatisation took over.
Newcastle Unison has demonstrated the sad error of those ways and has shown what can be achieved through greater democracy in the workplace. The story is told in the book, Public Service Reform… but not as we know it, by Hilary Wainwright and Mathew Little. Threatened with the outsourcing of so-called ‘back office’ services to BT, Kenny Bell and his Unison colleagues at Newcastle had ideas of their own. First they called the council to account through industrial action to oppose the proposal, then they showed the power of public service trade unionism at its best by engaging everyone from managers to frontline staff in an exercise of collective problem-solving. They kept the services in-house and improved them. Staff morale soared and services benefited.
The Newcastle experience threw a spotlight on a key issue – the need for innovative, genuine public service management – which we in trade unions, and the left in general, have often found uncomfortable. Somewhere in the trade union psyche, management is still something to be opposed. Yet when asked to choose from options that would most help them improve local services, the majority of 10,000 of Unison’s local government members surveyed last year opted for ‘Feeling valued’ and ‘Better management’. The first answer might not be surprising. The second more so.
One big challenge for Unison, then, is how to overcome the workplace hierarchy reflected within the union, and focus the expertise of our manager members on public solutions to service improvement. This will not be easy in a climate that has grown increasingly hostile to alternatives to privatisation, and rewarded no-one for seeking them out. We need to use the union to bring managers together with members working on the front line and the ‘back office’ to formulate ideas for keeping jobs and decent working conditions.
That’s not the only challenge of course. A united front to protect the public sphere is needed now more than ever. But building alliances always seems hard for unions as we vie for members and public profile, while the historic ties to the Labour Party and hostility to the ‘far left’ seems to make affiliation to many broad-based campaigns impossible. Unions generally want to lead, even when we don’t always know where we’re going!
For those on the radical left outside the trade union movement, the ongoing adherence of some unions to New Labour seems to close down opportunities for alliances, while our ‘male, pale and stale’ image does not symbolise the sort of modern, progressive force we want to be.
So what is to be done? The re-branding of the crisis by the right has to be publicly challenged by every means possible. The truth needs to be made plain. Unions – along with publications such as Red Pepper – have a key role to play in this. Campaigns such as Unison’s ‘Million Voices’ can help focus evident public anger on the right targets too. Unions’ resources need to be used to facilitate much more discussion and debate about the public services of the future, as well as how to defend the ones we have now.
We, in turn, need the left to help us recruit and organise, for without unions there is little hope of mobilising on the scale likely to be necessary if Cameron and co form the next government. What none of us can do is to stand and wait. Time is running out.
Heather Wakefield is the head of local government at Unison
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform