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All together now

With public sector spending cuts the new orthodoxy, the trade union movement needs to mobilise a stronger counter-attack, argues Heather Wakefield of public sector union Unison

January 14, 2010
10 min read

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

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