Public sector jobs are vital to the north-east England economy, comprising a third of all employment in the region. The coalition’s cuts will have a devastating impact here, potentially taking unemployment to unprecedented post-war levels and bringing back social deprivation not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Trade unions are fighting back with a regional campaign. The concept of a ‘public services alliance’ involving trade unions, local voluntary/community sector organisations, user groups and politicians was conceived months before the election, when it became clear that massive public sector cuts were on the mainstream political agenda. Working closely with the PCS union, Unison Northern laid the foundations and the Northern Public Services Alliance (NPSA) was launched in June.
We are in for a long struggle: taking on the coalition government, fighting local employers, winning support for an alternative economic agenda and building a political alternative.
New ways of organising are required, engaging beyond our usual ranks, and bringing in new union members and activists to reflect the diversity of our workplaces and communities. Particular emphasis is on attracting women, who account for 65 per cent of public sector jobs, and young people, who are struggling to gain employment or access to further training.
The NPSA strategy has four strands. Alongside developing and promoting an alternative economic agenda, emphasis will be placed on workplace organising and engaging membership within the local coalitions. This is crucial to its sustainability. We need to instil in our members the belief that we can win. If we win, it will be because of the strength of the unions.
In the workplace, the emphasis is on promoting an alternative economic agenda and developing a positive negotiating agenda. These include issues of learning and development and work-life balance alongside the key demands of no privatisation, no compulsory redundancies and trade union/workforce engagement. We have produced a campaign pack to help activists and give them confidence in explaining this plan to the lay membership.
Once members’ support for the strategy has been won, the strategy is to then campaign for employers to agree a protocol, as at Newcastle City Council. Employers who do not co-operate will face mobilisations and potential strike action.
Face-to-face communication with members and accountable leadership of trade union branches are key to this process. Also imperative to the success of the campaign is building meaningful community-trade union alliances. Community and voluntary engagement in the defence of public services is essential. This means making the agenda relevant for these sectors – making it clear that this is not just about defending jobs, but rather about developing a clear response to the Tories’ ‘big society’ and a strategy for community engagement in service delivery and design.
An understanding of the implications of the cuts is necessary, together with the development of alternative proposals that allow service users and communities access to policy decisions at local level. This is our opportunity to reclaim democracy and provide practical alternatives.
Local coalitions have already been established across the region and have regular monthly meetings. It is significant that women are taking leading positions, making up the majority of local co-ordinators/chairs. Unison Northern has appointed a community organiser for 12 months specifically to build and support a community coalition in Newcastle. Next spring we are also planning a major ‘social forum’ style open event on the future of public services and communities and how we can organise the resistance together between trade unions, community, voluntary and political activists.
The last important strand is our political strategy. The political make-up of the region’s councils and MPs is such that the north east should be leading the fight to save public services. The political aspect of the strategy is to persuade Labour groups, MPs, trade unions, and local councillors to sign up to a common agenda, creating a political bloc in the region, with a common strategy and position on key policy issues.
We have already begun to approach Labour MPs and council leaders, and are working on a manifesto, building on Unison’s Million Voices campaign, for May’s local elections, which we will be asking politicians to sign up to.
Already the Public Services Alliance model is being adopted elsewhere, and Unison and PCS have signed a joint statement on working together. The challenge we face is huge. However, early signs are positive, with NPSA coalitions growing in numbers and our message reaching into communities. This government does not have a mandate for its slash and burn approach to public services, and we believe that Cameron and Osborne are in for a shock in the months ahead.
Clare Williams is the convenor of Unison’s northern region