Well, the government’s austerity measures are clearly having a disproportionate impact here and there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, we have a high level of public sector employment, so due to cuts in public services we’re seeing around 2,000 public sector jobs being lost every month in the region. Of course, the majority of the public sector workers are women, so we have a disproportionate impact on women in employment. There is also a rise in underemployment. We have lots of people who want and need financially secure full-time work, but they are only finding part time roles available. If you link that into some of the benefit changes coming in, people are in a very difficult situation.
The other critical factor is that while we’re seeing a significant reduction in the public sector work force, the government has no effective private sector growth strategy. So it’s all very well saying we need to shift employment and the level of funding in the public sector, and grow the private sector. But if you don’t have a private sector growth strategy, then all we’re seeing in this region at the moment, is that people who were in employment and therefore spending their wages in the local economy now are losing their jobs. They’re not earning any money, they’re having to survive on benefits, so they have no money to spend in the local economy to regenerate the private sector.
In the North East we’ve got one of the highest rates of child poverty, at about 1 in 5 children in the region (it could be more now) living in poverty. We’ve got one of the highest rates of young people’s unemployment, and obviously, since the raising of tuition fees, young people can’t afford to go into higher or further education. Through the public sector cuts we’ve seen a reduction in apprenticeships, and those types of things that would give young people the opportunity to get skills to enter the job market. Plus, on the back of the public sector cuts, the essential services – that are needed even more during these difficult times – are being reduced as well.
So there’s a triangulation impact in terms of people not having money to invest in the local economy while the very services that people need are being cut. It’s a really bad situation for people in this region.
This region has responded in innovative ways when public services have been under threat in the past. Could the rest of the country look here for inspiration?
The book you’ve got there [points to book in interviewer’s hand] called ‘Public service reform… but not as we know it’, that’s about a project involving Kenny Bell who was Deputy Convenor of Unison’s Northern Region until sadly, he died a couple of years ago. He was instrumental in some of that work, looking at how we engage with public sector workers and trade unions into how we organise public services.
So we have experience of looking to keep services in-house and meeting difficult financial constraints in much more innovative ways that just cutting jobs or cutting services. The book outlines some good examples of that approach being successful.
Also, our region established a Public Services Alliance a couple of years ago which has a clear aim of bringing all Trade Unions together and building alliances with community groups, user groups and others to campaign against the cuts in a coordinated way.
What are the key challenges and priorities for Unison here?
Over the next 12-24 months, one key challenge is to keep recruiting to the union, so we can maintain our workplace negotiating and bargaining strength. Secondly, to ensure we’re challenging public sector job losses and a loss of services. Thirdly, to keep equality at the heart of the agenda.
We need to have a critical role in monitoring the impact of the cuts on, for example, people with disabilities, women, young people, black and minority ethnic workers.
We must continue to challenge the government’s economic, political and social agenda, by saying there is an alternative. So, for instance, trade unions have been at the forefront of arguing for a response to the economic crisis that involves investing in public sector infrastructure, such as houses and roads. Everyone said ‘oh that’s crazy, you people don’t know what you’re talking about’ but of course now we’re seeing the Lib Dems and others saying oh hang on, maybe we have cut too far, too deep, and we need to invest in growth projects. Because that is actually how you’re going to start growing the private sector, because then people will be earning money, they will be employed and spending that money in their local economy.
So I think we’ve been at the forefront of challenging the government’s agenda, but doing that in a way that promotes a positive alternative. The fact that people are now starting to listen to us shows we have real ideas that are credible and promote a very different type of society.
Where do you hope the anti-austerity movement will be in a few years time?
My optimistic view is that we get more and more people listening to and signing up to the alternative approaches that are being put forward, particularly those championed by trade union, community groups, the voluntary sector, some local MPs and councillors.
What I’d really like to see is that we continue to build, strengthen and deepen those alliances so that the majority of people understand that there is an alternative. Then when we get to the next general election, we vote out the present government who are clearly only focussed and concerned with a minority of people in society rather than the majority.