The Public Sector: cuts, privatisation and employment rights

Submitted by sglenister on Wed, 15/05/2013 - 10:37

15 May 2013

By Janet Newsham

A delegate to the Institute of Employment Rights' latest conference on cuts, privatisation and employment rights in the public sector reports back on the event.

This conference delivered in bucket loads. It was an opportunity for those that attended to contemplate the effects and savagery of the cuts, the injustice of changes to employment tribunals and employment rights, and the ever increasing threats of privatisation and profiteering out of public assets and services. In opening the conference, Carolyn Jones declared that the conference timing couldn’t be better. A similar conference had been held in London on the day of Thatcher’s funeral, where delegates had an opportunity to challenge the rewriting of history by the Tories on the impact of Thatcher’s policies on working people. She also said that April will be known as ‘Abysmal April’ with attacks on redundancy, the minimum wage, access to justice and the fatal blows that have been dealt against housing, benefits and the NHS.

The conference wasn’t just about the effects of the cuts but more importantly how and why we should challenge them.

Lynn Collins the new North-West Regional TUC Secretary, emphasised the need for a strong voice. She outlined the TUC campaigning priorities:

  • The need for a new economy is vital
  • Jobs, pay, services, respect and strong unions are the key
  • Good services and decent welfare are essential

And to achieve this we need to build allies with community groups and champion our public services, including in particular the NHS.

Lynn was followed by an inspirational and thought-provoking contribution by Kevan Nelson, who is the Regional Secretary of Unison. He reminded us that the Coalition Government has a clear unity of purpose, on a neoliberal agenda, and that they are determined to plough through their policies whatever the consequences. Many councils are facing crisis and with the impact of Government budget cuts, many will be unable to deliver services and forced to abandon them to the private sector. He said that in the NHS the price of bureaucracy has mushroomed with no evidence of improved services and the organisation has a funding crisis forcing it to make efficiency savings, redundancies and cuts to services. Kevan reminded us that trade unions’ vision for the NHS is one based on clinical need, free at the point of use, delivered by the public sector with openness and democracy at its centre.

In the education sector, we are facing national chains taking over schools, which are aggressive and mainly anti-trade union, as well as universities attempting to privatise.

He reminded the conference that the public sector is a lever for economic growth and that the current economic situation is the fault of private sector banks and not the public sector. He said that there has been a distortion of the facts by dubious academics, the press and right-wing pressure groups. The public sector is being hawked for auction by an unscrupulous and anti-worker Government.

In conclusion, he said he was reminded of a Labour Councillor being interviewed about Thatcher and they said that “if workers don’t stand up for themselves, no one else will!” We need more industrial resistance to the ‘austerity’ cuts and a stronger political response.

Pete Middleman, the Regional Secretary of PCS, followed Kevan, explaining how the industrial relations environment had become increasingly hostile. He said the goals of right-wing pressure groups like the Taxpayer’s Alliance are to reduce public sector trade unionism. He added the attacks are politically and ideologically directed. The hidden agenda is privatisation and the hawks in Government are attempting to take the legs of the unions to create a compliant workforce. He said that trade unions add value to the workplace and that they had factual and statistical evidence to show that trade unions save money for organisations. In conclusion, he said that this is an opportunity to organise, change, recruit and build trade union strength.

Neil Todd from Thompsons Solicitors provided an interesting and in-depth analysis of the legislation around redundancy, which was followed by workshops on redundancy and the impact of the government’s agenda on the NHS, led by Gary Owen from Unite.

The crescendo of the conference was left to John Medhurst from PCS, who talked about the contradictions in government policies and the destruction of public services. He highlighted the exposé in the media of the bullying and lobbying by G4S, which was winning government contracts because of its political influence. He also spoke about how language was being perverted to hide the real agenda of the government.

John explained how employment rights are being attacked despite objections from business leaders. In conclusion, he said there were alternative economic models that we should be considering. John gave examples such as the ‘Lucas alternative plan’, the Mondragon co-operative success and the ‘recovered factories’ in Venezuela, where public ownership has been created and workers control production and administration. Finally, he called on workers to resist privatisation.

This was an uplifting conference, providing information and an ideological and sustainable argument for a different approach to our economic situation. Lynn Collins summed up the conference by saying that we need to be ‘visionary in the way we argue for public ownership and that it is not called the struggle because it is easy!’

Please find conference papers available for download here

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