Public services under attack – international austerity and the fight-back

Speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s 2014 International Summer School, Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, gave an account of the struggles public service workers are facing. This article draws on her speech to delegates in Tuesday’s opening plenary.

[Republished from my article at Socialist Unity]

Public service jobs used to be considered the gold standard in much of the world. Well paid, good pension, decent holidays and solid trade union rights. In an era of neoliberalism however, these previously ‘most formal of formal workers’ are facing the kinds of attacks previously only associated with the most ruthless companies.

International Struggles

There’s an ideological background to this. Labour market and union ‘reform’ has been factor in almost all post-crash countries. In South Korea, the government has recently initiated the most violent attack on public services – derecognising unions in each sector. Privatisation of the rail industry and the mass firing of union activists have turned the country into what one delegate called ‘a war zone’ for workers.

Public Services International, the Global Union Federation for public service workers, is used to privatisation battles – organising in industries which are often publicly funded and subsidised, but increasingly privately owned.

In the US, the Supreme Court last week ruled that there’s no obligation for care workers to pay union dues to unions collectively bargaining for them. These workers often work alone. They are now even more isolated – especially if their unions become toothless in the face of the court decision.

And internationally, at the last ILO conference, for first time delegates couldn’t reach a conclusion on the centrality of the right to strike – despite convention 87 of the ILO convention deeming it fundamental – because employers were so strongly against. It’s a frightening turn for workers of all sectors, as that is one of the only legal bases unions have on the global scale.

But there is some good news. The UN Women’s organisation recently recognised the role of unions as key to addressing the problems of women.

Moreover, until recently trade unions were previously not allowed to participate in UN discussions on migration. Now, after years of struggling from PSI and others, they can. With migration becoming a vehicle for new kinds of slavery, it’s an important milestone.

For public service workers, the water campaigns in the UN are equally important. In 2010, water was deemed a human right, providing the legal background for the massive 2013 struggles in Europe for water to be publicly owned – many of which won, in Paris and elsewhere.

And in the IMF, Christine Lagarde has recently said austerity is creating more injustice and poses a threat to democracy.

A turning point?

The ruling class, then, is getting scared. We are at critical point of class conflict. In response to a global ruling class, unions must likewise organise internationally, not just in one workplace. The welfare state wasn’t won in one shop floor but by the entire working class.

Multinational capital has a strategy. Unions can’t afford to navel-gaze. Whether in care homes, railway stations or outsourced water plants, public service workers in today’s climate of privatisation, cuts and union-busting know this better than ever.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter, using the hashtag #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’

How do we revive the global union movement?

The global labour movement is at a crossroads.

That’s the verdict of Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s International Summer School in Barnsley this week. Workers are being hit by neoliberalism across the world – that much is obvious – but politically, the issue is this: how are unions to respond in the face of supposedly left-wing parties that have conceded to many of the neoliberal policies unions despise?

It’s question being asked while the populist right soar in much of the global north – filling the void where previously socialist politics would have existed.

Fletcher sees the current attacks on workers – from privatisation to public sector cuts – as representing the ‘obliteration of the social contract’ that emerged following the Second World War. But it was a social contract that was also ‘historically specific’ – built amid fear of the red threat.

It’s a message echoed by Asbjørn Wahl of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees. For him, the tripartite state-union-employer relationship dominant across much of Europe following World War Two was the ‘child of class compromise’ – a child that’s now left home. In other words, there’s no going back. But neither should we. Capitalist and union cooperation dampened the radicalism of working class in an attempt to bolster support for the Cold War.

While it did lead to several decades of social progress in the West, social democracy became a mere ‘mediator between classes’. Such mediation became the final aim of the labour movement. And in capitulating to this, they gave up on socialism, contributing to an ideological crisis on the left.

Yet the end of the social democratic accord in the 1980s has made nation states less and less responsive to popular demands, while the stresses of neoliberal globalisation turn populations against one another. For Fletcher, the system’s weakness has created a breeding ground for a right-wing populism – what he amusingly calls ‘the herpes of capitalism’ – that is now on the rise across Europe and elsewhere. At the same time, any resistance to the neoliberal project is met with repression.

There is clearly a strong sense of alienation among people however. It’s up to the left to politicise this discontent. To do this will require broad new social alliances, concrete alternatives, and unions taking on broader political responsibility amidst mainstream party capitulation, Wahl claims. Such alternatives must be built on a minimum programme that includes standing against austerity, taxing the rich, cancelling public debt, socialising finance and defending democracy.

The current crisis is of course political. The response must also be political – rebuilding labour movement and rebuilding left must go hand in hand. There’s no going back to the corporatism of the 1970s. But Fletcher argues unions can be a ‘civilising force amid the current chaos’ – if they go through a reformation.

Such a reformation must involve the re-radicalisation and re-politicisation of unions instead of continuing a business or servicing model. And that’s no small task. But if the labour movement is to get out of this current conjuncture, we can’t depend on doing the same and expecting different results. Nor can we rely on revivalism and nostalgia for some by-gone social democratic past. Instead, we need a fresh start if we’re going to have any chance of challenging the ‘capitalism on crack’ that is the current paradigm. That will include working with social movements like those that organised the millions-strong Madrid march against austerity in March. If we do this, Wahl says, ‘we have a chance to avoid extinction’. It is, therefore, a chance we can’t afford to miss.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘Capitalism, Anti-Capitalism and the Trade Union Movement’.

Natalie Bennett to restand uncontested for Green Party leader

The Green Party have just published the full list of nominations for the upcoming Green Party Executive (GPEX) elections. Natalie Bennett will be restanding uncontested, while current Deputy Leader Will Duckworth is also restanding – but this time under a new system of two co-deputies in a hotly contested race (including two Young Greens – Amelia Womack and Rob Telford).

Just three of the eleven (twelve with the two co-deputy leaders) positions are contested. Howard Thorp stays in the job as Campaigns Coordinator while Sue and Richard Mallender both keep their posts. Meanwhile Green Left activist Derek Wall faces a challenge in the International post. The fairly new post of Trade Union Liaison Officer retains People’s Assembly co-chair Romayne Phoenix as the holder, while Management and Publication Coordinator jobs remain rather unexciting and thus uncontested.

Bennett’s strong uncontested candidacy arguably reflects her solid support within the party, having led the party into new election successes (including the first South West MEP) and astonishing growth over the past two years – now up to 17,000 members from around 14,000 when she was first elected.

Ballot papers will be delivered in late July/early August. Keep your eye on the doorstep, members – this time, your own!

Members can view the full candidate statements here after logging in – https://my.greenparty.org.uk/node/5565

Here’s the full list:

GPEX elections 2014Meanwhile, there’s still time to vote in the prioritisation ballot for what policies will be decided at the upcoming Green Party conference – make sure you do so if you are a member: https://my.greenparty.org.uk/node/5480

UNion Win – United Nations reverses derecognition

Some good news from the international online union campaign group LabourStart (make sure to sign up if you’re not already a part of it)…

(As an aside, it begars belief that the UN took such a dramatically anti-labour move in the first place, when the generally pro-worker International Labour Organisation constitutes such a significant and strong part of the UN)

Eight months ago, I wrote to all of you asking you to support a campaign for workers’ rights at the United Nations.

On 11 July last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon derecognized the staff unions representing the organization’s 65,000 staff, many working in dangerous locations and war zones.  I asked you to join me in sending off protest messages to Ban Ki-moon, and you did in your thousands.

This week, I learned that our efforts paid off.

According to Ian Richards, President of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations, “the campaign by UN unions to restore the recognition rights of UN staff has secured a successful outcome.

“On behalf of the unions of the United Nations, I would like to thank you, LabourStart and your 14,000 members who sent emails to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for their fantastic support during the campaign. Your efforts helped persuade the Secretary-General and his team that the UN should live up to its principles on human rights and labour representation.”

You can read the full text of Ian’s message here.

I thank you too — we did well.

And we demonstrated yet again the incredible power of the new communications technologies when combined with traditional trade union solidarity.

Have a great weekend!


Eric Lee

Young Greens petition against lack of BBC coverage hits 5,000 signatures

2pm Update: an hour after posting this, the petition had reached 6000 – 1000 signatures in an hour!

9pm Update: Nearing 14000 signatures! Look out for coverage in Monday’s Morning Star newspaper…

 

A petition launched by a Young Green against the BBC’s lack of coverage of the Green Party during the elections has already received over 5000 signatures since 6pm on Saturday night. Dozens of Young Greens have also complained to the BBC directly.

 

As you will be aware, much of the coverage over the past two days has been over UKIP’s ‘breakthrough’. However, it was also a good night for the Greens, receiving an average of 9% where we stood and gaining 16 new councillors to become the official opposition in Liverpool, Solihull, Islington and Lewisham (on top of Norwich), while gaining our first representatives in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Epping Forest, Babergh and the Wirral. This means the Greens now have 162 councillors on 56 councils. Yet the publicly-funded BBC has almost entirely failed to discuss the Greens in any meaningful way – focusing on UKIP securing 17% on a low turnout, a so-called ‘political earthquake’.

 

You can view Portia Cocks’ petition here – https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/bbc-news-stop-this-media-blackout-of-the-green-party and can complain directly to the BBC here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/complain-online/

 

To see a full breakdown of Green gains in the local elections, go here.

 

Meanwhile, Greens are expecting very strong results in the European elections. I wonder how the BBC will cover it…if at all?

Drop the cynicism – Cornwall’s national minority status should be welcomed

[Cross-posted from my article for OpenDemocracy]

Cornish politics, including nationalist politics, is a strange beast. It ranges from would-be-terrorists who demand English flags be removed, to those who envy the SNP’s success and seek to imitate a progressive patriotism (to steal a phrase from Billy Bragg). But speaking as a ‘naturalised’ Cornishman myself, the news that Cornwall has been given ‘national minority’ status under the Council of Europe’s ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ is one which, despite some caveats, should be welcomed.

The caveats are worth mentioning, of course. Firstly, Cornwall is one of the most impoverished counties in the country – and famously the only to receive the EU’s ‘Objective One’ funding for ‘undeveloped’ regions. It has one of the highest house price-to wage ratios, a source in itself of much anti-English ‘immigrant’ (or emmet, in Cornish dialect) hostility. This in itself has prompted calls for extra hotel taxes and second-home expropriations.

Policies like the bedroom tax (and austerity in general) have hit Cornwall hard, with 61% of those hit by the policy in the county falling into arrears – prompting the council to send over Christmas thousands of fairly-offensive ‘Pay Your Rent Before It’s Spent’ newsletters. Meanwhile, just 14% of the bedroom tax relief fund has actually been spent.

My own city of Truro – the only Cornish city, by virtue of its Cathedral – is now the third most expensive in the country, while thousands linger on the minimum wage in the county’s main sectors of tourism (when it’s not raining), retail, and hospitality – from pasty shops to pubs and B&Bs. But with little progressive or trade union tradition, there’s scant pressure to radically alter Cornish society – except, perhaps, to abolish the outdated model of the Duchy which grants immense land and inheritance rights to the Duke of Cornwall.

But politics, as always, partly explains the government’s unexpected decision. Cornwall is a firmly Lib Dem/Conservative swing area – there hasn’t had a Labour MP in many years, and only then confined to the deprived Camborne & Redruth constituency. Is the government eying up the three Lib Dem seats – all of which rest on slender majorities? Just 6000 extra votes could bring all three to the Tories. Needless to say, the Lib Dems aren’t too popular in the county at present, despite narrowly taking control of the council in a coalition last year, so an all-Tory Cornwall is a theoretically plausible outcome, while the Tories are desperately trying to see off an insurgent UKIP threat – the party won six seats on the council last year, while left-wing Cornish nationalists Mebyon Kernow sadly won just four (although encouragingly, the Greens won our first ever unitary seat, in St Ives).

The decision to give Cornwall national minority status doesn’t grant it any extra funding, desperately needed both culturally and economically. But it does add gravitas to a welcome £120,000 given to the Cornish Language Partnership recently to promote the on-going revival, while it opens up possibilities for easier grant applications through the EU and other bodies. At the same time, Bewans Kernow, a local charity, has just been granted £40k to increase community cohesion and boost knowledge of Cornish culture.

It’s easy to be cynical, especially about coalition decisions. But, caveats aside, the move should be welcomed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it grants Cornwall an automatic right to consultation over government policies, as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already receive. With all the social problems Cornwall has, this is undoubtedly a positive.

But, more sentimentally, it recognises an identity that is already there and one which, with no real right-wing nationalist grouping in the county, is relatively benign. There’s no real push for separation (even Mebyon Kernow reject independence), but there is a sense of community and uniqueness. 84,000 people declared themselves Cornish in the 2011 census, while thousands celebrate St Piran’s Day (treated as a bank holiday by many organisations in the Duchy), Trevithick’s Day, Flora Day and a whole raft of other festivities. There’s the language – now seeing somewhat of a revival, with Cornish-language nurseries and classes springing up all over – as well as the food, the folk scene, the surfing, the accent and even the tartan, however ugly it might be…

But more than anything, there’s a sense of pride, despite the odds. And although Eric Hobsbawm was right when he said that all national identities are to some extent ‘imagined communities’ rooted in myth, does it really matter? For now, I’m proud to be an adopted member of that imagined community – a collective in an individualistic age, or as the county’s motto goes – ‘Onen hag oll’. One and all.

Anti-Privatisation Win in York – Uni Pulls out of INTO outsourcing plans

It doesn’t happen a lot, but once in a while there’s some good news for lefties in the UK.

After a brewing underground uproar by students and staff, the University of York has decided not to go ahead with its controversial plans to outsource the recruitment and English-language teaching of international students to part-hedge fund-owned INTO University Partnerships, a multinational firm.

Despite assertions in student media that the plans wouldn’t amount to privatisation (since the university would retain a 50% stake), many saw through it. There have been rowdy Senate meetings, mass leafleting by union activists and strong cases made against the proposals in joint union/management forums.

The idea was worrying from the start. Currently in-house staff would have been transferred to the company, and once the private-sector pressure grew too intense, it was likely that that they would leave and be replaced by people on worse contracts. Even the head of INTO has admitted himself that rates of pay are worse at the organisation.

That’s not the only reason it was always a bad idea. I was contacted by a member staff from another UK university INTO works with when the plans were announced. They warned of the disaster that the INTO contract had been, saying the York plans “threaten the fabric of your university.”

INTO contracts which started at other universities with just student recruitment are now allegedly spreading into other areas of campus management. Outsourcing is a “slippery slope”, I was told. Once you lose the capacity to run services in house, it’s more difficult to take them back under university control when companies fail.

The UCU’s briefing at York noted that at Exeter University, where INTO run international student recruitment, “the university council recently expressed concern that students coming via INTO were now of a lower quality than those recruited by the university” – all to reach targets and make a profit.

That’s not all. “In January this year, UEA pulled out of a joint venture in London having lost £2.5 million over two years and written off a further £3 million that it invested late last year trying to save the project,” the document pointed out. The same thing has happened in many other campuses across the county, including Queen’s Belfast, City University, and Manchester College. In Joint Ventures, profits and losses are shared equally. So where the company messes up, students take the hit too.

“Prevent it and you will inspire others” – that was the message from the concerned member of staff at another partner university. We should be congratulate the UCU branch at York for campaigning to prevent this undemocratic and ideological scheme from going any further. They have shown that the outsourcing tide is not irreversible.

A member of staff who would be affected at York told me when the plans were going through their “faith in the integrity of our leaders on campus [was at an] all-time low.” Now, hopefully, their faith can be a little bit restored.

Universities should be run for students, not for private company profits. The message we can learn from this saga is that, when concerns become ever louder, the university has to take heed of this fact. It’s hard to say it, but hats off to them for listening. Although maybe, just maybe, they feared the anti-privatisation unrest that hit Birmingham and Sussex Universities recently could visit our little Northern city…

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