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?’


Saturday’s TUC march showed unions are needed more than ever

Credit: Steve Cooke


Nick Clegg received an unusual York welcome on Saturday.

Over 3000 anti-austerity protesters marched for ‘A Better Way’ through York to greet the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference being held at the Barbican.

As the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in favour of his motion on immigration, hundreds stood outside the building – a building which York’s Lib Dem council closed while it was last in control of the authority – to vent their anger at the cuts to public services, privatisation and other policies which hit the poorest hardest. Needless to say, the marchers’ chants, boos and cries of ‘shame’ reflected this palpable and genuine rage.

It was rage at everything from the Lib Dem’s propping up the Conservatives in government, to the tuition fee betrayal (Clegg’s crocodile tears notwithstanding), the bedroom tax, the back-door sell-off of the NHS to private companies and – judging by the presence of university lecturers and their UCU union – the dismal state of higher education under this government, with course and department closures, real-terms pay cuts and increasing marketisation.

This was a feeling expressed by the many students on the march too – a bloc that reflected the more radical spectrum of the protest. York’s Socialist Students made an effigy of Nick Clegg himself, hanged off the city walls, alongside a ‘Welcome to Traitor’s Gate’ banner. A grim sight for delegates to behold, in a wealthy former-Lib Dem city where they probably expected a friendlier reception amid Labour authority unpopularity. No such luck.

The TUC-organised demo couldn’t have chosen its day to be more symbolic. Saturday marked International Women’s Day. That very morning, delegates were hit with headlines of ‘Osborne’s tax and benefits changes hit women almost four times harder than men’. Not the best way for the previously centre-left party to celebrate IWD. But who wouldn’t have predicted that the three-year freeze in child benefit would have hit women hardest? Or that the cut in the top rate of tax for millionaires mostly helps rich white men?

Speakers at the rally after the march were quick to point this out. All ten speakers were women – a figure that contrasts sharply with the Lib Dems current level of gender representation. The figure hasn’t been picked up upon, but those 10 northern speakers are more than the Lib Dem’s current number of female MPs in the whole of the UK – and certainly more than at the next election after a number of announcedfemale resignations . Most inspiringly, leading the march were strikers (almost entirely women) from Care UK in Doncaster – workers who have just finished a week-long strike against the company to which their jobs were recently handed over to by the council. They’re facing pay cuts of up to 50% in an attempt to boost profits – and they’re fighting back.

Thirty years on from the miners’ strike, it’s a reminder that unions still matter. In fact, the whole protest – amid hundreds of union flags and banners – served to prove that trade unions, in standing up for the hardest-hit by austerity, are actually more needed than ever in the face of the neoliberal onslaught that is this coalition government (and don’t think the austerity will end with Labour, either). Indeed, the TUC collected 52 full carrier bags of food at the demonstration for local food banks under strain from the weight of a cost of living crisis.

Saturday’s march showed that, with over six million members – the majority of whom are now women – and the ability to mobilise thousands in the cause of social justice, unions still pack a punch. But with just 13% of 16-24 year olds members of what are still the largest democratic civil society bodies, perhaps the biggest message was that our generation needs to get organised. Otherwise, the current austerity measures could be ‘permanent’, to use Cameron’s word.

On Sunday, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity are planning to wave Clegg off as he leaves the city. Given the welcome he got, and the goodbye he’ll receive, he may well get the message that York – with its large student population alongside those hit by benefit cuts – isn’t such a big fan of the Lib Dems, after all.

Credit: Steve Cooke

Credit: Steve Cooke

Brighton Greens’ council tax move shows the fight against austerity is on

[Cross-posted from my article over at Left Foot Forward yesterday]

Brighton and Hove’s Green council is taking bold steps to counter austerity. Last week the administration proposed a 4.75 per cent council tax rise to protect vital adult social care services for the city’s elderly and vulnerable residents, as well as funding for the third sector which has been badly hit by national cut-backs.


After three year of callous cuts from central government, Greens in Brighton have said enough is enough, arguing that radical solutions are needed to circumvent the next round of austerity being forced upon cities up and down the country. Brighton is the second hardest-hit unitary council nationally in terms of the budget reductions the coalition have forced upon it. 

That’s why they are planning to hold a referendum to let local people choose between sweeping cuts to adult social care or give around a pound a week extra.

Less than a fiver a month to protect the elderly seems like a fair ask, despite times of course being hard for Brighton residents. As Green council leader Jason Kitcat has said:

“This is the right time to ask the people what they think is the right approach – do we cut back services or pay extra, £4.53 a month or less for the majority of households, to show we really are a caring society?”

That’s not to downplay the truism that raising taxes is rarely popular, but councils face little choice. Caroline Lucas, throwing her weight behind the move, put it clearly:

“This is an appalling situation, for which the government is alone to blame. A referendum would allow the people of Brighton and Hove…to decide on the best response.”

And it’s not just Greens supporting the campaign to let Brighton decide their services’ future. The local GMB and Unison branches have spoken out in favour of the referendum, with Mark Turner, the city’s GMB branch secretary saying:

“This new budget would protect frontline services in adult social care. Cuts would have absolutely terrible consequences on people’s lives. It is only right that the public have a chance to vote on this proposal.”

The proposal for Brighton&Hove will pass in Council in February, unless opposed by both Labour and Tory councillors. It would then proceed to a ballot on 22 May – the same time as elections for European Parliament, significantly saving on administration costs.

However, the Tories and Labour in Brighton seem to be planning to stop the referendum. The proposal was rejected by the Brighton&Hove Labour Party within fifteen minutes of the announcement. They’ve also called on the minority-run council to step down, and are planning to propose a vote of no confidence, with leader of Brighton and Hove Labour Group, Warren Morgan calling for “a cross-party caretaker administration to run the council till the elections in 400 days.”

Such a care-taker administration can only mean one thing – a Labour-Tory coalition. Essentially Labour is seeking to get into bed with the Conservatives just to spite the Greens.

Meanwhile, the Tories are likely to be wedded to the coalition’s ideological council tax freeze, which is year-on-year shrinking the local state and depriving residents of key services hit by a combination of increasing demand and austerity.

In the face of such opposition, the minority council is in an extremely difficult place. That’s why it’s important that people inside and outside Brighton who support public services back the ‘#BrightonDecides’ campaign.

This Saturday, Young Greens from across the UK are heading to Brighton to campaign in favour of the referendum. We’ve also written to the national press, encouraging all Brighton&Hove councillors, and indeed councils across the country, to give the voters the chance to fight the toxicity of austerity.

Unlike other parties, the Green Party fundamentally opposes austerity – not just in words but in actions too. It’s a brave position, and it’s one that other councils, instead of simply capitulating to permanent austerity, should follow.

The #fairpayinHE battle is about the future of education. Time for some solidarity

[A version of this article was first published by The Yorker]

York strikers rally outside management's offices

You’d think for institutions that pay their Vice Chancellors nearly £250,000 on average, over £100k more than the Prime Minister, the rest of the staff would be paid pretty handsomely as well. Universities with millions in surplus, raking in £9k-per-student fees, should be able to remunerate their staff fairly. They should. But they don’t.

At the same time as 1,633 members of Senior Management are paid more than £140k – the salary of the government’s Secretary for Higher Education – nearly 5000 struggle to get by on the Minimum Wage in HE.

This is the national trend, made clear after a Young Greens report, The Fair Pay League, revealed last week that If university heads took a pay cut to £140,000, the money raised nationally would be more than enough to pay every minimum wage worker (there’s nearly 5,000 of them in the sector) a Living Wage. At the current rate however, the lowest paid have to work on average 18.6 years to earn the annual salary of the head of their university. At York the figure is similar.

Indeed, the same report revealed that in 2012, the number of senior staff paid over £140k in our universities:

‘…gives a total of over £228 million spent annually on high wages in Higher Education. If the 113 highest paid employees are not included, the remaining 1,520 paid over £140,000 could take a reduction in pay of no more than £10,774 each (a maximum of 7.7%) in order to give the other 6,769 lowest paid staff in the Higher Education sector a raise to the Living Wage.’

So the level of inequality in Higher Education is staggering. It’s no wonder then that workers launched the first ever joint national university strike on the 31st against a measly 1% pay offer – a real-terms pay cut when inflation is taken into account.

The lecturers’ union, the UCU, was joined by thousands in the Unite and Unison trade unions in an unprecedented move of unity following strong votes in favour of action last month.

It’s about time. The 1% pay offer comes after 4 years of pay freezes and below-inflation rises, equating to a 13% cut in university workers’ incomes. This is happening while the highest paid in our universities are seeing their pay rise, while tuition fees have been hiked and while courses are closing and universities face privatisation by the back door. Even the student loan book is being sold off to private companies to make a quick buck – and make no mistake, our debt will soar as a result.

So these striking workers are fighting for education as a whole in the face of brutal attacks from central government in terms of nigh-100% cuts to humanities subjects, the butchering of other departments – and eternal attacks on pay and conditions.

If you care about the people who teach us, who clean up after us, who serve us in canteens and who keep our university going, back the campaign. If you care about what this government is doing to education, and you think sky-rocketing inequality in the education system has to stop, back the campaign. If you think everyone deserves fair pay and not an endless race to the bottom, back the campaign.

How? The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have put out the following call for students to, over the coming days and weeks:

  • Hold meetings, protests and rallies on your campus in support of the strikes, and against the privatisation of student debt
  • Build contacts with staff and co-ordinate action at every level: across cities, on campuses and in departments
  • Hold flash occupations – ‘shockupations’ – in solidarity with the pay dispute

To sign the call, email Get organising, folks. With Sheffield, Sussex and SOAS all going into occupation over the past few days, this is a rare radical upsurge the left can’t afford to miss.

Shocking state of university pay inequality revealed

Originally published by York Vision, the University of York student newspaper

The sky-rocketing state of pay inequality in UK universities was revealed on Thursday, as a new report revealed UK universities spend £228m on executives earning over £140k each year – at the same time as nearly 5,000 Higher Education workers struggle to get by on the minimum wage.

The report, The Fair Pay League, shows that York ranks 65th out of 113 Higher Education institutions, paying its top exec – presumably new Vice Chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts  – £251,892, meaning the pay gap between the lowest and highest paid at the University is 17.9:1. While this is just under the Higher Education average of 18.6:1, three members of senior management take home more than the Secretary of State for Higher Education’s £140,000 pay packet.

The new research comes to light as a result of Freedom of Information requests by the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party, with The Fair Pay League report demanding a Living Wage of £14,000 (pro-rata) for all university staff, along with maximum pay ratios of 10:1. The research also revealed if all Vice Chancellors took a pay cut to £140,000, there would be enough money to pay all workers a Living Wage – and still have £3.7m left over.

Commenting less than two weeks before the first UK-wide joint strikes by university unions on the 31st October, York TUC President Leigh Wilks told York Vision: “I’m tired of hearing the same old argument about universities being in a competitive global market as an excuse for the justification of high executive pay, while those at the bottom get a pittance.

“We have some of the finest universities in the world – despite this Coalition jeopardising that by crippling young people with debt – and Universities would do well to remember that this is supposed to be higher education, not a ruthless corporation.”

Rustam Majainah, the lead author of the report, said: “Universities have no excuse to pay less than the living wage. Living costs are rising for everyone, students are having to pay £9,000 a year to go through higher education – yet university vice-chancellors are still paid disproportionately large salaries.” He branded the state of pay inequality “unacceptable”.

The University Registrar, Dr David Duncan, condemned the research, telling Vision: “All of the Russell Group universities except York come in the worst 33 performing universities.  In other words, not surprisingly, the highest ranked universities generally pay their VCs the highest salaries.”  He noted that York is 32 places higher up the table than its competitors.

Duncan also questioned the report’s methodology, arguing “The figures for the VC’s salary are completely misleading”.

But the Young Greens challenged the University’s performance argument, claiming “Seven universities pay their top earner more than the highest paid staff member at the University of Cambridge.”

Imperial College London was ranked the worst performer nationally, with a pay ratio of 25.5:1, while the University of London had an income gap of just 9:1.

There’s hope yet for the left in York

It’s not that often at left-wing gatherings that you run out of space – usually the stereotype of a few mates declaring the revolution in a pub is pretty accurate. But the launch of the York People’s Assembly on Wednesday was different, in more ways than one.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing what it is, but the York People’s Assembly is the newly formed local section of the national People’s Assembly Against Austerity, a movement launched on June 22nd in London when over 4,000 delegates from across the UK (including a few from our very own University of York) gathered to end the sectarianism that has dogged the anti-austerity current in Britain since it began – and start, at long last, a coordinated attempt to shift not only the debate on fiscal austerity, but to stop and reverse the cuts altogether.

It was in this spirit that the launch of the York section of the movement kicked off this week, when nearly 50 local activists got together at the rather progressive venue of the Friends Meeting House to discuss how exactly to fight the neoliberal scourge of Osbornomics from the grassroots. And it was refreshing, even for the worn-out veterans among the ranks.

For a start, it looked different to your average lefty get-together. Not just because the average age was under 40. It was young, and fairly diverse, and would have been even bigger and more youthful had not all the uni students fled home for the summer (you class traitors, you).

It wasn’t just the usual suspects attending either – i.e. members of the 57-varieties of British socialist parties – although there was a fair sprinkling. There were union reps, college students, NHS campaigners, the unemployed, and more encouragingly, ordinary people who just fancied tackling the pro-cuts consensus. A coalition, if you like – just not one you’ll see running the country any time soon. Though we can hope.

Feedback from those who trekked down to the national People’s Assembly conference was mixed, but positive on the whole, with most seeing it as a springboard (dotted with rising red stars like Owen Jones and Mark Steel) for broader and more localised action. And York is already leading the way nationally in terms of how organised its group is, according to co-organiser Graham Martin.

Gone was the old language of the left. College students and nurses generally have little time for being called comrade or brother/sister (though personally I’m quite fond of the terms). Instead, and despite minor debates and deviations, the overall theme was one of actually doing stuff – petitioning, door-knocking, rallying, flash-mobbing and even, whisper it, striking. The full activist tool-kit.

That’s what will be needed to tackle the barrage of further cuts and privatisations coming our way – the sell-off of Royal Mail, the East Coast mainline and even the student loan book, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, NHS dismantlement by stealth, public sector lay-offs and union-bashing on an industrial scale. Among many other attacks, of course.

Yet in the face of all this, there’s plenty of resistance planned. In York, the petition to stop those hit by the bedroom tax being evicted over arrears is nearing the 1000 signatures required to force a debate. The Tory Conference in Manchester this September should see thousands march in the birthplace of the NHS against the so-called health ‘reforms’. November 5th – Bonfire Night – holds more exciting scenes as direct action takes place nationally on an unprecedented scale. And with teachers and civil servants on strike in coming months there’s plenty to organise around.

There’s a lot to do, little time and limited resources. And there are few mainstream allies, with Labour buying into the austerity-agenda wholesale. But perhaps at long last the left has, at least locally, come together and stopped lamenting its weakness over pints down the York Arms. It’s acquired a new vitality – and thank god, because we’re going to need it.

The next York People’s Assembly meeting is on July 29th, 7:30-9pm at Friends’ Meeting House, with an inaugural conference in October.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – A Round-Up

Over 4000 gathered in Westminster Central Hall in London on Saturday for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, organised by the Coalition of Resistance with the backing of major unions. The day aimed to be one of ‘discussion and debate’ focusing on how to ‘turn the tide on austerity’. 15 sessions and workshops took place to discuss how to tackle the cuts, protect public services and launch co-ordinated action – building on massive local PA gatherings in recent months.

Owen Jones began the conference, describing workers as ‘the real wealth creators’ and calling for unity on the left, as well as mass civil disobedience to reverse austerity.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady also spoke in the opening plenary, describing the Tory-led government’s attacks as ‘class war’. ‘They fight for their side – so we will fight for ours’. She called for the bedroom tax to be scrapped and replaced with a mansion tax. She encouraged delegates to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ in communities and workplaces across Britain. Unite’s Steve Turner spoke to promote the TUC and Unite bus tours currently going round the UK, with Unite’s ‘People United’ tour launching from the People’s Assembly on the day.

In the ‘Mobilising Millions: Re-Unionising the UK’ session, a range of speakers from both the floor and panel discussed how to revitalise the trade union movement here, especially among the traditionally unorganised.

  • Kelly Tomlinson from Unite explained the urgency of educating young people about unions, and urged delegates to talk to their friends who are not members and get them involved. She pointed to the recently established Unite Community membership scheme as a way of organising those who aren’t in work.
  • John Hendy QC explained ‘the problem of the British economy is the collapse of collective bargaining’. He noted the spectacular decline in collective bargaining coverage in the UK, from 82% in the late 1970s to just 23% now, despite the European average still being around 80%. The UK has been hit hardest by anti-union crackdowns, despite collective bargaining being an internationally-recognised human right.
  • Speakers from the floor noted the surge in outsourcing, the continuing stagnation in wages (a pre-recession trend), the dramatic rise in executive pay and inequality (the CEO average being £4.5m), and the fact that 2/3rds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one parent in work. Others described the rise in casualised labour in Further Education (at 60%), the recent successful organising campaign by BECTU among (largely young and non-British) Visual Effects workers, and other recent organising drives among service sector workers, such as BFAWU’s 100% union density among Greggs workers in Leeds!  One speaker congratulated last Thursday’s strike at Huddersfield College which was 80-pickets strong. A key call from delegates was for the TUC to ‘name the date’ for a general strike.
  • Unite construction workers also pointed to low union density not always being a barrier, noting the recent successful ‘sparks’ campaign against pay cuts by grass-roots activists in the sector. Another speaker also said being a small workplace was no barrier – indeed in his own outsourced company it made it easier to organise and quickly reach high levels of density (in his case over 90%) due to campaigns being easier to win with a small workforce.

In other sessions, Unite’s Andrew Murray spoke of the need for workers to make the country ‘ungovernable’ if austerity continues, pointing to up-coming co-ordinated industrial action. A huge groundswell of potential support for an alternative to austerity exists, with PA organiser Sam Fairbairn noting that around 30% of the public consistently oppose all cuts. Co-organiser John Rees called for national action of all forms on the 5th November – Bonfire Night. He also proposed the draft PA declaration, to be fully ratified at the recall People’s Assembly in early 2014 and discussed by local PA’s in the meantime.

Excellent participatory workshops saw groups split off to draw answers to important modern problems – media ownership, fixing the political system, reforming the City and so on. The workshop on building local People’s Assemblies saw regional People’s Assemblies begin to emerge through discussion, with one planned for Yorkshire and cities within it. A Facebook page and email list will shortly be established, along with an informal meeting at the end of June in Leeds.

Green MP Caroline Lucas used the conference to announce her plans to introduce a bill this week to renationalise rail. She also called for hope among the left and an end to negativism.

The People’s Assembly trended on Twitter over the whole of Saturday, and was covered by most of the major news networks.

In the closing plenary, Len McClusky called for co-ordinated anti-austerity strike action, mass civil disobedience and all possible resistance – even so far as breaking the anti-union laws – to reverse the cuts. He demanded of the wealthy – ‘pay your taxes, you greedy bastards!’, and explained the annual earnings of the top world billionaires could wipe out world poverty. Disabled activist Francesca Martinez said the country’s elite are keen to ‘keep their profits, but share the deficit’.

Throughout the day speakers called on delegates to support the NUT/NASUWT joint strike action over the coming months, to march against the Tory conference in Manchester on September 29th, and to rally on the NHS’s 65th birthday on July 5th.