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?’


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…

UCU Head Urges York Uni Staff to Reject Recruitment Outsourcing Plans

The General Secretary of the national lecturers’ union UCU has written to hundreds of University of York staff urging them to reject the proposal to outsource the provision of basic English-language teaching and international student recruitment.

In an email last Friday (7th), Sally Hunt warned that the planned Joint Venture between the University and multi-national company INTO University Partnerships was ‘a dangerous and risky gamble’.

The plans are for much of the currently in-house Centre for English Language Teaching’s work to be undertaken by the private company  over at a new building on Heslington East, in a scheme 50% owned by the university. It is expected, if it goes ahead, to begin in Autumn 2015, being fully operational from 2016. However, university staff as well as student union representatives including Kallum Taylor have raised concerns about the plans which some see as ‘part-privatisation’.

Hunt said: “The joint venture will involve the university committing millions of pounds to setting and sustaining a new company with INTO to recruit and teach international students.

“UCU has serious concerns about these joint ventures. We believe that INTO’s need to generate profit will create pressure to cut corners in academic standards. We know that INTO employs staff on lower pay rates and worse terms and conditions than comparable university staff.

“We also know that two of the joint ventures have been dissolved following losses and two more continue to make losses  years after they opened, surviving on loans of millions of pounds from their partner universities. A joint venture with INTO will be a big issue for your university and for everyone who works there.

Hunt said it was “not too late to stop this gamble”, and noted that UCU campaigns have helped persuade universities to avoid these joint ventures at a succession of other universities including Essex, Goldsmiths, Oxford Brookes and De Montfort, where over 90% of staff consulted opposed the plans.

However, the University of York has defended the early-stage proposals, which were put to the Senate in February.

In an article for York Vision, University Registrar David Duncan said: “The programmes would increase the throughput of well-qualified overseas students, especially for undergraduate courses but also for some postgraduate programmes. This in turn would improve the University’s financial position, generate funds for reinvestment in staff and facilities, and raise our profile overseas.

“INTO is regarded as the market leader at the present time. It would provide both capital to build new facilities and recruitment of students through its network of overseas agents who specialise in recruiting students to foundation courses.”

He said that the plans were ‘far from’ the privatisation of Higher Education: “We already partner with external providers to fund capital investments on campus; likewise, we make use of recruiting agents around the world to attract students to York.  Under this proposal, the University would retain complete academic control of entry, programmes and progression, and would have a 50% stake in the joint venture.”

However, the UCU have produced a leaflet at York on what they see as the dangers of the INTO proposals after significant financial losses and underperformance were reported at other partner universities.

University of York plans to part-privatise international student recruitment

The UCU union have revealed that the University of York – without student consultation – is planning to go into a joint venture with for-profit company INTO to recruit international students. Read the excellent York UCU briefing here and share it widely.

This has thus far gone completely under the radar without democratic discussion. Student media are about to break the story, with a comment piece by me plus news articles are to follow in the coming days.

I’ve asked the UCU what their campaign plans are and will be looking at how students can get involved. Let’s bring the Sussex and Birmingham protests to our own university which is faced with back-door privatisation. The neoliberal paradigm ain’t welcome in York…

#No2INTO, anyone?

Stop the Privatisation of Royal Mail – Emergency Motion to Green Party Conference

Yesterday the government confirmed its plans to sell of Royal Mail within the next few weeks. I’ve drafted the following emergency motion to this weekend’s Autumn Green Party Conference in Brighton condemning the sell-off – please write in the comments box, tweet me (@josiahmortimer), or message me on Facebook with your name and local party if you support it!

Stop the Privatisation of Royal Mail

In light of the government’s announcement on the 12th September that it intends to privatise the Royal Mail ‘in the coming weeks’, Conference notes that:

1. The Royal Mail is a 497-year old institution which serves the public, not the interests of shareholders, and should be protected

2. 70% of the public oppose its privatisation

3. Privatisation of other sectors such as rail, energy, telecoms and water has been an untold disaster, leading to higher prices, greater inequality and worse services. The Royal Mail is likely to be no different

4. In order to sell off the Royal Mail, the government has had to nationalise its debts to ‘sweeten up’ the sale for private-sector profiteers – a classic case of ‘socialism for the rich’

5. If the sell-off goes ahead, rural areas are likely to be cut off, workers’ conditions will be undermined, and the universal service obligation of six-day deliveries is likely to be threatened

Conference instructs the Green Party Executive, and the Green Party’s elected representatives to:

1. Throw the party’s full weight behind the ‘Save Our Royal Mail’ campaign[1]

2. Support the Communication Workers’ Union’s industrial and political fight against the sell-off by all means possible, including backing strike action

3. Write letters to the press and to Vince Cable calling for the government to abandon the privatisation plans

4. Sign the petition demanding Vince Cable ‘Save our Royal Mail’[2]

5. Send a message of solidarity to the CWU and the Save Our Royal Mail campaign

6. Attend and support any protests which take place against the privatisation, and to help organise urgent demonstrations where possible

Conference also urges all Green Party members to likewise take the aforementioned actions.

If this motion is passed, conference instructs the Press Office to issue a press release about Conference’s decision and the party’s wholehearted opposition to the privatisation of the Royal Mail.

Proposed by Josiah Mortimer, University of York Green Party

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 Lady’s Not Returning’ – A Song on Thatcher

I’ve just recorded and uploaded my latest song, ‘The Lady’s Not Returning’, to my SoundCloud (it’s free to hear, download and share). The song is on Margaret Thatcher, the most divisive (and destructive) Prime Minister Britain has arguably ever seen, and comes of course around the time of her £10m publically-funded funeral. If you oppose what Thatcher stood for, have a listen and feel free to pass it around. There’s also a little YouTube video of it here.

Thatcher is gone, but her ideology is still with us – particularly with the current government’s vicious austerity programme which is ruining the lives of millions of people and failing to sort our economy. The Iron Lady’s ideas aren’t yet Rusting in Pieces…

Like all my stuff the song is on a Creative Commons license so you can basically do what you want with it. Hope you like.

I’ve just launched a new Facebook page for my music stuff – feel free to like it to keep up to date:

You might also want to listen to two other new songs of mine – 99 Reasons (a tribute to the People’s Assembly Against Austerity this June), and A Movement and a Reason, dedicated to the student protests of 2010 against tuition fees and a call for a new student movement –

On a final note, I recently did an interview on my music with York Vision, a student newspaper at the University of York. Have a read for more info on my song-writing and what I’m up to musically. Exciting times!