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Comment & opinion

Crisis in care - Sam, Sheffield

I work as a support worker for a private company that provides social care for people in Sheffield for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues. The company I work operates across the city. According to government officials, cuts to public spending will not harm front line services, workers, or service users. The reality of the situation is that working conditions are getting worse, day services are closing down, and those paying for the support services are being excluded from any of the decisions relating to care they supposedly direct and influence.

The Sheffield city council budget has been slashed by 8.35% for next year, and this has amounted to a huge cut to front line care. What this has amounted to on the ground is a huge reduction in staffing levels, pushing local unemployment even higher. Those left in the job are left with the unenviable task of filling in the gaps, which means being over worked, and stressed. Many care workers, some with over 20 years experience, are finding it too stressful to carry on, and are walking away from the job, meaning that the most qualified staff in the company are leaving, while new employees, who often aren’t given a decent (and legally required) level of training before they are left to work with clients. This is dangerous to both clients, who often have serious health issues, and to workers, who are not given help to do the job safely (some clients have histories of challenging behaviour, violence etc).

Many of the people I work with have been sent into intense panic, fearing that their disability benefits will be cut and that they will be forced onto a work fare scheme in order to claim. This has led to increased difficulties at work, which again impacts upon the well being of clients and staff. For staff, we have been given an indefinite pay freeze (rates of pay are already extremely low – and the price of food, bills, rent etc has risen fairly sharply in recent months) and a loss of a chance of promotion and advancement within the company. The tactics of management have in recent weeks been an attempt to shift responsibility downwards. In essence, this means an unpaid promotion – increased work hours and responsibilities without extra pay. People are worried, and the constant upheavals in company policy leave staff and clients confused. Many people within the company care deeply about the people they support, and the fact that they are leaving is causing massive emotional stress on all sides.

The company I work for claims to be not-for-profit, this tends to give people the impression that the company operates with some kind of ethical policy. The reality is that instead of money being invested in desperately needed equipment for staff (such as computers that are less than a decade old) instead money has been spent on redecorating the offices of the executive managers and the reception area of the company (in order to make it ‘look more professional’ – the appearance of good care being more easily achieved than the practice of good care).

The company has also engaged in the bizarre tactic of employing agency staff to work as short term “bank workers” in order to plug the gaps created by the redundancies they have introduced. This means that for every worker the company gets from an agency they are paying for two (agencies charge ‘service rates’ which are roughly the same as the employees wages). Essentially this means that the company is firing experienced and dedicated workers to employ untrained and short term agency workers, while paying double the cost for the privilege. The reasons behind this plan seem fairly obvious. Agency workers are in a precarious position, and if they complain about being over worked, and under paid then they can be fired with no notice, whereas an employee cannot. The changes that management want to bring in over the next few months require a work force that does not feel secure, and able to resist the exploitation that is happening.

Letter: the pitfalls of professionalising negotiation - Rob, Hackney

hile surfing around the week’s upcoming events listings I came across one which is fairly typical of trade union umbrella the TUC, to train negotiators ahead of pay rounds which are likely to be marked by austerity cuts.

The idea of training days like The Pay Challenge in 2011 is, ostensibly, to give people a solid overview of the state of play nationwide and an idea of the tactics that could be used when talking to management in negotiations to push up claims.

So far, so average. But what caught my eye was the prices. To get such information is £125 plus VAT if you’re a registered TUC affiliate or an eye-watering £215 plus VAT for anyone else. Exclusive much?

I’m pretty skeptical of the actual value of these things in any case - in the end all negotiation comes down to leverage and either you’ve got it or you ain’t, the best training under these circumstances boils down to giving newbie shop stewards the confidence to tell their manager where to get off when they have the backing of their colleagues. Being able to mouth off convincingly about the economic implications of cuts and their relation to prices, inflation etc etc is really rather extraneous when managers can simply say “good point, but I’m just the monkey and the organ grinders, they’re saying no.”

Nevertheless I’d have thought that given training is supposed to be one of the TUC’s few specific, ongoing responsibilities the price of something like this would be incorporated in the millions upon millions of pounds we already pay through our collective union membership dues.

But I suspect this is not what these little soirees are actually meant for. This is the sort of high-up circus which paves the way for union bureaucrats to waltz into offices up and down the country sounding like they’re the only ones competent to do business with our bosses.
Having been on the end of that myself as a newbie shop steward, It does sound pretty impressive when the boss’s arguments get shot down by a confident professional from the union (less so when it becomes clear that such arguments have made very little impact and in the end amount to a complicated form of begging).

But such professionalising of negotiation - and at those prices it’s got to be if you’re ever going to recoup your outlay unless you can directly pick up £200-odd extra in wages for the year off the back of it - in the end amounts to another means of deadening grassroots initiative. It helps give bureaucrats the assumed authority to tell lay reps to pipe down when they complain about sell-outs on the grounds that “I’ve been at this for years, I’m a trained negotiator who’s dedicated my life to the movement, who the fuck are you?”

Casualisation at BFI - Jan, South London

asualisation has not evaded the British Film Institute and its effects are well known: less staff, a higher workload, divided workers, deskilling, fear and disinterest in our rights - all of which makes corporate moves easier and less accountable, even in public institutions. If we are to fight casualisation, we cannot rely on a change in consciousness without a change in contracts.

A classic case of chicken and egg: the casuals will not fight for their rights because they have no rights. Here the work of the reformist  unions can be a useful supplement to self-organised workplace militancy. Two aspects are worth noting: through small victories the workers are brought together in our grievances and power, and union density is directly correlated to a drop in casualisation. The process of pursuing workplace grievances and a change in contracts should be used to demonstrate the interests of the managers, their incompetence, the weaknesses of workplace hierarchy and the limits of union interests.

The attack on casualisation will then come from different corners and using different methods. Through maintaining self-organised agitation and direct action alongside any union dispute we make sure that our horizon is not social democratic reformism, but class struggle. We also open up a space between the unions and management which makes easier our self-organised direct action.

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