May 2010 will see a general election where the main parties will compete with each other in promising cuts in public expenditure and attacks on public sector workers pay and conditions.
This offensive is egged on by the media and parts of it are fast becoming accepted wisdom - even if the supposed facts underpinning this version of events are wrong.
While the media like to talk about public sector bureaucracy, the vast majority of public sector workers do things that are useful – nurses, doctors, street cleaners, library assistants, meals-on-wheels drivers, carers, teachers – are just a few examples. Whoever gets in after the next election, these groups of workers are a prime target for cuts to balance the State’s books after the multi-billion pound bank bail-outs. The bureaucrats will for the most part not be the victims of these cuts, but those doing the cutting.
The attacks will be three-pronged – straight cuts in numbers of workers doing a job, cuts to pensions and speeding up privatisation. Pensions have been demonised in the press. A decade ago many workers in all sectors had final salary pensions. Most private sector bosses have now closed these, whether for new starters or all workers, and if replaced, it has been by inferior ‘money purchase’ pensions, where the individual worker takes more of the risk and the company pays less.
All the media talk of ‘gold-plated’ public sector pensions is part of the agenda to drive down workers’ wages across the board through divide and rule. It turns out the average public sector pension is about £7,000, but many have pensions of less than £5,000 per year. This is hardly ‘golden’, and is low enough that many pensioners will qualify for additional benefits because their income is so low.
All main parties are also committed to selling off more public services on the pretext that the private sector is more efficient and cheaper at providing services. This is just free market dogma. Privatisation is about cutting both pay and conditions of workers, and the level of service received. Sometimes, under accounting scams like the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the cost is actually higher and the service poorer, with examples such as a £75 fee to change a light bulb at a PFI hospital.
But the political consensus of pay cuts, attacks on pensions and privatisation need not go unopposed. Workers in other sectors have already shown the way with a wave of direct action from strikes to occupations putting a stop to bosses plans for cuts. Public sector workers can do it too – but there are obstacles to overcome.
One of these is that even within one place of work in the public sector workers are often divided up into two, three or more different trade unions. For example a typical university campus will have academic staff in UCU, administrative staff in Unison and perhaps cleaners and manual workers in Unite. When we consider the whole public sector, this problem is magnified. Each union organises independently of the others, and none of them organise with those workers who are not union members – but who also have a class interest in opposing cuts.
A first step to overcoming this is to open up workplace meetings to all workers. Getting members of other unions as well as non-union staff to discuss the cuts and how to resist them shifts the discussion from sectional trade interests to united class interests; united we stand, divided we fall. Against the cuts agenda, we should be pushing for coordinated strike action by all public sector workers. We cannot rely on the trade unions to do this on our behalf – workers need to network, agitate and organise to make the solidarity we need to resist the cuts a reality.