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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League
Affiliated to the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee

Written: 1983.
First Published: May 1983.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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Workers Socialist Review
No. 3, April / May 1983

Public sector under the auctioneer’s hammer

The Tories have set out to hammer the public sector. But, paradoxically, employment in the public services has been far less hard hit than in manufacturing; and union organisation has probably increased. Michael Kendall looks at the prospects for struggle.

While the manufacturing sector has declined dramatically, the picture in the non-manufacturing sector is different – paradoxically so, considering the Tories’ expressed aims.

Between 1972 and 1980 there was an overall increase in the workforce in this sector from 12 million to 13 million (7 per cent). In the following two years it declined by 300,000, a 2% fall from the 1980 peak.

While the largest proportion of the 2% loss has been born by the public services, mainly the civil service, it has been achieved mainly through natural wastage and early retirement. Compared with the manufacturing sector, the public services are virtually intact. While hospital and school closures have had major effects on many communities, their effect on overall employment so far has been relatively slight.

There are no surveys on stewards’ organisation in this sector. However, the general trend of unionisation from the late ’60s onwards was for a massive increase in white collar unionisation in all sectors, and for an increase among manual public service workers. It is almost certain that there has been a further extension of shop floor organisation among public service workers. The worst unionised sector remains the private non-productive sector.

The effectiveness of the organisation that exists is, of course, another matter. However, it provides a structure within which to fight for policies and leadership. This can only be done concretely by attempting to make the various committees authoritative bodies, by making them relate to the shop floor.

The strike pattern in Britain has changed. Initially public service industrial action was generated out of the victories over pay in manufacturing industries and frustration at the government holding down pay. 1969, and again 1979, saw mass waves of discontent.

The NHS and water workers’ strikes show that sections which feel aggrieved are now prepared to take action independently of the general trend of manufacturing or even the public sector. This shows a massive development of trade union consciousness and organisation over the last ten years.

It also confirms another trend. Action over public service pay must necessarily be on a national basis and official (except in circumstances where there is a national shop-floor framework which can call and organise action). Once again the questions are posed for the stewards and shop floor of a struggle against the official union structure to take action and make it effective.

One of the central aims of the Tory government has been to break down the public sector, redistributing portions to private concerns. They have, as yet, failed to make major inroads into overall employment in this sector. The main effect of the cuts has been the virtual impoverishment of a substantial section of the working class – a fact that has been hidden because the groups affected, the old, single parents, and the unemployed, have no collective voice.

There have been two related problems about fighting the cuts to date. Firstly, we are dealing with sections of the class who have very little economic power when it comes to strike action. Secondly, the struggle against the cuts has in the main been divided from job loss. This is most graphically illustrated among local authority workers, where jobs have in many instances been preserved by local authorities only through rate increases and cuts in public services. The working class community as a whole suffers through a worse service and a greater burden on the rates.

There is a need for an authoritative body in the trade unions (e.g. London Region NUPE) to start a proper campaign against the cuts. This would necessarily have to take up the arguments against privatisation, challenge the notion of ‘viability’, and begin, through the militant stewards, a campaign on the shop floor. An essential part of the campaign would then be linking up with the left in the Labour Party and Labour Councils.

In this manner we could offer militants in the local authority unions a concrete programme of struggle, and take the campaign right into the workplaces.

Privatisation of the health service, local authority functions, and housing, represents one thread of the government’s strategy. So far the effects have been relatively limited: however, important inroads have been made – the expansion of private hospitals and health care, the sale of council housing, and the selling of local authority services to private concerns. It is the latter which provides the direct conflict between an existing workforce with established pay and conditions, and the private contractor.

While this move towards the privatisation of services can be expected to continue, it is noticeable how few councils to date have taken up this option. One of the reasons is the fear of losing control of the service (once you have sold your dustcarts, then you are at the mercy of the contractors).

On the trade union side the trend has been to accept the employers’ ‘viability’ argument – with officials floating schemes for cutting down costs or even sacking workers to maintain the service.

Where a struggle did take place, in Wandsworth, three things were noticeable: the failure of the leadership to make any serious attempt to generalise the fight (given that the fight was against one borough, it was difficult to spread the struggle – but without support from official leadership it was nigh on impossible); lack of organisation at the borough-wide level; and the massive loss of power for the workforce once the service had been sold off. These problems will be faced again and again by local authority workers.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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