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Strike!

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

This week we have been told by the BBC that 61% of the public support today’s joint action. That’s good, but not good enough – the attack by government on public sector workers is also an attack on the public services they provide, and that affects the vast majority of the population.

The main tactic being used by the coalition is one of divide and rule as they repeat time and time again that public sector workers are ‘lucky’ to be in receipt of such ‘generous’ pensions and bemoan the lot of the private sector worker. Yet it is the rapacious capitalism of the neoliberal project they are engaged in that has seen terms and conditions worsen for private sector workers over the last three decades.

The facts are that the average public sector pension is less than £6000pa, and this takes into account the larger pensions paid out to high ranking public servants (and MPs of course… ). The vast majority of public sector workers are not living a life of luxury at ‘our’ expense, they are getting a bit extra in their retirement that they have paid for in terms of both their own contributions and the taxes they paid over their working lives. And speaking of contributions, it has been calculated by the NUT that over the life of their pensions scheme teachers have paid in £46bn more than has been paid out. Where’s that gone? To the government in ‘cheap loans’. I remember when I worked for BT there was a regular surplus in the pension fund that would be creamed off by the company, a common practice in the private sector. Perhaps if the money had been left in private industry pension funds there wouldn’t be such a problem paying them now? Too obvious? Maybe, I’m no economist (although neither is George Osborne).

Public sector pensions were fought for and granted as deferred wages in light of the then detrimental pay gap in favour of private sector workers. The wages may not be up to much, but stick at it, work hard for 40 years and you’ll have some security in retirement. That the gap has narrowed or even gone the other way in some cases is not as a result of ‘greedy’ public sector workers, but a change in the job base in the private sector which has seen more highly paid, skilled jobs in manufacturing disappear to be replaced by lower paid jobs in the retail and service sectors – factor in that the new mass employers are virulently anti union and utterly focused on cutting costs and maximising profit, and it’s hardly surprising that wages and terms have become worse for their employees.

But this is not the fault of the public sector, no matter how much a government of any hue tries to convince you it is. A false opposition is being set up between public and private when in reality all should be opposed to the savage cuts being made to public services. The strike today may nominally concern pensions, but the actuality is that it’s been seen as a stand against the ongoing attempt by neoliberal governments, guided by their ‘paymasters’ the IMF, WTO and World Bank, to marketise anything and everything and rid those at the top of ‘unproductive’ public services.

Essential public services shouldn’t make profits and they shouldn’t be made subject to market forces. We have seen for years now the result of the privatisation and marketisation of the utilities, our bills on a constant upward trend while record profits are announced each year. People will die this winter because they are scared to put their heating on, all so that the needs of the shareholders are met. It’s immoral, sickening and degrades our society.

Speaking of society, what about Cameron’s ‘Big’ one, his wildly innovative idea to bring us all together? We’ve had the ‘big society’ before and it didn’t work, that’s why the welfare state was created, why essential services were nationalised; in order to provide a more equal society where your health, education and living standards were not at the mercy of the circumstances you were born into, perhaps to be alleviated by more enlightened and socially aware heads of industry if you were lucky. Even with the welfare state in place lack of social mobility and opportunity still exist according to status (class), but it is/was an attempt to even things out to some extent.

This is the context in which we must see today’s and any future actions, as part of the fight to preserve services that are essential to all of us and that we have all invested in over the decades. The myth being peddled by the government that public sector workers are greedy and that the offer being made is generous (backed up by misleading ‘facts’ from the likes of Osborne and Clegg) needs to be challenged at every turn and the point made that the attack on public services is an attack on each and every one of us, regardless of the sector we work in: it is vital that we do not let the the divide and rule tactics and misinformation being peddled by the coalition succeed.

See below links for sources used in the writing of this piece.

£46bn surplus in teachers’ pension fund

Tax Research on public sector pensions

Public sector pensions are affordable

Government misinformation on pension deal

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The Dangers of Promotion Above Ability

November 22, 2011 4 comments

Watching Grant Shapps on Newsnight one wonders how on Earth he got the job of Housing Minister in the current government. He was a seconder of David Cameron’s push to become Tory leader, but still, surely he needs to have some idea of politics, let alone the portfolio he was handed? Then one looks at his cabinet colleagues: mostly shiny faced forty somethings, charmless, ‘self made’, anodyne, careerists, and almost to a man surprisingly clueless in their fields. Theresa May bucks the trend here being a fifty something woman, but she qualifies through cluelessness. The only cabinet members with any political heft are Clarke, Hague and Duncan-Smith, grace and favour ministers from the old regime, and Vince Cable – did he jump or was he pushed?

Anyway, back to young master Shapps who was on Newsnight following the launch of the coalition’s document on housing strategy on Monday. This strategy, Shapps told us, is all about economic growth and recognising that housing has been poorly served by government over several decades: the way we can solve this is by building lots of new ‘affordable housing’, thereby creating jobs, boosting the building trade and by extension the economy, and giving people the chance to ‘get on the ladder’. Sounds reasonable, no?

Well, no. The ‘strategy’ does nothing to address the devastation wrought by thirty years of Right to Buy (RTB) on social housing stock, in fact it calls for more of the same as the discount incentives offered to council tenants applying for RTB will double from 25% to 50% (one of the few positive steps Labour took on social housing was to reduce the maximum discount from 72%); it also does very little to address the chronic problems in the private rental sector.

The problems faced by tenants of private landlords have three main root causes: the loss of council housing stock; an artificially inflated housing market; a severe lack of regulation for private landlords. Far from addressing these issues, Shapps’ strategy in fact exacerbates them: more council stock will be lost under the higher RTB discounts; the building of ‘affordable housing’ for purchase by first time buyers will help to keep the false housing ‘boom’ afloat; private landlords will continue to be under regulated.

The meme of home ownership is traditionally a conservative one, using both the little and big ‘C’. It can be used to indicate prosperity, ‘responsibility’, and self dependence within the self, and those themes can be extrapolated into economic terms especially in the way that a ‘healthy’ housing market is seen to be a sign of a strong economy. However, home ownership has become more of a societal meme over the past three decades, unsurprisingly coinciding with the neo-liberal project that began under Thatcher/Reagan with its strong echoes of Ayn Rand’s ‘Objectivism’ wherein the state rejects its responsibilities to its citizens and transfers the public to the private.

The introduction of RTB in the 80s served a dual ideological purpose for the Thatcher regime: the beginning of the attack on social housing thereby reducing the obligations of the state in that area, and the attempted creation of a new, conservative (voting) home owning class (gerrymandering in all but name). This aided the change in social discourse where owning your own home became seen as being a necessity rather than merely desirable and renting is very much ‘second class’, and so we have the current fetishisation of getting yourself ‘on the ladder’. At the same time buying property is increasingly seen as being an investment rather than securing a home, monetizing the process even further: an Englishman’s home is no longer his castle, it’s part of his portfolio.

Another change in discourse has been the replacement of ‘social housing’ with ‘affordable housing’ – this again acts to add monetary ‘value’ to the idea of gaining a home. But this government’s idea of affordable housing is shiny new boxes built by private companies subsidised by public money, although any profits will of course stay in private hands. As for those new properties built to provide affordability in the rental sector, these will be let at 80% of ‘market rents’, but in a market that also has artificial ‘value’ as a result of the high prices of property and the severe lack of social housing: these factors, allied to the lack of regulation, allow private landlords to in essence write their own rules and set rents as high as they can. All these factors feed into one another and create a vicious circle which has captured millions of people in substandard, unsuitable, and harmful housing conditions.

I was talking with a friend last week about private landlords. This friend has plenty of experience having had around a dozen different landlords since moving to London in the mid 90s, and he said the best he could offer is the single landlord he didn’t have to complain about to the council. His current accommodation has no heating as the boiler has gone, the landlord’s response to complaints being implicit threats of eviction. In what was one of his better and more long term tenancies he spent weeks without a fridge at the height of summer and months without a broken shower being replaced. Another friend had to result to court action in order to get her deposit back after her landlord made ludicrous and false claims of damage being done to the property; fortunately, the District Judge saw through the lies but how many other ex-tenants would have given in not having either the fortitude of my friend or, perhaps more pertinently, her years of experience in the legal field.

The thing of it is those examples are far from being the worst. As part of my old job I would regularly visit the homes of people who had applied for housing. The best ones were usually where people were living with family, some of the private tenancies were ‘OK’, but I visited a lot of accommodation where people were subjected to overcrowding, lack of facilities, and insanitary conditions. It seems that apart from a select few, the best you can hope for from a private landlord is that they don’t make you curse them every day and don’t try to rip you off for your deposit. Even with a decent landlord the high cost of renting privately is causing many households financial problems and with the changes in housing benefits due to take effect this will only worsen.

Despite being the minister responsible for this situation, Grant Shapps hardly recognises it, let alone has the ideas to begin resolving it. In a cabinet notable for its members being resolutely non cognisant with the issues of the day, Shapps stands out for his lack of insight into the real housing problems faced by millions every day. To me he seems to be part of a clique dedicated to an ideology rather than addressing societal problems – when what you want to achieve precludes dealing with issues in a useful and practical manner, why bother to learn about what’s happening? You can simply go onto a news show and parrot the party line, especially at a time when the broadcast media have bought into your discourse and won’t challenge you too much. And when they do, you can always suggest that people go and live on a boat.

In the naked city…

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment

There is, or was, a team of officers in a local authority. Scattered around various departments there are, or were, 21 of them. They provide(d) support to front line services, and do (did) the necessary number crunching and whatnot to help in the ever increasing battle against arbitrary and irrelevant targets imposed by senior management so that the authority can issue a leaflet that says “94.2% of a thing was done and our target for doing this thing was 94%, aren’t we great! And we’re doing it all for YOU! (so, you know, stop moaning about your housing, street lighting, playgroups and all that gubbins)”.

Then the local authority was told that it and others like it had been incredibly remiss with its finances. Nothing to do with the banks, oh no, although this authority had placed £30m of ‘surplus funds’ with an Icelandic bank that fell over due to what must have been no fault of its own. “Cut! Slash! Burn!” came the command, and the senior managers got together to see what reasonable and expedient savings they could make…

After much soul searching and gnashing of teeth it was decided that the team of 21 officers that provided support to the many depts of the authority could be cut to 4, with 2 others to support them. So, after the battle between the 21 officers for the 4 posts the new team was in place. In charge of the team are 4 ‘seniors’ who line manage the officers and one manager. It’s not all bad news, though; during the ‘restructure’, the decision was taken to increase the grades of the seniors and manager, and the two managers who put it all together ensured that their particular services weren’t hit too badly.

At this point we shall digress into some technicalities about grades and pay scales in local government. These are wide ranging and the grades for certain posts may vary from authority to authority depending on location, size of authority, number of citizens served etc. – roughly speaking, however, once a local government worker hits the ‘PO’ grades, they are in a post of some responsibility perhaps entailing junior management duties at the lower levels. Click on this pdf link to see LG pay scales – they’re for 2010 but local government pay has been frozen so they still apply. In the team we’re discussing the two ‘underlings’ are on Scale 6; the officers are on PO1-3; the seniors on PO4-6; the manager is on PO7.

Speaking of that team, it was decided that after cutting the officers, the ones that do the work, by 80% the previous year, further cuts needed to be made. The two Sc6 workers were told they no longer had jobs and the four officers who had jumped through hoops for their jobs less than a year previously were told they had to do it all over again as they were being cut to 3 officers. The seniors and manager were so important, however, that they were allowed to keep their jobs at £40-50k each. Take a look at the organisational paradigms of most organisations and you’ll see a pyramid like structure from the top down. But take a look at our little team and you’ll see it’s become somewhat top heavy, almost an inverted pyramid.

So what am I saying here? That the cuts should be made but more equitably? Well, no, not quite. I don’t believe that these cuts are ‘necessary’, but if you’ve read my previous posts you’ll know that – this is all the result of an ideological attack on the public sector, the fruition of three decades of the neoliberal project yada yada yada…

Despite the best efforts of us all we’re at the stage where cuts have, are, and will continue to be made and an important issue has arisen in terms of how they’re being implemented. The government has assured us that front line services will not be hit hardest, and yet a steady pattern has emerged where the jobs being lost are at that cutting edge where the work is done to provide those services.

I have written before on how the management practices of the private sector have been seen as the answer to the ‘problems’ in the public sector. This isn’t just a Conservative idea – Gordon Brown, the great ‘defender’ of the public sector, said when talking about the Private Finance Initiative that its rationale is to:

“… declare repeatedly that the public sector is bad at management, and that only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”

The result has been that the number of management and senior management posts in local government, and other public services, have dramatically increased over the past 10-15 years. Let’s take as an example the service that I used to work in: in 2000 the service was lead by a PO6 officer with several PO4 officers beneath them; in 2011 the service is lead by someone on a SM (senior management) scale with four PO8 managers beneath them. Further up the ladder there has been an influx of PO4-8 officers dedicated to ‘strategy and performance’ as the target led culture of the private sector has taken hold and the importance of being seen to produce results has overtaken the need to actually provide services. This has resulted in public services taking on an almost capitalist structure and ethos as those at the top reap the rewards of those who do the work, and what happens in capitalism when ‘profits’ are threatened? The workforce is cut.

I was a ‘senior’ at grade PO2 in a team of 11 providing an essential front line service – my fellow senior and I line managed four officers each and we had a team leader above us. Towards the end of last year we were told that two seniors was one too many – compare that to the above (factual) example I have given of a back office, corporate service. Other back office corporate services haven’t been touched at all.

In April this year I was made redundant from my service along with many other experienced and capable officers. Further cuts are being made but so far those on PO4 and above have hardly been affected, and no top managers have gone – I say ‘top’ with regard to their place in the organisation, not their performance.

The fact is that unjustified cuts are being made inequitably with those at the top protecting themselves and their favourites. The consequence of this is that the public sector will become more top heavy with figures and reports being increasingly massaged in order to show ‘results’, however, the true results will be a cataclysmic reduction in the number and quality of services provided and the lives of millions being adversely affected. Then, in the not too distant future, the government will say “Look, public services just aren’t working, let’s give them to people who can do the job”, and bids will be made, services ‘rationalised’, and the needs of people will be subsumed by the needs of the shareholders. It’s already happening.

And that’s the story of the little team that couldn’t but had to because these are difficult times and we’re all in it together. Right? This has been just one story; in the naked cities (and towns, and shires), there are millions…

Scab! Scab! Scab!

November 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Ugly word, isn’t it? Despite our childhood (and sometimes beyond) obsession with scabs the word retains an ugliness and revulsion which perhaps explains it’s use as the worst thing you can call a colleague. ‘Blackleg’ says the same thing, but it has an almost comforting retro feel to it, despite ‘scab’ having been in use for the purpose a lot longer. ‘Strike breaker’ is merely a bald admission of fact. ‘Scab’ definitely has the impact, both in delivery and in the intended hurt to its target.

Voice, the ‘union for education professionals’, is currently being accused of ‘scabbing’ over the November 30th strike action as its belief in the “force of argument rather than the argument of force” has resulted in a ‘no strike’ policy. In calling the union a scab, we are also of course referring to all of its members in the same way. Philip Parkin, Gen Sec of Voice, is (understandably?) upset over this, although I don’t think his mealy mouthed desire that his union’s detractors do not work with children helps his cause.

Neither does his cherry picking of stats, something we can all do, add strength to his argument. He implies that 78% of Unison members are against strike action but come November 30th it is guaranteed that 78% of Unison members won’t be at work. There is a whole other argument to be had here around why people don’t vote: could it be apathy; a tacit acceptance or rejection of what is proposed; poor organisation on the part of those holding the ballot? Whichever, no strong claim can be made on any factor without a great deal of analysis.

So, to the name calling. Is this justified? Can we assume the role of judge and jury and condemn people for acting against our principles when they are merely acting on their own? Would it be better to censure them in a less confrontational way? Do shouts of “Scab!” only serve to inflame an already heightened situation, and give succour to the right wing media wanting to portray activists as ‘radicals’ and worse?

Too many question marks?

My own view on strike action and union membership is that unless it’s for completely bloody stupid reasons members should adhere to a proposed action that has the backing of a successful ballot. The November 30th strikes are not a completely bloody stupid reason. These strikes are being held in protest against a government making a thinly veiled and deeply ideological attack on public services. This attack began in the early 80s under Thatcher, continued under Blairite Labour, and the mantle has been assumed with relish by the current government. This is three decades of neoliberal chickens coming home to roost, the same neoliberalism that has brought us to the crisis we’re in and then blamed it on the public sector.

These are exceptional circumstances and people who previously didn’t even watch the news are being politicised – for the likes of Philip Parkin to insinuate that whole swathes of union members will only be striking through being weak willed or intimidated shows an alarming lack of both insight into the situation, and awareness that this is potentially a watershed moment in British labour relations and normal rules do not apply.

But, still, is the abuse justified?

I have a good friend who has regularly broken strikes over the last decade. Along with other friends and colleagues I have made my feelings on the matter clear to him: I utterly and totally disagree with his actions. But I have never called him or any other colleague a scab. Does this, in accordance with Philip Parkin’s views, make me a better person than someone who does use that word? No. This is a highly emotive issue and a question of principle – just as Parkin asks that his members’ principles be taken into account, surely we must do the same regarding the principles of those opposed to strike breaking, which, by crossing picket lines, Voice members will be doing.

This is not a dismissal of the reasons given by strike breakers for their actions, indeed, I can readily acknowledge these reasons as the overwhelming majority of those who do strike have factored financial loss, fear of management retribution, damage caused to possible advancement etc., into their decision. Nobody can afford to strike, but many do because they realise that the essence of trade unionism is togetherness and that showing a united front over the last 200 years has resulted in us all benefiting from better pay, terms and work conditions. I have taken part in actions that have gained, or in many cases retained, benefits that far outstrip the short term loss of wages. For people to feel frustration with those who will not stand with them but will benefit in the same way is wholly understandable and, just as Parkin asks me not to condemn those who will not strike, I will not condemn those who take them to task.

I hope to be starting a new job in the public sector very shortly and if this should be before 30th November then on that day I will be out on strike as I always have been when asked to. Beyond that I have never and will never cross a picket line to the extent that, for example, should there be a tube strike on but some trains are running I won’t use a service operated by strike breakers. That is the strength of my feeling on the matter, and many people feel equally and even more strongly. Strike breakers, whatever their reasons or intentions, undermine the collective action needed to face down the bosses, especially in these interesting times. To take such a stance and then wince at the consequences is both naive and disingenuous.