UNISON Scotland challenges the common consensus on cuts
Throughout the past year, public sector union UNISON Scotland’s opposition to budget cuts now regarded as inevitable by the vast majority of those involved in public service delivery has been unwavering. At times the union has almost seemed naive in its belief that the cuts should not have to affect services, but it has remained resolute.
Why, the union asks, should service users and public sector workers pay the price for the bankers that gambled with the country’s money? Why should the public sector pay the price while the banking industry has been allowed to walk away with just a slap on the wrist and a few more regulations?
The union knows it has a point and in January, it launched Public Works: a million voices for public services campaign, which will be a long-running initiative fighting cuts at every turn. A fortnight ago, the campaign held a Stop the Cuts rally in Glasgow with around 2,500 workers and union members in attendance. On a UK-scale, UNISON has produced a socialist –friendly alternative to the Chancellor’s budget, proposing that £74.195bn could be raised in 2010/11 by introducing measures such as a 50 per cent tax rate for those earning over £100,000bn, reforming tax havens and reducing tax avoidance, introducing a tax on major financial transactions (dubbed the ‘Robin Hood Tax’) for financial institutions, axing Trident, introducing a property tax and cutting the use of private consultants in local government.
Both north and south of the border, UNISON is ready for a long fight. Douglas Black, the union’s regional organiser and lead negotiator for local government workers in Scotland says that even when the UK General Election is over, there is still all to play for – especially considering the fact that Scottish parliamentary elections will be held next year and local government elections will follow in 2012.
“Our Public Works campaign is not something that’s going to stand still. As I’ve said, it’s the start of a campaign that we see continuing for a number of years and clearly whichever party comes to power after 6 May and whatever the shape of the Government in the UK is, it is going to influence very clearly what direction the public sector is going to go thereafter,” he says, explaining that ensuring that the balance of attention between local and national issues is right is vital.
“While [the Stop the Cuts rally] was a public demonstration to bring branches together, the focus now kind of switches to some of the local issues where in an area like Fife, for instance, we’re seeing 130 redundancies for supervisory assistants, who are people that supervise kids in the playground. OK, only five hours per week but it’s jobs that are crucial to the safety of children and jobs that we can ill afford to lose.” As the General Election draws closer, Black says UNISON will be sticking to its own agenda rather than looking at what the main political parties might offer for them.
“We’re not focusing on what happens if the Labour Party get in or the Tory Party get in. We have our agenda of where we believe public services should be in the future, we have our agenda of what we think is needed to respond to some of the issues in the public sector and we would want to speak to whatever party is in power if they can demonstrate that they see merit and would want to work with us towards delivering that,” he says.
However, Black emphasises that the focus for UNISON Scotland has very much become fixed on what happens in the Scottish Parliament.
“I think what devolution has done is it means that the decision-making process is much closer to us and I think we’ve got to be a lot sharper and clearer with government about what our needs are and how we want to achieve that,” he says.
“Obviously with devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the whole of the local government settlement is determined within Holyrood, albeit that money comes from Westminster. So we have regular communication with the Government through a whole range of forums, whether it’s UNISON as an independent trade union or UNISON as STUC discussions with the Government.” Black gives the impression that having things a lot closer to home has not always made things easier for UNISON Scotland.
When asked if the devolved environment has meant more collaboration and consensus, he says: “I think there needs to be more of a collaborating role because the one thing that I don’t see in evidence a great deal is local councils, for instance, arguing against the strategies that are put in place to deliver these cuts.” On this, Black is in agreement with the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Mark Serwotka, who has passionately and publicly challenged the thinking that has led the public sector into believing that budget cuts are the only way.
“What I don’t think see in councils, and in some other public bodies, is a concerted effort to try and come together and put pressure on Holyrood, on Westminster, to say, ‘look, there’s an alternative way of doing this’. Part of that is due to the make up of individual councils. Not rocking the boat springs to mind on some areas,” he says, adding: “But I don’t see this joined-up approach from all local authorities…this is not something we want to be part of. We think there’s another way of doing this and bringing it together to try and promote that.” Following a failed attempt to get the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) on board to speak out against budget cuts, Black describes the organisation as being eager to “shy away from that”. He admits this has left him a little perplexed, saying: “Why would they shy away from that when the difficulties that they are experiencing have been caused by the fact that they don’t have enough money to deliver what they want to deliver? It doesn’t make much sense.” When asked if UNISON Scotland sees the Concordat as one of the main drivers behind the councils’ lack of willingness to challenge the Scottish Government on the inevitability of cuts, Black replies: “Of course.” Describing the £70m divided between councils in exchange for signing up to another year of frozen council tax as “almost like a bribe”, he says the union feels the council tax freeze has a lot to answer for.
“The big issue about the Concordat is the fact that council tax has been frozen for the past three years or so and I think that’s beginning to become an unsustainable position. It’s not about whether it would definitely make a difference to local authorities or not, it’s about the fact that if there wasn’t a council tax freeze, the councils would have the option of being able to raise more money locally and that’s currently being deprived from them.
“And remember that that £70m that goes back to local authorities for signing up to the Concordat isn’t new money. That is money that was already part of the local government base budget in the first place so it’s almost like a bribe: ‘oh, we’ll give you 99 per cent of your budget but unless you sign that bit paper, you don’t get the other one per cent’,” he argues.
While the focus in local government has shifted to looking at new ways of delivering services, Black says that UNISON Scotland’s approach is still very much that services and jobs should be preserved whenever possible.
Black says that in order for the union to enter into any discussions on any new proposals, it would have to see them first, and adds that moves to create a trust school in East Lothian are vehemently opposed due to the belief that education should remain under local authority control. Commenting on the progress on shared services following the Arbuthnott report, Black says he believes the initiative is now a “bit frayed at the edges”, adding: “I think that’s almost fallen flat on its face. I don’t get the impression that local authorities within the boundaries of Arbuthnott are buying into the process – I don’t see the evidence of that.” He also explains that UNISON Scotland feels that different models – such as Edinburgh Council’s alternative service delivery plan – being promoted in different councils is not a workable way forward, stating that more cooperation on deciding a way forward would be a more welcome approach.
Summing up UNISON Scotland’s position, Black says: “Scotland generally has a proud record of public service delivery. It’s part of what we are, it’s part of the ethos, it’s part of the communities that we work in so I think we should be proud of the fact that we’ve had a good public sector and I think we should want to continue to have a good public sector.
“There needs to be reinvestment into the public sector, the public sector needs to be regenerated and there needs to be recognition of the value of the staff. At the moment, we’re in pay negotiations with employers, there hasn’t been an offer made, they’re looking for pay freezes over the next two to three years, it’s not a sustainable position, they need to reinvest in staff, they need to reinvest in the public sector if we have a hope…whether we’re out or in this recession or at what level we’re at, but we need to regenerate these public services and we can’t do that without the staff.”