Public services under attack – international austerity and the fight-back

Speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s 2014 International Summer School Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, gave an account of the struggles public service workers are facing. This article draws on her speech to delegates in Tuesday’s opening plenary.

Public service jobs used to be considered the gold standard in much of the world. Well paid, good pension, decent holidays and solid trade union rights. In an era of neoliberalism however, these previously ‘most formal of formal workers’ are facing the kinds of attacks previously only associated with the most ruthless companies.

International Struggles

There’s an ideological background to this. Labour market and union ‘reform’ has been factor in almost all post-crash countries. In South Korea, the government has recently initiated the most violent attack on public services – derecognising unions in each sector. Privatisation of the rail industry and the mass firing of union activists have turned the country into what one delegate called ‘a war zone’ for workers.

Public Services International, the Global Union Federation for public service workers, is used to privatisation battles – organising in industries which are often publicly funded and subsidised, but increasingly privately owned.

In the US, the Supreme Court last week ruled that there’s no obligation for care workers to pay union dues to unions collectively bargaining for them. These workers often work alone. They are now even more isolated – especially if their unions become toothless in the face of the court decision.

And internationally, at the last ILO conference, for first time delegates couldn’t reach a conclusion on the centrality of the right to strike – despite convention 87 of the ILO convention deeming it fundamental – because employers were so strongly against. It’s a frightening turn for workers of all sectors, as that is one of the only legal bases unions have on the global scale.

But there is some good news. The UN Women’s organisation recently recognised the role of unions as key to addressing the problems of women.

Moreover, until recently trade unions were previously not allowed to participate in UN discussions on migration. Now, after years of struggling from PSI and others, they can. With migration becoming a vehicle for new kinds of slavery, it’s an important milestone.

For public service workers, the water campaigns in the UN are equally important. In 2010, water was deemed a human right, providing the legal background for the massive 2013 struggles in Europe for water to be publicly owned – many of which won, in Paris and elsewhere.

And in the IMF, Christine Lagarde has recently said austerity is creating more injustice and poses a threat to democracy.

A turning point?

The ruling class, then, is getting scared. We are at critical point of class conflict. In response to a global ruling class, unions must likewise organise internationally, not just in one workplace. The welfare state wasn’t won in one shop floor but by the entire working class.

Multinational capital has a strategy. Unions can’t afford to navel-gaze. Whether in care homes, railway stations or outsourced water plants, public service workers in today’s climate of privatisation, cuts and union-busting know this better than ever.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter, using the hashtag #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’

13 comments on “Public services under attack – international austerity and the fight-back

  1. robert p. williams on said:

    While Prentis says: “It is time for Labour to make up its mind. Public-service workers are people who should be Labour’s natural supporters and they deserve Labour’s unashamed backing in return.”

    We see this happening:
    Rebel Councillors Join TUSC in Leicester

  2. Vanya on said:

    3 That’s very uncharitable of you Jim. I hope you’re not suggesting that Councillor Potter’s main motivation for leaving the Labour Party was her umbrage when the only other Labour coucillor in Leceiester who gave her support when she was accused of harrassing her ex, ending up with a restraining order, was Councillor Naylor?

    It was after her court appearance that she pointed out that the people of her ward had voted for her and not the Labour Party.

    Firstly, are we not always being told that the personal is political?

    Secondly, surely she may be completely genuine about her identification with the TUSC position and would, along with Councillor Naylor, have made this decision otherwise.

  3. Vanya on said:

    #4 Anyway, if people indeed voted for her and not the Labour Party, presumably they will now vote for her and not TUSC, so she can look forward to keeping her seat. Particularly if the majority of voters in her ward take the view that the personal is not in fact political.

  4. jim mclean on said:


    She was the Labour Party whip when three Labour Councillors were censored for opposing rent rises, there is usually a direct correlation between deselection and new found principals.

    A trio of Labour rebels who defied the party line and voted against rent rises for council tenants in the city have been disciplined.

    Braunstone Park councillors Michael Cooke and Anne Glover, and Western Park councillor Susan Barton, voted against rent rises of up to 11.2 per cent at a council meeting last month.

  5. Vanya on said:

    #6 In fairness she may well genuinely have seen the error of her ways (along presumably with Councillor Naylor who can we assume voted for the rent rise?)

    After all, there is more joy in Heaven at one sinner who repenteth…

  6. anon on said:

    Realted topic: It appears Laboratory services at King’s College Hospital in London are being handed over to the private sector, an organisation called Viapath, along with possible attacks on the terms and conditions of said lab workers.

  7. Vanya on said:

    #6 Was she deselected though Jim?

    Anyway, it also appears that as well as the restraining order, which she is appealing against in spite of apparently agreeing to it to avoid a criminal trial going abead, she also face charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice for allegedly making false reports to the Police about her ex.

    Now it may be that there are good reasons in terms of natural justice or politics or both to defend her. If that’s the case I would be interested if one of the regulars on here who support TUSC could provide a link to the relevant information or statement.

  8. jim mclean on said:

    Vanya: #6 Was she deselected though Jim?

    Seems not, resigned prior to suspension according to Ms Potter, and in all honesty Cllr Naylor seems a nice guy, but I do not see either being at the van of a new party for the masses.

  9. Vanya on said:

    Just in case any TUSC supporters missed my question #10 I thought I’d refer to it again just to put it back at the top of the comments queue.

    As we know, political activists, particularly on our side, do fall foul of the law in a way that requires we defend them. I’m genuinely interested to know whether this is one of those cases.

    After all, if the reason she seems to have stated to quit the Labour Party, ie the fact that most other Labour councillors refused to support her over her court case, is connected to her decision to join TUSC, then presumably it is also connected to the struggle against cuts?

  10. Vanya on said:

    #10 & #12 I know that this is a matter of relatively low importance given some of the other events happening nationally and internationally at the moment, but I really would be interested in some clarification.