Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/232/9259
Anti-Privatisation Conference: 'We're Determined To Fight Back And Win'
ON 24 November 100 delegates from more than 13 different trade unions attended an anti-privatisation conference organised by six national, trade-union Broad Left organisations.
Opening the conference Glenn Kelly, national chair of United Left (UNISON) said that public sector workers face a common threat of privatisation of jobs and services. New Labour has a privatisation agenda that the Tories could only dream of.
The TUC and trade union leaders should have been organising the conference to channel the anger and discontent that public sector workers feel. The leaders have reflected this anger in words but not action. And since 11 September there has been a one-sided truce; Blair has pushed ahead in all areas with privatisation while the union leaders have suspended opposition.
The onus is therefore on activists and Broad Lefts to organise action. The conference, Glenn explained, was not to bemoan privatisation but to begin the process of co-ordinating action. Pressure has to be put on the trade union leaders to call a national demonstration as a first step towards national industrial action. But if they refuse, then trade unionists have to take initiatives using the structures and authority of the Broad Left organisations.
Trade Union Leader Addresses Conference
MARK SERWOTKA, general secretary elect of the PCS (civil service union) was the first conference speaker. Trade union members, he said, are desperate for co-ordinated campaigns against privatisation but this is not matched by commitment from most union leaders.
The Dudley hospital workers for example, waged a tremendous fight-back against privatisation - taking 100 days of strike action. Unfortunately that was not seized on by the leadership as a building block for wider action.
We should be leading the call to stop privatisation and for renationalisation.
There is, he explained, a mood and determination to fight back and win. Since he was elected general secretary in January this year, there have been 147 separate submissions in the PCS for strike action.
Over 2,500 JobCentre workers have been on strike over safety for 12 weeks. Now all workers in the Benefits Agency and Employment Service are being balloted for action. This dispute is linked to preparing the way for more private sector employers to deliver welfare services.
Struggles such as these can lift the confidence and morale of other workers. We have to unite and work together on the Left to give confidence to workers to struggle against privatisation. We must win this battle; the consequences of losing are too dire to contemplate.
Delegates give examples of their experiences of privatisation
Linda Taaffe, National Union of Teachers (NUT) national executive member speaking in a personal capacity pointed out that the schools budget is worth £23 billion a year. The private sector vultures are looking for the best ways of extracting profits from this pot. While some privatisation ventures, such as the Education Action Zones, fall by the wayside others are going ahead and are planned for the future.
Teachers, parents and governors don't want the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). But for many there doesn't seem to be an alternative. We're told PFI is the "only show in town". However Pimlico School in Westminster fought a five-year struggle and defeated PFI.
The problem generally is that the union nationally won't back action by local unions. This was the experience in the Waltham Forest campaign against privatisation of education services. Many workers have a lack of faith in themselves to take action.
The union leadership doesn't inspire confidence. But we can fill that gap. Rank-and-file teachers organised a campaign against performance related pay (STOPP), which held a very successful national demonstration, despite the fact that some - even on the Left - thought that the "time was not right" for a demo.
The conference, Linda explained, could help to organise a national demonstration against privatisation if the union leaders refuse to act.
A member of the regional executive committee of the RMT London Underground said it was just a matter of time before the Paddington or Hatfield disasters were repeated on the underground. Under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) profit would come before safety.
It's been reported that on the Northern Line, private contractors fitted concrete sleepers without enough give. These are now breaking up due to vibration from the trains and will have to be re-laid .
In February RMT and ASLEF members on London Underground took strike action which was totally solid. They won one of the best deals in a struggle against privatisation. Even so, new staff will still be employed on different conditions and safety will be at risk under PPP.
London Underground workers don't have to be convinced of the need to take action. They have to be convinced that they can play a role. We have to see that we are crucial in forcing the unions to take effective action.
Hackney library worker, Brian Debus came from the picket line to speak to the conference. 96% of library workers voted for strike action over Saturday payments. Over the past 12 months Hackney council workers have taken six days of strike action against cuts of £1.8 million. Now the employers are coming back for another £50 million. This would mean the closure of four out of seven libraries and a cut in the social services budget of 7.8%. The privatisation of revenue and benefits and street cleaning has actually cost the council more money.
Andrew Price, Wales representative on the national executive committee of NATFHE (college lecturers' union) speaking in a personal capacity said that Further Education (FE) colleges were privatised ten years ago when they were separated from local authorities. There are now more than 360 employers in England and Wales and none of them are legally bound to implement national agreements. This has devastated pay and conditions. More than 50% of courses are delivered by staff on short-term contracts, most employed by agencies.
Mark Perkins from the GMB talked about the inspirational struggle of street cleaners in Brighton who, after four days of occupation, defeated multinational private company SITA and the service returned to the council. He explained how important it was to involve the workers' families and how support from other trade unions and organisations and the public helped them win their struggle.
Other delegates spoke about the need to link the struggle against privatisation with the struggle for trade unions to break with New Labour. Delegates also called for links with the anti-capitalist movement and urged trade unionists to set up local cross-union campaigns involving trades councils.
A speaker from the Northern Ireland public sector union NIPSA explained how the left now hold 11 out of 25 seats on the general council and a mood exists to fight privatisation. Other speakers emphasised the 'internationalisation' of anti-privatisation struggles.
A message of support was received from the Nigerian movement against privatisation. Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) also sent a message of solidarity, welcoming the conference.
Conference agreed to:
- Mobilise maximum support for all workers who are in opposition to privatisation and are taking industrial action in defence of their wages and conditions.
- Campaign for, and lobby a special one-day TUC conference on the public sector.
- Demand at the lobby that public-sector trade unions organise national action against privatisation - including a national demonstration in spring 2002.
- In the event that the TUC or any national trade union are unwilling to organise a national demo, the liaison committee will draw up plans for its own national event and campaign for the widest possible support in the unions, trades councils and community campaigns.
- Fight within our respective unions for national industrial action in support of members involved in struggles against privatisation.
- Co-ordinate a campaign across the unions for the official unions to organise a one-day, public-sector strike against privatisation.
- Set up a liaison committee consisting of up to three delegates from each trade union Broad Left. The committee will have the responsibility of organising the lobby of the TUC, circulating material about struggles against privatisation and co-ordinating future rank-and-file conferences against privatisation.
The Conference Was Supported By The Following Broad Left Organisations
Left Unity (PCS civil service union)
United Left (UNISON)
Socialist Teachers Alliance (National Union of Teachers)
CDFU (National Union of Teachers)
Communication Workers' Broad Left (CWU, Communication Workers' Union)
NATFHE Rank and File (NATFHE, college lecturers' union)
In The Socialist 30 November 2001: