Thursday, January 13, 2011

We can't sell jobs to save services - so what do we do?

I was saddened to see the response of our Manchester Branch to the appalling cuts facing their City Council (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-12177853) - which has been to agree a voluntary redundancy exercise with the employers (http://www.unisonmanchester.org/national-news/government-cuts-to-manchester-city-council/).

My employer is one of many currently trawling the workforce for volunteers - but without the sanction or approval of the trade unions.

Whilst we can't - and wouldn't try to - prevent the voluntary departure of members wanting to leave, we don't see it as our role - in Lambeth - to help the Council save money.

That's not to say that trade unionists shouldn't help the employer with money saving ideas which do no damage to jobs and services. In the past year I've been involved in discussions about reducing (expensive) reliance upon agency workers - and about whether repayment of our pension fund deficit can be rescheduled to reduce current budget pressures.

However, we shouldn't be helping with saving measures which will hit public services hard. I don't say this for any moral, or ideological, reason but out of sheer pragmatism.

If we are to preserve jobs and services we need to build alliances across our local communities with those who rely upon our services. Their interest is in saving services - and those services are jeopardised by job losses - whether voluntary or compulsory.

Therefore we have to campaign to defend services and oppose job losses. We can't build succesful alliances to defend public services if we pack up, go home and let the Council close a library/day centre/nursery once enough staff have volunteered for severance so no one faces compulsory redundancy!

What seems to lie behind the Mancunian approach is an acceptance that a local authority has no option but to implement cuts as the Government withdraws funding.

I think we need to challenge this lazy assumption and start thinking with more imagination both about how Labour local authorities might resist the Government - and about how we might press them to do so.

To take an example, a number of sizeable Labour authorities, standing together, setting budgets based upon social need rather than financial constraints, would have the political power to force, at the least, a climbdown or U turn upon the Government if - and this is one of a number of big "if"s hovering around this argument - they had support from the leadership of the Labour Party and of the trade unions.

I fear we are a considerable distance from almost all the ingredients of the scenario above.

Therefore we need to build resistance on the ground, by mobilising our members into community campaigning and by fanning any small flames of opposition to cuts and job losses.

At present the mood in workplaces seems "patchy" - we need to try to generalise the anger which exists.

In this way we can try to build both the confidence and activity of rank and file trade unionists, which is what we need in order to exert political pressure both locally and nationally.

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