Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Resist fear and insecurity

I have yet to spend my Xmas book tokens on the full write up of the findings of the 2011 Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS), which was published slightly before the holidays. However, the link above shows one of the authors of that work picking out one of the more dramatic changes in our working lives between 2004 (when the last such survey was carried out) and 2011.

Employees' perceptions of our job security, which remained stable in the private sector, have collapsed in the public sector. Whereas in 2004 almost two thirds of public sector workers believed their job to be secure, this had fallen to less than half by the time interviews were carried out for the 2011 survey.

These perceptions don't necessarily reflect real experience. In the same year as the fieldwork for the latest WERS was being carried out, a survey of employers from XpertHR found that public sector organisations had a turnover rate of 12.6%, compared with 17.4% in the private sector. 

So, in the public sector (where only a minority felt secure) just one in eight workers actually left their jobs over the course of a year, whereas in the private sector (where two thirds of workers felt secure) the equivalent proportion was more than one in six.

Public sector workers feel less secure but are not, in fact, at that much greater risk.

I don't think that the resolution of this paradox is necessarily that complex. Since the General Election (and before), as the political right won the battle to control the narrative of the economic crisis, we have lived through a period of "public sector worker bashing" unprecedented in living memory.

An important part of this offensive has been to instil fear in the public sector workforce. Some part of this may be motivated by a deliberate intent to provoke feelings of insecurity to undermine the combativity of the workforce, but the relative extent of job insecurity compared to real risk also has a material basis in the way in which large groups of workers are continually pushed through reorganisations to achieve the redundancy dismissals of only a minority.

The economy cannot sustain recovery without an increase in real wages - and if the trade union movement is to play the part it should in achieving this outcome we need to mobilise and motivate public sector workers to fight for higher pay. To do this (to do anything very much worthwhile) we need to change the climate of fear and insecurity in our public services.

Trade union leaders don't have a magic wand to change this with overnight (it's not an ice sculpture, one might say) but the sort of resolute leadership being shown currently by the Higher Education Service Group Executive points in the right direction.

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