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Liverpool looms as unions prepare for bitter jobs battle
Public Finance – 10 September 2009

Public sector unions are gearing up to face the prospect of inevitable spending cuts after the general election. Next week's TUC conference will indicate how far they will go, says Mark Smulian

Fears about the recession's consequences for state spending pervade the whole public sector workforce. From now until the election, the political parties might avoid unpopular stances, but after that the unions fear severe spending cuts whoever wins.

Their initial tactic, as shown in motions to next week's annual conference of the Trades Union Congress in Liverpool, will be to organise campaigns to win voters' support for continued investment in public services. In effect, they want to make it too politically dangerous for any government to contemplate deep cuts. If that fails, the threat of industrial action lies in wait.

The unions' case is that their members' work is essential to society, and that cuts harm almost everyone - whether or not they work in the public sector - because services could be lost or their quality unacceptably reduced. That would be a hard sell to taxpayers anyway, but the unions now also face a barrage of media claims about the public sector's 'gold-plated' pensions and salaries.

Unison, the largest purely public sector union, has tabled a TUC motion that applauds the public debt amassed in the past year to provide an economic stimulus. It argues that deep spending cuts 'will damage vitally needed services and local economies whilst ultimately impairing economic recovery'. It goes on to deplore what it claims are cuts made under the guise of efficiencies or outsourcing. The motion proposes staff and union involvement in planning service changes and efficiency, and for the TUC to develop 'an alternative to the economic consensus that involves fair and increased taxation, the wider benefits of public services to the economy and society and makes the case that current provision is affordable and the best route out of recession'.

A motion from the Public and Commercial Services union makes a similar case but places greater emphasis on the possibilities of industrial action and nationalisation. Health service and education unions' motions are also in line with these approaches.

Heather Wakefield, Unison's national secretary for local government, says she is looking to the TUC for 'support for our members up to and including industrial action'. She fears local government will bear the brunt of cuts - since all the main political parties say they will protect health - but anticipates tackling these first through political campaigning. 'I expect any industrial action would be more likely at individual local authority or primary care trust level than nationally, though we don't know what is to come under a Tory government,' she says. Unison's most original tactic is an educational programme to help its members understand council accounts, 'so that when a council says it is forced to make cuts they can see if this is true or not', Wakefield explains.

'It is often very interesting to find that cuts are not needed, or arise from financial mismanagement or unwise investment or, since most of local government is run by the Conservatives, that they are cutting to try to avoid council tax increases for political reasons. We think many of these cuts are unnecessary because most councils have got above-inflation settlements for three years.' Unison commissioned the polling firm Mori earlier in the year to research voters' attitude to public services. Its initial work found 'people support public services, they want them to be more efficient but not cut and would prefer tax increases to loss of services', she says, adding: 'We will also argue to the public that cutting spending in a recession is wrong.'

The PCS, the principal Whitehall union, will take a similar line, its national communications officer Alex Flynn says. 'The key thing for us is to get away from the idea that there is a huge difference between the public and private sectors. 'Jobs are under threat in both and we want to counter some of the myths being propagated by the media and some politicians, such as that our members have gold-plated pensions. The average civil service pension is 6,500 a year, and that is comparable to the private sector.'

The PCS will issue research at the congress, conducted by Incomes Data Services, which it says will show 'our members' pay is below the national average and the civil service has lagged behind the private sector'. Flynn says the union will also use practical examples of unintended effects of cuts. 'They got rid of staff in Jobcentre Plus, cut it to the bone, and then when the recession started it could not react as fast as it could have,' he says. 'Also, there is 25bn of uncollected tax and a similar amount lost in tax evasion, yet Revenue and Customs has lost 25,000 jobs in five years, when each staff member brings in 640,000 in tax that would otherwise be lost.'

Although the PCS motion suggests it is more ready than Unison for industrial action, Flynn says: 'It is for now about building a campaign by lobbying to convince politicians that cutting the public sector is short-sighted.'

One union already at the sharp end of severe job cuts is Prospect. Negotiations officer Mike Sparham represents the Forensic Science Service, which faces 800 redundancies, equivalent to 40% of the workforce. 'We are at the stage of political lobbying but have not ruled out industrial action because we expect to hear changes to terms and conditions soon, and that may cause it,' he says. 'The cuts are driven by claims that the workload has diminished, which we don't accept - no-one has seen the crime rate go down 40%.'

At the top of Whitehall, from which any spending cuts will ultimately be imposed, sit members of the FDA union for senior civil servants. Its general secretary Jonathan Baume admits: 'There is quite a lot of fear around because once the election is out of the way whoever is in government is going to put the brakes on public spending and there could be quite significant retrenchment.' The Conservatives have made it clear that they want to reduce the public deficit as fast as they practically can, he says. 'If there is a Tory government with a majority of eight it might be quite difficult to make serious cuts in public jobs, not least because of the electoral consequences among voters who work in the public sector.

'But if there is a majority of 80, which the polls are indicating, it would be easier to take tough decisions and have a pay freeze, or very limited pay increases like we are already seeing in local government,' Baume says. They will also be 'making political arguments about the value of public services' and, he notes, 'no government will want to work with an alienated workforce'. Only a few public employers have yet specifically indicated job losses. But the unions fear most soon will, and want their arguments and campaigns ready. If those don't work, the threat of public service strikes looms.