There can be no doubt that public services are under the cosh. In the wake of a global recession caused by the insufficiently regulated, greed fuelled, morally bankrupt world of corporate finance it is public spending that is coming under attack - and that means public sector workers and vital public services are firmly in the firing line. At the start of a national TUC campaign, over 110 delegates attended the Northern TUC's Speaking up for Public Services event which took place at the Assembly Rooms, Newcastle upon Tyne on Monday 15th March.
In her welcome, Gill Hale, Chair of the Northern TUC and Regional Secretary of Unison said that she was delighted to be sharing the platform with so many General Secretaries representing the main public sector unions. Gill went on to say in a region that has high levels of unemployment, high levels of deprivation and the highest level of child poverty outside of London, good public service provision is key to tackling these issues, especially in the North East where one in three workers are employed in the public sector.
Gill then introduced the first panel of speakers and asked Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison to address the meeting. Dave started by congratulating the TUC for organising this event and commended the publication that was being launched today 'Speaking up for Public Services - Making the case for the Northern Region'.
These are hard times for the working class and working people. Over one million workers have lost their jobs in the past year and many workers are experiencing pay cuts, cuts to benefits, the loss of their homes and many face the real possibility of poverty in retirement. 40% of young black people and 25% of white people will leave school without a job. At a time when frontline services are needed more than ever, public sector workers are being lined up to pay the price for the greed of others. It's time for our unions to be strong and we will not stand by while they attack all that we hold dear. That is why Unison has launched 'A Million Voices for Public Services' campaign http://www.unison.org.uk/million/. We need to be clear to politicians of every party who are thinking about cutting public services. Public Service workers cannot be blamed for the crisis we are in when banks received £1m in bonuses for risking our money. Over half of workers in this region depend on public sector contracts. For every £1 a public sector worker earns, 70p goes back into the local economy. The human cost of cuts in the public sector is local people left without services, ordinary people should not have to bear the brunt for this recession.
All public sector unions need to stand together - we will not tolerate attacks on our members, their pay and their jobs.
Our next speaker was Colin Smith of the GMB. The Labour Government has a duty to protect public services and we will fight to prevent the dismantling of the public sector, trade unions are key to that. We know there are threats of attack on trade union facility time - how much is spent in local government by trade unions representing their members. National Bargaining helps trade unions organise within local authorities, and there are threats to National Bargaining. No change is not an option, we need to improve services and manage change, as there will be change; organise and campaign jointly to recruit members and get them involved in trade unions and ensure any disputes are coordinated and ensure that all trade unions work together to protect services and jobs.
Our next contributor was Iain Owens, Regional Secretary of UCU. At a time of growing unemployment it is untenable the Government has taken the decision to make cuts to educational provision to the unemployed with a 20% cut to adult education budget. This especially affects areas like Northumberland which has a disproportionately high number of unemployed people dependent on further education. Cuts to Higher Education will affect all six universities in the region with Cumbria being the most at risk. The University of Cumbria has only existed for two and half years and there is a real threat that education provision at the University will cease. UCU are working jointly with Unison on the 'Our University, Our Jobs and Our Community' campaign to protect jobs and education provision in the county.
The chair introduced the final speakers for the first panel. Rachael McIllroy of the TUC referred to the excellent national publication produced for the TUC by APSE - The Association of Public Service Excellence 'Speaking up for Public Services - the vital role of the public sector in and beyond the recession' which brings together evidence which demonstrates that sustaining public services is vital to economic recovery and the future prosperity of the country. Evidence also indicates that recovery is the best way to tackle the public deficit in the long term and that cuts in public spending would only have an effect on future competitiveness and would impact on the most vulnerable and needy in society. Rachael then introduced Andy Mud, co-author of the publication. Andy added that cuts to public services are not inevitable, there is a choice. There is a need for a more progressive tax system. The UK loses up to an estimated £36bn a year through tax avoidance and evasion. A restructure is necessary to restore financial stability and to start to address the gap between the rich and poor. History shows that recessions are cyclical and we need to look at laying down the foundations for the next economic downturn over the next 10 years.
Following a Q&A session, the Chair introduced the next panel of speakers, starting with Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the CWU.
Billy added his congratulations to the TUC for organising this event. Representing postal workers and those that work in communications and financial services, the CWU are well placed in the public and private sector debate. He attended a meeting in Teesside recently in support of Corus workers and like those in attendance at the conference he is appalled that steel manufacturing is being allowed to go to the wall while it was deemed bailing out the banks was crucial. Bailing out the banks cost us 10% of GDP. There are other ways to cut the deficit and make savings, for example, £97bn could be saved by scrapping Trident and £56bn on ID cards. Economic policy being adopted by all major parties seems to indicate savage cuts to public services, it's just about how much and when. We cannot simply rely on ideology , we need a vision of what we want the future to look like that embraces democracy, allows us to have our say and advocates independence for trade unions.
Our next speaker was Mick Shaw, President of the FBU. Mick started by thanking the TUC for providing the opportunity to join together with public sector trade unions in the fight to retain public services. He anticipated the next 3-5 years could be horrific. If the inheritance task is repealed it will mean affluence in the private sector and squalor for the rest of us and alternative proposed is to cut public services. The question is how much and how fast. Public sector workers did not cause the recession, the size of the bail out of the banks, return of huge bonuses are to blame. While our members face threats to jobs and pay freezes, salaries of Chief Fire Officers and University Vice Chancellors are rising disproportionately. Cuts in services will mean longer waiting times for emergency services with the likely result of more fire deaths. People will die. We need an alternative argument and a campaign strategy that takes us beyond the general election. Attacking us is not the answer.
Our final speaker was Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS. Mark added his appreciation to the TUC for producing the excellent publication 'Speaking up for Public Services - Making the case in the Northern Region' and encouraged reps to use it in their branches and workplaces. The Civil Service employs over 33,000 workers in the region, workers who play a vital role but are so often forgotten. He was proud to pay tribute to those workers today. However we need to face up to some fairly hard truths. The reality is the main political parties believe the deficit can only be solved by cutting public services - Labour citing job cuts of one in three and the Tories one in five. There have been 100,000 civil service job cuts under Labour, more cuts than two consecutive Tory Governments put together. Cuts will mean a further increase to the state retirement age. We need to agree practical steps to defend services and jobs, have an alternative argument. Leading up to the election, the PCS Make Your Vote Count campaign has two main aims:
The first is to put our issues and policies onto the political agenda at election times to strengthen our influence with politicians;
The second is to try to stop far right parties making any more electoral gains.
Further information on the campaign can be found at http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/campaigns/myvc/.
We need to stand together as a united labour and trade union movement and support the thousands of dedicated workers that continue to provide high quality public services.
A copy of the TUC publication 'Speaking up for Public Services - Making the case in the Northern Region' can be downloaded here.
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