Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Crisis of Public Sector Trade Unionism: Evidence from the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Crisis

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Crisis of Public Sector Trade Unionism: Evidence from the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Crisis

Article excerpt

Almost 20 years ago, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) responded to falling trade union membership by introducing the organising model' through its New Unionism strategy (Heery 1998). The atrophy of the British trade union movement has continued regardless, with fewer absolute numbers and an even greater reduction in density, from 32% in 1995 to 26% by 2011 (Brownlie 2012). Trade union density in the public sector is higher, standing at 56.5% in 2011 compared to 14.1% in the private sector. As a result, over 62% of union members are in the public sector (Ibid. 2012). The immediate fortunes of the movement appear therefore to rest on this sector's resilience. As Richard Hurd has argued, in the United States, however, it would be a mistake 'to conclude that public sector unions are strong, stable, and immune to the external and internal influences that have brought private sector unions to their knees' (cited in Burns 2014: 53-54). Relatively high density should not be allowed to hide falling membership: from 4.11 million in 2009 to 3.88 million in 2011, with a loss of 186,000 members in 2010-2011. Nor should density figures mask the significant decline in collective bargaining. According to the authors of the latest Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS 2011),

Collective bargaining takes place in less than three fifths (57%) of public sector workplaces, setting pay for a little over two fifths (44%) of public sector employees, down from over two thirds in 2004. (Van Wanrooy et al. 2013: 22)

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (2014) reported that 'The public sector workforce stood at 5.7 million in mid-2013, and made up just under 20% of total employment, lower than at any point in at least the last 40years' (p. 1). On-going cuts in public expenditure pose a further acute threat to public sector unions and hence the overall fortunes of British trade unionism.

As well as expenditure cuts causing job losses, there has been a general erosion of public sector wages, especially in the years since the economic crisis of 2008 and the onset of austerity, adding demoralisation to rising insecurity. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) found that the public sector had been hard-hit by 'the sequence of a 2-year pay freeze (three years in local government) and then a 3-year pay cap', the effect of which was 'to reduce median and average gross pay in the public sector by a prospective 13% across the period' (NEF 2013: 8). It is estimated that: 'one million public service workers are on low pay, including health and social care workers, school staff and local authority employees' (NEF 2013: 6). UNISON's own research found that 'When the national minimum wage was introduced in 1999, the bottom NJC [National Joint Council] pay point was over 24% above it. Now it's just 2% above' (http://www. birminghamunison.co.uk/news-archive/njc-pay-14-bulletin-44). Alongside the erosion of wages, pension changes have seen higher employee contributions, lower benefits, longer working lives and a reduction in the rate of inflation proofing. Hurd's warning of vulnerability is even more apposite given the 2015 election of a Conservative government, openly hostile to public sector unions, that has advanced plans for restrictions on industrial action and facility time as well as proposals for even greater expenditure cuts.

If public sector trade unions have performed poorly defending pay and pensions, areas in which they feel most comfortable and confident, their record with less tangible issues, such as control and respect at work, is equally unimpressive. Yet, it is conditions and relations at work that frequently come to the foreground when talking to public sector workers. Teachers' main employment concerns are workload and the growth of targets and intrusive monitoring (Carter & Stevenson 2012; Ironside et al. 1997). Healthcare workers worry about understaffing, arbitrary rotas, sickness monitoring and the extent of bullying (Francis 2013). …

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