Local Government: beware the Newcastle model

Submitted by Matthew on 22 October, 2009 - 12:35 Author: A Local Government worker

The first I had heard of the so called “Newcastle model” was at Unison conference in June this year.

The basic idea is for local government workers (or their unions) to be enlisted in a process of “modernising” local government services. This may involve cuts (or cost savings), but those cuts would be one-off “reforms”. This process should help stop contracting-out/privatisation.

Unison’s promotion of this strategy is extremely worrying. At conference there was a long presentation from various people in the Newcastle branch, a presentation which preceded a motion but “talked out” any debate.

At first the Newcastle people’s account appeared quite hardline — they wanted “no privatisations” and “no compulsory redundancies”. But behind the headlines it was all very different.

The branch had surveyed admin staff across the council identifying where they could make “efficiencies” for management. They result was the “deletion” of lots of (vacant) posts.

The union also identified re-gradings and negotiated with management to increase the voluntary redundancy packages. This resulted in many more people applying for voluntary redundancy than were given it.

Essentially the unions did management’s job for them.

It was clear that the Newcastle model was Unison leadership’s answer to the forthcoming cuts — look for savings and “efficencies”. The same language is being used by Council Chief Executives up and down the country.

This is a strategy born out of weakness and defeat. The line from the Unison leadership was very clear — we had to be “realistic”; job security not pay was the top of members’ concerns (probably true, but we’d like decent pay as well!); members had shown that they had no desire for strike action (due to the pay dispute being botched in summer 2008). Therefore this was the best option.

I think it is important to take stock of how appalling this is. A comrade from my branch who was at conference as a visitor, joined the presentation half way through. He thought it was a “comedy piece”, a satire about how unions shouldn’t behave. No such luck.

But the presentation was slick. Socialists and the left in Unison have to face the reality of where our union is. The leadership has no desire to fight and a lot of members have low confidence. We need to build that confidence. This strategy or model will not do that.

Sometimes it is necessary to settle for voluntary redundancies and deletion of vacant posts, but this should come only at the end of a struggle.

To suggest such solutions to management without any kind of fight is worse than a defeat.

Of course there is money spent in public services that could be spent in better ways — the wages of managers and board members, for example, are scandalous. If the union must focus on wasted money, these are the examples that should be used. The idea that administrative workers are “unnecessary” is at the heart of this strategy. It is an ignorant perception.

No thought here is given to the remaining staff’s workload and stress levels, which would definitely increase. In all likelihood Newcastle have only got the soft cuts out of the way and shown themselves to be weak for management.

We have been told that 15–20% of “efficiencies” (i.e. cuts) need to be identified in the public sector. We have some serious fights ahead and they cannot be avoided. The left in the public sector unions needs to organise — recruit new members, publicise ourselves and thin hard about strategies.

We need to make clear that we have a different answer to the crisis to our union “leadership”. It will be down to rank and file members to organise themselves that fight. Socialists have the key role of helping branch activists prepare for the battles to come.

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