Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Sussex University: Fight to Keep the Profiteers Out - Occupy and Strike!

Sussex Registrar John Duffy spoke to students on the 11/02/2013 about the University's outsourcing plans. He argued the introduction of private companies to run campus services will provide new expertise and improve efficiency. He hasn't explained how that would be achieved, requesting staff and students to join him in his leap of faith.

He described a string of 'successes' where private companies have started running University services across the country, including Sheffield Hallam, where housing has been taken over by a private company called Unite. Prices have increased, service is poor, the electric keeps going off with no compensation and students have been threatened with £300 fines for having a poster on the wall...

It isn't hard to look for the woeful results of privatisation. British railways have the most expensive ticket prices in the world according to UBS, and have been mired in controversy since safety failures in Hatfield and Potters Bar. Over Christmas a private company called Sodexo, took over cleaning at Royal Sussex Hospital in Kemptown, failed to pay staff and threatened almost 100 redundancies. Attempts to imitate 'the market' in Health has led to the disasters of PFI and Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust.

A private company's definition of success is profit – this is not a definition shared by staff and students.

Protecting Staff Pay, Terms and Conditions?

When asked whether the University would guarantee the existing terms, pay and conditions of staff and prevent any redundancies Duffy said they could make no assurances but in the bidding process the University would place the interests of staff at the top of the agenda. He argued that TUPE legislation would protect staff in the transfer. If vague sweet-talking was a contract the staff would be fine! But it isn't. TUPE allows an employer to restructure the business after the transfer. This means that terms and conditions may be protected and then immediately slashed or undermined in a restructuring.

Privatisation is a long-established method, it is not a new experiment the outcome of which remains to be seen. Often much of the profit from privatisation has come from government subsidies (Tory and New Labour) who are ideologically driven to prove the success of privatisation. However studies have demonstrated that the increases in productivity which generate huge profits are the result of attacks on the workforce. Lower wages and attacks on other benefits, longer hours, a smaller workforce, less secure employment; this is how profits are made by private companies running public services.

Catering, cleaning portering and so on are all labour-intensive; where else will any private company squeeze their profits from if not from worsening staff terms, conditions and pay? There are only a handful of options to achieve these gains, and private companies time and again opt for reducing the workforce, increasing work intensity, slashing wages or other benefits, or raising prices. (Andrew Glyn, Capitalism Unleashed, Finance, Globalisation and Welfare, 2006 Oxford University Press, pg43 quoting OECD studies and drawing on ONS statistics.)

Duffy claims staff will be fully represented and consulted in this process. Why have they refused to negotiate keeping services in-house with the trade unions? His assurances given are vague; what are they worth? Will staff be able to vet the companies under consideration, and judge them on their past practices elsewhere? Or will their new employer simply be announced? What kind of consultation excludes the preferred option of keeping services in-house? If the contract fails (what will the conditions of this be? Can staff set those conditions?) will the company receive a golden handshake?
Who knows...? John Duffy does! But the cat's got his tongue, all he can do is shrug; it's out of his hands; he is controlled by a higher power...

Duffy claims the overriding motivation in these plans is to account for the growth of Sussex University. The government has established a 'sink or swim' regime across Higher Education, where institutions compete even more fiercely than before for students and tuition fee revenue. He claims the drive towards privatisation is not aimed at cutting costs but once a privatised arrangement is in place it will be a far more effective tool in driving down labour costs in the future, if not today, even if immediate spending remains stable. If services are expanded but the private contractor keeps costs stable, that will be a real term cut.

How Can They Be Stopped?

London Metropolitan University staff organised in the trade union UNISON faced down a similar threat to privatise services through a mass sustained campaign which drew in the wider branch membership and included protests, statements of support and so on. This campaign culminated in industrial action which finally caused the management to back down. Strike action can have the effect of a hundred occupations, especially with a strategy to escalate if management does not back down (if one day doesn't work, two days. If two days don't work, three days etc). 

London Met shows how strike action can force an employer to back down. So-called 'concession bargaining' is not a better strategy because 'weakness invites aggression', once management feels there is no resistance to their plans the attacks will only increase and the union's subservience will be repaid with scorn - only a struggle can stay management's hand, and strike action is the strongest form of struggle.

Strike action like this cannot be called by magic; it requires a campaign to build across the campus, to recruit an active membership who will fight within the branch for an all-members' meeting, to demand a vote on a fighting strategy, to demand a ballot and to refuse to take no for an answer! A handful of UNISON members have been working hard for the branch to adopt a fighting strategy, but they need more support and active members taking part in that struggle alongside them. The student movement can help develop that campaign, through patiently explaining all these points to staff across the campus, and to the 235 in particular.

If the university says there is nothing to fear from privatisation because of the so-called protection of TUPE, why don't they guarantee to write into the contracts of employment the following?:
  • A guarantee of no compulsory redundancies for the life time of the contract.
  • A guarantee of no changes in terms and conditions for the life time of the contract.
  • Provision of a pension scheme or schemes at least equivalent to current schemes available to affected staff.
  • A comprehensive response to these demands within 14 days.
We urge staff to join UNISON and demand:

1. The creation of a democratic strike committee of affected staff and branch officers of all three unions – NO to a tiny group of branch secretaries calling all the shots!

2. For a joint union, time-bound demand that management halt the privatisation proposals or agree to match University terms and conditions and have no compulsory redundancies for the life time of the new contract – to organise strike ballots a.s.a.p. if no response is received or these demands (which can form the basis of a legal industrial dispute) are not met.

3. To organise for every member of affected staff to pledge to vote for strike action if the identity of their employer is changed (as done at London Met. The precedent for this as another dispute – Barnet Unison Local Government branch)

4. NO to concessionary bargaining – for the representation of the interests ALL workers, young and old, directly affected and next-on-the-list. This is the thin end of the wedge and we must stop it completely.