Some quick thoughts on privatisation and how workers can effectively challenge it.
There two high profile cases of privatisation at the moment. Royal Mail is the one that’s hitting the headlines right now, but the National Health Service is also being sold off piece by piece. There is a sharp contrast in the response from the workers’ movement to these two cases.
With the NHS, of course, the Trades Union Congress might have been of more use if Brendan Barber had done a wet fart into a box and posted it to David Cameron. There was a national march and a nationwide candle-lit vigil which (rightly) became the butt of a great many jokes. Especially when it was announced that people could also take a photo of themselves with a candle at home to be added to a photo mosaic.
The annual march against the Tory Party Conference has the NHS as a theme, of course. But this is less than nothing given that the bill allowing the sell off of the service has long passed and that the theme is largely a side note given that the only plan that is ever made for these marches is for lots of workers to be led to a field and talked at by overpaid windbags.
The closest we came to any actual disruption in defence of the NHS was UK Uncut’s “block the bridge, block the bill” action. This was far more innovative than the TUC’s strategy – apparently carved in stone in a bygone age to be passed from general secretary to general secretary and occasionally polished to look new for any and all circumstances. But it stood alone and was no substitute for action by staff within the NHS, and so it ultimately failed its stated objective of blocking the bill.
By contrast, the Communication Workers Union has responded to the government’s plans for a speedy sell off of Royal Mail by balloting for strike action. In fact, it says something about the strength of feeling and determination to fight that even Royal Mail managers in Unite, traditionally a scab outfit whose members cross CWU picket lines to keep the post moving, have talked about coordinating action over this issue.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential pitfalls. Aside from the government being determined to railroad through the sale, the CWU has form when it comes to diffusing members’ anger and selling disputes short. As with all unions, there will inevitably come a point when what counts as a victory for the officials will clash with the interests of the workers, and as long as the bureaucrats maintain control of the dispute they will get their way.
But this still puts the fight to stop Royal Mail privatisation far ahead of that to stop NHS privatisation. It also begs the question of what those outside of the workforce can do to help the fight, particularly where vital public services which will be wrecked if sold off are concerned.
A caveat, before I go on. I largely agree with Jim Clarke here on the subject of re-nationalisation as a favoured leftist demand.
Privatisation should be fought as it is always pushed as a way to benefit shareholders and private profit over workers and service users. But, as civil servants and public sector workers will be all too aware right now, a boss is a boss is a boss. Our struggles may force nationalisation, and this may be a short or long term benefit depending on the terms, but we don’t need this as a demand for it to be the outcome. “Public” ownership is no automatic panacea and it is no substitute for genuine workers’ self-management.
That being said, how do we fight against privatisation? Strikes and other industrial action by the workers affected are obviously one of the best forms of action, but this doesn’t mean that lacking a unionised workforce – or with a union unwilling to fight – then the sell off is inevitable. Likewise, alongside solidarity on the picket lines, the wider class can utilise direct action as part of the fight.
There are a number of forms this could take.
The "I won't pay" movement in Greece is one example that can be deployed when what’s at stake is a service where fees are being introduced, or significantly hiked, as a result of private sector involvement. This can also galvanise an awful lot of people given how extra costs can impact particularly on those already struggling to make their income meet their outgoings.
Another potential form of direct action is the kind of pickets that the anti-workfare campaign has used to force providers out of the government’s work for benefits schemes. After all, a sell off requires a buyer, and if we can find out who is bidding for the contract then a hit on their profits and customers turning away can potentially persuade them to pull out of the deal.
There are also occupations and economic blockades. As with the threat of a service being shut down altogether, users taking it over in opposition can be a powerful show of defiance and cause the kind of disruption that can make the whole process too much of a headache. Likewise, since the person doing the selling is the government, hitting the economy as a whole by blocking roads (or bridges) can have a similar disruptive impact.
None of these actions are on their own going to stop privatisation. Nor are they all going to be equally useful in every circumstance. But they should be seen as a starting point that we can build on and utilise where possible.
When privatisation is threatened, whether the detrimental effect is purely for the workers facing it or for broader sections of the working class, we should fight it. But all the petitions in the world won’t force the state and the bosses to change their mind. They can safely ignore us too if all we do is march from point A to point B and listen to speeches. Don’t even get me started on sodding candle-lit vigils.
But if we’re willing to cause as much disruption as possible in opposition, then our power as the productive class in society gives us real leverage. How we do that most effectively is where our debate needs to be focused.
Don’t petition – organise!