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Workplace organizing in the public sector

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Apsych's picture
Apsych
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Dec 24 2015 14:10
Workplace organizing in the public sector

Does anyone have any good examples of successful direct action/workplace organizing in public sector workplaces? Is it easier or harder to organize when you're part of a big, highly regulated bureaucracy? Also, given the bosses and managers earn a salary then they're likely to get paid regardless of whether work actually happens or not, so workers refusing to work might not motivate the bosses to start negotiating. Would striking or disruptive activity actually make any difference?
Any thoughts or observations would be appreciated.

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
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Dec 24 2015 19:14

Hello Apsych, here's an example:
https://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/lessons-of-the-tower-hamlets...

http://libcom.org/news/tower-hamlets-strikers-win-guarantee-no-compulsor...

http://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/workers-revolt-against-vygots...

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Steven.
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Dec 24 2015 19:09

Hi, yes a good few of us like me work in the public sector. Because of Christmas stuff not really got time to respond properly now but we have lots of examples in our workplace activity section: http://libcom.org/tags/workplace-activity

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Chilli Sauce
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Dec 25 2015 16:59

I find public sector organizing cuts both ways. The unions are entrenched and there are all sorts of social democratic due process - this both protects you and provides a channel for grievances to be funneled away from direct confrontation with management. But, there's also a residual layer of militancy that I haven't experienced in most private sector workplaces. Plus, large workplaces mean there's a larger pool of people to begin organising with - and, again, in my experience I think we often overestimate the number of people we need to begin effective organising.

As for examples, where are you from Apsych?

fingers malone's picture
fingers malone
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Dec 25 2015 23:58

In the last few years there's been a lot of public sector agitation which has gone wider than just the workers directly involved, so support from students, patients, people from other workplaces and so on, which is interesting. However the other side of the coin is that massive cuts and job losses have made people fearful and demoralised. Also there is a lot of popular support (dunno if you saw the NHS choir who have got to xmas no 1?) and also at the same time a lot of antipathy about gold plated pensions and 'at least you've got a job' and such like.

Apsych wrote:
Would striking or disruptive activity actually make any difference?

Well, withdrawing your labour does mean the service stops running, and disrupting the service will also mean you might not meet your targets which is a massive big deal at the moment, so your management will probably be very jittery about that. However funding cuts and job losses are more a conflict with the government than with your own management, and the big problem with that is if the government have decided they are going to destroy the service you run, they don't care that much if you withdraw your labour, as they don't care about the service you provide any way.
Issues like bullying, workload and racism are definitely direct conflicts with your own management, though connected indirectly to government cuts as well, and in those cases disruptive action certainly does have an impact on them.

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Apsych
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Dec 26 2015 22:11

Hi, thanks guys, this is really helpful. I'm from Bristol, I work in healthcare, currently in a contracted private company but I'm starting a new job soon which will either be for North Somerset council or Bristol NHS. I'm new to libcom and the anarchist scene generally; I recently joined Bristol Solfed. I've read Solfed's workmates pamphlet and the Fighting for Ourselves book; great in theory but I'm sort of struggling to imagine applying it in practice in my particular workplace.

I was part of a one-day strike in 2014 that Unite organized-the whole process seemed to be too over-regulated to be effective. Everyone went out on the day, the managers all rolled their eyes but were civil and polite about it, we waved some placards around and made all the right noises and then went back to the office the next day. It seemed like a token gesture; more like a protest or a march than an actual strike. Is that most people's experience of working with the big public sector unions? It's hard to imagine any action that goes beyond that, especially in health/social care where employees are subject to so much regulation and scrutiny.

Quote:
disrupting the service will also mean you might not meet your targets which is a massive big deal at the moment, so your management will probably be very jittery about that.

I see what you mean, but it seems to me that when management get jittery about not meeting their targets, then what they're actually worried about is losing face in the eyes of their superiors by being blamed for 'causing' the strike through bad management policies, or something. the same would be true at a departmental level; it could be argued that politicians whose policies lead to a backlash and strikes could be discredited in the eyes of the public and be less likely to keep their position come election time. They're not worried about the lack of production affecting them directly, but that the lack of production will provoke anger in the wider public and this anger will then be directed onto them.

But both of these processes are dependent on the manager or politician actually taking the blame for 'causing' the strike. If the boss can redirect the public's anger at the disruption of services onto the strikers themselves, then they can avoid being held to account. The strike would become pointless or counterproductive.I remember during the recent tube driver's strike the majority of the press took a very anti-worker stance on the issue. Public opinion at the time seemed to be that the striking drivers were being greedy, selfish or lazy. The Tory party and the tube bosses seemed to attract almost no flak at all and ended up completely unaffected by it (at least as far as the press reported). Do you see what I mean?

Quote:
However funding cuts and job losses are more a conflict with the government than with your own management, and the big problem with that is if the government have decided they are going to destroy the service you run, they don't care that much if you withdraw your labour, as they don't care about the service you provide any way.

This very much reflects my experiences of public sector working, especially in social care where pretty much every service has been cut to the extent where it's not even possible to do your job properly. It seems to me tat one of the unique difficulties with working for the public sector is that there isn't a distinction between management and government. Every management decision is linked to a policy made unaccountably in a locked office somewhere. You mentioned that the smaller struggles against bullying etc are linked to the larger struggles around cuts to funding-I agree with you, but how would you go about challenging the bigger, structural issues like redundancies, closing down of services etc?

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Chilli Sauce
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Dec 26 2015 22:38
Quote:
It seemed like a token gesture; more like a protest or a march than an actual strike. Is that most people's experience of working with the big public sector unions?

Yes.

I was in the public sector during that last round of really big strikes (2011, I think - Jesus, I'm getting old) and those one-day token strike and shitty A-B marches are demoralizing as shit. And it's really painful to see momentum squandered in those few moments where it actually exists.

There's a bit of me that would rather see longer strikes with real fuucking pickets lines, even if they only brought out half as many workers. In my experience - to be fair, working a school with a generally quite young workforce with very little experience in industrial disputes - most of the strikers didn't see the strikes as much more than an expensive symbolic protest. And the way the unions organise and promote the big public sector strikes are a huge part of that.

Re: The press. They want to have it both ways - the harp on about how much a strike cost the economy while they talk about how ineffectual the strike was. Personally, I just don't think there's much value in worrying about the press.

There's nothing we can do to get them onside and I think that's a message worth getting out there. I've been involved in strike support situations where the organisers were, in my opinion, overly concerned in getting positive media attention - to the detriment of actually organising effective action.

asn
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Dec 27 2015 09:48

For a critical review of Fighting for Ourselves: Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Class Struggle, See
Rebel Worker Vol.33 No.220 July-Aug 2014 on web site www.rebelworker.org
or do google search A-infos Rebel Worker Review of Fighting for Ourselves: Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Class Struggle.

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Apsych
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Dec 27 2015 13:27

Chilli Sauce-That's kind of the impression I got. Do you think its easier to organise in a non-union workplace than one that's already dominated by the TUC?

About the press- I'm not saying strikers should necessarily care what the papers say, but the government clearly do care about the press. Obviously in a public sector workplace, the bosses and the government are the same entity so really on some level the strike is about influencing government policy rather than winning concessions from a private businessman whose motivation is profit. The established wisdom seems to be that even though the departmental bosses don't stand to lose revenue or profit from a strike, they could potentially lose face or lose public support, and ultimately lose power as a result, and that's why they'll try and avoid the strike if they can. But this mechanism still relies on the democratic system to actually have any effect; the only reason governments care about looking bad in public is because they might not get voted in at the next election. Presumably if the government can play the system well enough that they avoid looking bad (i,e they can blame the strikers rather than blaming their own policies) then they have no reason to be scared of a strike at all? So bad press would make a public sector strike pointless, whether it was an 'official' strike or not.

I guess that's why public sector strikes end up looking more like lobbying exercises than actual strikes? because their main aim is to raise public awareness and get public support for the cause, which can then be translated into votes, rather than to actually mount a meaningful resistance based on direct action.I guess what I'm asking is if striking in the public sector doesn't work then what could we do instead?

asn- thanks. I'll have a look smile