At a time of massive cuts and redundancies, restructures and “refocusing” in Local Government and the civil service and schools; inevitably, the issue of greater workloads comes to the fore. It’s very easy for senior managers to attempt to try and solve their immediate problems by pushing the whole burden of work onto those people who didn’t get their P45s in the post. Too often this means impossible demands being placed on front line workers, more often than not the lowest paid and in most cases women. Tory plans for the NHS mean that the same process will be witnessed in the NHS, with horrendous consequences.
Cuts and redundancies are always dressed up as protecting essential or statutory services; the argument that is often used is that the cuts are in non essential services. Amazingly, as soon as these cuts and redundancies are imposed, this non essential work suddenly comes back to life and ends up in some poor union member’s in tray. Not since the days of Lazarus has such a miraculous transformation been visited upon us. Their excuse is that “needs must.” We don’t think they do.
Most public sector administrative, technical and professional level jobs are hugely labour intensive. Industrial capitalism developed mass production and production lines to cut labour costs and to reduce the level of skill that was involved in production. In the public sector management would love to be able to do the same. In fact, in the past they have tried to introduce industrial processes to cut costs. Most recently they have promoted the idea of lean production and a partial division of labour between local authorities, for services like council house lettings. The same process is probably far further advanced in the Health Service.
In the 1990’s the “Private” Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs – one of the many quangos) advised the Tory Government on how to prepare young people for the labour market. They pushed for Local Authority Careers Services to be paid solely on the basis of the number of “Action Plans” that they produced. The bosses aren’t bothered about what they produce, provided it makes them money. Unfortunately, the services they tried to impose this upon worked with people, often vulnerable people, whose needs can’t be solved by reference to a time and motion study or measured against a balance sheet. Unless, that is, you are motivated by the intention of generating profits for your mates in the boardrooms and of course in the City of London, Wall Street or any other Rotten Row you might care to mention.
The history of the last 25 years since the Tories privatised large parts of the Careers Service has been of repeated dissections, re-brandings, re focusing and unnecessary mutilations of services to young people. This same problem is being replicated in dozens of services across the country. But now there are other services, such as Education,Welfare, Behaviour Support and Special Needs, which were once seen as core services. As any polar bear will undoubtedly tell you, solid ground is an illusion. All but a few services are either being slashed or being out sourced, “commissioned”, reviewed, refocused, or nowadays closed down. Regardless of how it’s being dressed up they are being driven into the ground. Across the country Connexions Services, which were meant to be supercharged Careers Services, offering all manner of added extras, have been slaughtered. Who is suffering as a consequence? Hundreds of thousands of unemployed working class young people condescendingly referred to as NEETs. This stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training, in other words rotting on the scrapheap with no prospects.
Marxism explains that under capitalism, workers produce surplus value or profit. Marx defined this as the “unpaid labour of the working class” regardless of the product produced. For a cleaner in a hospital or in a school the product is a clean floor or clean walls. The trick for the Tories, starting in the 1980’s, was to create surplus value from services which had been run solely to meet a need. “Compulsory Competitive Tendering” in the 1980’s meant that labour intensive services were opened up to privatisation. Private companies were invited to bid to run services and the winner was the company that said they would deliver the service at the lowest cost. In other words it was a charter to drive down wages, firstly to win the contract and then lower still. Every penny that could be knocked off a worker’s wage was another penny profit (multiplied by the number of workers of course).
CCT and every other so called “efficiency savings” since have massively ratcheted up the pressure on the workforce. Speed ups are another way that capitalism exploits workers. In the 1990’s the stress was so great on the production lines that the “optimum age” for a production line worker in the car industry was 24 years. The public sector usually ends up catching the bad winds from the hind end of the private sector. Over the past few years the public sector has become a difficult and painful place for many older workers. Over the last two or three years that has turned into a tragedy as many wise, experienced and loyal people have been forced out of their jobs. They were forced out, that is, by speed ups, cutbacks, stress, illness and demoralisation.
In the 1980’s in particular, the argument that was presented by managers, and eagerly taken up by the Labour Party leaders, was that all this was a passing phase, a bad dream in a generally positive period. This proved to be an illusion. All of the attempts of well meaning reformists to limit the damage only resulted in the crisis in the public sector being protracted.
When the current crisis in the economy broke and the situation in government finances worsened dramatically, (after a few years of relative calm in the public sector), the result was that the reformists had nowhere to go. Labour leaders have been left with very little wriggle room. As long as they remain within the limits of capitalism, they are ultimately tied hand and foot to the bond markets and the big banks and the multi nationals. Why? Because if they implicitly accept that capitalism is the only possible world, then regardless of whether capitalism is worth a trillion pounds or a penny then that’s how the reformists feel they must cut their cloth.
The net effect of all of this is an explosion of stress, depression, anxiety, sorrow, relationship problems, over work, problems with alcohol, prescription drug abuse and serious underlying illnesses reported as “flu”, stomach problems and sickness. Thousands of workers drag themselves into work when they are suffering from infectious diseases. Many are terrified of being identified as “having poor attendance”.
The constant pressure and confusion created by “new agendas” and “change”, combined with the erosion of rights at work and the creation of the two tier workforce, have transformed the public sector over a protracted period of time (perhaps 35 years) from a relatively privileged sector of the working class into a pressure cooker. The recent strikes and campaigns over pensions serve to illustrate the pressure that has built up over the past few years.
Here are some official figures to illustrate the scale of the problem:
Estimates indicate that self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for an estimated 13.5 million lost working days in Britain in 2007/08 - Labour Force Survey
HSE Statistics for 2010/11
The statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in Britain between April 2010 and March 2011: An estimated 1.2 million people said they were suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their work, down from 1.3 million in 2009/10. Of these, 500,000 were new illnesses occurring in-year.
But these statistics only represent part of the story. Half a million new stress cases per year represents merely the tip of the Iceberg. Many workers are frightened to put stress on their sick record for fear that it might stigmatise them. Many more muddle through at a tremendous cost to their health and wellbeing. While the government might gain some comfort from an apparent drop in the reported numbers of people who are stressed, that says nothing about the fact that hundreds of thousands if not millions of people have lost their jobs over the last few years. While they may not appear in these most recent figures, they are undoubtedly stressed, but for different reasons.
UNISON and other unions have developed publicity and support materials to help shop stewards and work place reps to defend their members. Here is an extract from one such pamphlet:
Any job can cause stress. It is not something which just affects executives or managers. The main reason for stress is simply a lack of control, and that affects lower paid employees most. Also it is not just about overwork. Boredom and monotony can also be stressful. Some of the most common causes of stress are:
dealing with clients or the public
cuts, reorganisations and lack of job security
poor working conditions
threats of violence, harassment and bullying
lack of childcare or flexibility
lack of control over the work
too demanding a job or too high a workload
monotonous or boring work
lack of training
excessive hours and shift work
general frustration with managers who just will not listen or cannot do their job.”
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the current situation in the public sector isn’t going to improve any of this. In fact, the opposite is true as management will demand more work, increase targets and spread less workers across more responsibilities. Inevitably, the pressure will get to some people who will end up stressed, go off sick and facing capability procedures in accordance with “Corporate Policies and Procedures”.
Human Resources Departments love to hide behind policy and process. They are often complacent and always play the role of mouthpieces for the bosses. But they can’t stand up to concerted trade union action and they rely on the assumption that most trade union members are not active. Trade unions are a bit like doctor’s surgeries. People get in touch when they are sick; sick of the bosses that is. We must be prepared. That means we must identify the work that was done by people who have been made redundant and demand that if the post has gone, the work has to go.
Management will inevitably attempt to reorganise to fill gaps in services. They claim a “Divine Right to Manage”, but they also have a responsibility of care. Concerned members will talk to local reps and stewards first of all. At the present time members nerves are raw as a result of cuts in jobs and services. Management restructures and reviews are likely to be seen as rubbing salt in the wound in many cases.
Every change has to be challenged, every official or unofficial review that impacts on members should be subject to scrutiny and consultation. To run services effectively managers need to be able to take the workforce with them. That gives us a bargaining position and an opportunity to argue the toss. In the end there are thousands of union members in most branches. Each one should be approached to become a shop steward and encouraged to help defend the members who are left. Inter-departmental committees should be established to ensure solidarity is built.
The battle against the cuts starts on the shop floor and the best defence for working people is trade union organisation and class solidarity. If that means industrial action in individual departments or across an organisation to defend an individual service, then branches, regions and national unions should support that and make it successful.
The ruling class internationally has launched a class war against working people through inflicting brutal austerity measures and using the kept press to tell us that it is in our best interests. It is high time that the Labour and Trade Union movement represented our class as effectively and determinedly as the bosses represent their class. That means fighting for every job and for every service.
The recent struggle over the pensions issue illustrates that the trade union leaders can be pressurised from below to fight for the members. But the shortcomings revealed in the same struggle demonstrate very dramatically the need for a mass Marxist tendency with a clear perspective and a socialist programme. The struggle to defend working people is industrial, but it is also political. In the future the political conclusions drawn by working people will shake society to its foundations.