Unite kicked off its fight back against mass privatisation of Bromley council services today (April 7), in day one of a widely supported two-day strike.
Unite members working in libraries, adult services and parks, among other areas, are participating in the walk-out as the Conservative-led Bromley council embarks on a privatisation programme which will see the bulk of its services privatised, with pay and terms and conditions for council staff slashed.
Despite having £130m in reserves, Bromley council is moving to privatise all of its non-statutory services, which would drastically reduce the directly employed council workforce by the thousands and drive down pay and conditions.
Unite members are also protesting the council’s decision to withdraw time-off facilities from the Unite branch secretary – a move which, in fact, will cost the council more money as such reps have the ability of saving money by heading off potential disputes and grievances by their negotiating skill and in-depth knowledge.
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab hailed today’s strike action as an unequivocal success.
“We are very pleased with today’s action, which was buoyed by fantastic support from members and the public,” he said.
“The depot was closed, as was a care centre and several libraries. We sent a strong message today that privatisation of services vital to local communities will not be tolerated. If the council doesn’t come to the table, we are fully prepared to escalate industrial action.”
Another 24-hour strike is planned for tomorrow (April 8), as is an additional one-hour strike on Wednesday (April 9) from 9am to 10am.
The action was overwhelmingly supported by Unite members, 87 per cent of whom voted in favour.
Kasab also highlighted support from Bromley Labour Group, which has fully backed today’s action.
Speaking on behalf of the group, Labour councillor Angela Wilkins said the Tory-led Bromley council has little concern for a quality provision of services.
“Tories in Bromley are openly committed to being a ‘commissioning council’ and to reducing the number of council employees from 4,000 to 300,” Wilkins said. “For them, this is not about delivering the best levels of service for Bromley residents; it is a purely political and ideological commitment to privatisation.”
Not a cash cow
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab argued that public services always suffer when sold off to the private sector.
“Council services should be for the public good – and not as a cash cow for the private companies benefiting from lucrative outsourcing contracts,” he said.
Kasab noted that the company looking over to take over Bromley parks is a hedge fund, which, he said, “will do what hedge funds are set up to do; they will cut to the bone then scuttle away from the contract with a substantial profit.”
Wilkins agreed, explaining what happens time and again when public services are privatised.
“The reality of privatisation is that contractors have to keep their prices low to win the contract in the first place,” she said. “They then struggle to deliver the contract specification and to make a profit for their shareholders.
“Experienced staff are replaced by others on lower wages. Key performance indicators are not met because these lower-paid staff are not suitably qualified or are not properly trained. Service levels deteriorate. The public suffers whilst the shareholders get richer.”
Today’s strike action comes as Unite’s London and Eastern region, consisting of 300,000 members, has launched a campaign aiming to combat this very phenomenon Wilkins describes.
Called A Fair Deal For Local Government, the campaign is a set of proposals the union is putting to councils in the region. The campaign’s procurement strategy calls for councils to keep services in house whenever possible. It also suggests that if services must be contracted out, quality of service must be the primary consideration when bidding on contracts and not price.
“Our overall campaign calls for a Fair Deal For Local Government and this strike will highlight what will happen to local government if the Tories are returned to power at the general election – a race to the bottom for services and the pay of council workers,” Kasab explained. “Unite is drawing a line in the sand against privatisation and austerity in local government.”
To find out more about Unite’s local government campaign, visit its website here.