UNISON is fine-tuning its response to the growing back-door privatisation of public services.
The union will continue to campaign against outsourcing, while also addressing the needs of its members – existing and new – who suddenly find themselves working for private companies.
Activists attending the national delegate conference in Brighton last week heard that those working for private contractors are the fastest growing group of UNISON members.
More than 30% of new members in 2017 worked work for private or community employers.
Many of these members face zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage, while their bosses often refuse to recognise the union.
In social care, 81% of people in England work for a private company. English NHS trusts and local authorities increasingly regard wholly owned subsidiaries as a way of outsourcing cuts.
Richard Kennedy of the private contractors national forum told delegates that many private sector members were struggling, trying to give their best in the face of appalling pay and conditions.
He said that the recent collapse of construction company and outsourcing giant Carillion “showed the risks of putting important services in the hands of such companies”.
UNISON had “stepped in immediately to protect workers”, he noted, sending an important message to members and potential members that “UNISON is there to support you and will not give up fighting for a better deal for you. You are not alone.”
Other delegates spoke of the two-tier workforce being created through the introduction by public sector bodies of wholly owned subsidiaries and jointly owned companies, all exercises in tax avoidance that did not justify the upheaval of public service delivery.
Marie Randall of the London Ambulance Service pointed to the growing number of private companies running ambulances, “all there for profit first and patient care second.”
Under-funded ambulance trusts were looking for ways to save money, she said.
But with contracts being awarded to G4S and other companies motivated by profit, the result was “demoralising and demeaning” for staff who are barely making the minimum wage.
But Ms Randall spoke of some successful campaigns by members to bring services back in-house.
And Mr Kennedy added: “We have got to get services back in-house. We are winning these arguments all over the country. However, working for private enterprise remains a reality.”
Conference approved a motion on protecting members who work for private contractors, which commits the union to:
- continue to make the case against privatisation and to campaign for services to be brought back in-house;
- campaign for it to be a legal requirement for an in-house bid to be fully considered prior to any decision to outsource or retender;
- campaign for union recognition and access to be part of any outsourced contract and for the Real Living Wage and pay uplifts to be funded. Campaigns should include requirements for facility time to be transferred and protected;
- support branches in identifying private employers in their area to strategically target for recruitment and activist development;
- promote, in partnership with relevant service groups, a targeted campaign to recruit and build activism in the social care sector.
When it comes to organising in private contractors and community employers, Lynn Booth from the East Midlands said that as UNISON’s membership continued to grow in these areas, “we need to ensure that we adapt to recruit and represent these groups of staff.”
But branches often find it difficult to organise in workplaces such as private care homes and nursing homes, with small numbers of members and where facility time iss under scrutiny.
Conference called for strategic work on the issue, but Ms Booth that first and foremost that must include “a campaign for facility time in all employers. Without facility time we are not giving our members the service they deserve.”
“This does not mean we will give up the fight against privatisation,” said Sean Fox as he gave the NEC’s backing to the campaign.
“What it does mean is that we as a union have a moral obligation to our members in the private sector, whether they have been transferred or have always been in the private sector.”