Birmingham’s Tory-Lib Dem council has become the latest in a string of public sector employers to interpret the so-called “need” to make cuts as an excuse to take a sledgehammer to their workers’ pay, terms and conditions, and indeed their jobs.
26,000 workers (the entirety of Birmingham’s local government workforce, in fact, excluding education workers) have been issued with Section 188 notices. Section 188 is a notification of intent from an employer to make a number of workers redundant; it is not a formal notice of specific redundancy, so not every worker who receives one will necessarily lose their jobs. It is likely that the mass issuing of the notices is a warning shot from bosses which indicates a coming attack on terms and conditions. The notices are a signal of intent that, if the workers don't accept the new terms, they will be out the door.
The council claims that the notices are simply part of “efficiency measures”. They propose to attack car allowances, staff parking permits and flexible working. Given the rising cost of public transport and the increasing reliance of many workers — particularly women workers who are statistically more likely to have domestic and childcare responsibilities — on flexible working, these are hardly minor attacks on trivial perks. They are, very plainly, part of the great historical project of the capitalist class: make us do more for less. Even though the council claims these measures will help avoid job losses, Chief Executive Stephen Hughes has been quoted as saying that he expects 30% of all administrative jobs to be gone by 2014.
All the signs are that these attacks will just be one part of a full-frontal assault by council bosses. According to the Birmingham Post, the council is also considering chopping up local government service provision and essentially privatising individual services. The Post refers to the process as a “revolution at Europe’s largest public body.”
The measures have also ridden roughshod over the (notional and limited) channels of democracy and accountability supposedly in place. Hughes somehow failed to mention the Section 188s when addressing a council scrutiny committee, supposed to oversee the management of council staff. Hughes defended his unilateralism by saying “we have to work out a plan and be ruthless in implementing it.”
Hughes’s ruthlessness, if successful, could become a model for other sections of local government as they seek to reduce spending by selling off “unprofitable” or expensive services into private control and driving down workers’ terms and conditions. In many ways Hughes’s scheme mirrors Barnet’s “easyCouncil” vision, in which all service-provision is effectively privately run and the elected local council exists only as a hub to auction off service-provision contracts to private companies.
Local government unions in Birmingham have already called a series of actions in response. Unite is calling an emergency members’ meeting to discuss the issues, and Unison will hold a series of actions around the city timed to coincide with the European TUC’s Day of Action on September 29. Unite, GMB and Unison will also have a presence at the demonstration at the Tory Party conference, held in Birmingham on October 3, and the Trades Council will hold a city centre protest on Wednesday 20 October.
Roger Jenkins, Regional Officer for GMB Birmingham and West Midlands region, said “we will do everything in our power to protect our members’ jobs, and the provision of frontline services to the people of Birmingham […] This is simply about saving money by cutting frontline services.”
For more details on the Trades Council’s demo, contact secretary Dave Dutton on 07749918317.