Not very long ago, being a “professional” in a public service – like social work, teaching, or nursing – generally meant that you were less likely to be a trade unionist than if you were a skilled worker in a manufacturing industry.
Even among those who were in trade unions, commitment to their service led to a widespread rejection of the idea of taking industrial action.
One of New Labour’s achievements has been to turn that on its head.
Today the public sector finds itself under continual assault from government “reforms”.
Workers are far more open to the idea of strikes, in part because they can see no other way in which to defend their services.
Target cultures, strict regimes of testing, and constant cuts mean that the ability of most of these “professional” workers to use years of experience, training and skills to help people is vastly restricted.
New Labour’s addiction to the market can be seen in its drive to extend privatisation into areas like the NHS, schools, housing and the civil service – assaults that have provoked widespread resistance.
Strikes – like those of the daycare workers in Glasgow, or the Manchester mental health workers – often start over the basics of defending jobs, wages or trade union rights.
But they quickly become struggles that target the way the market has been allowed to decimate the welfare state.
Another characteristic of recent strikes in the public sector is that they have the potential to unite workers from a wide variety of skill groups – from those who were once seen as professional to those doing some of the lowest paid work in Britain.
Between 5.5 and 6 million people are employed in the welfare state, so resistance to “reform” has enormous potential implications.
Successive and multiple policy measures – “initiative-itis” – has led to already hard pressed workers undertaking an increasingly diverse range of work. This includes administrative and accounting tasks that have little direct relevance to frontline care or support.
At the same time as deskilling professionals, public services increasingly rely on poorly paid and often poorly trained workers to work alongside them, with many employers attempting to run services with fewer properly trained staff.
Many of those who are holding public services together work in jobs that are traditionally low paid with few opportunities to develop a career.
Many are women and, in some parts of the country, increasingly these jobs are filled by black and Asian people or by recently arrived migrants.
This drive to deskill is one reason why some groups of workers, once thought unlikely to take action, have found it necessary to fight.
Prevented from providing the appropriate quality of service because of cuts and “modernisation”, their struggle is not just for recognition of their abilities, it is also a fight on behalf of their users and clients.
In the case of lecturers, nurses, social workers and others – sometimes dismissed as “middle class” white collar workers – organising against managerialism has become a recurring feature of working life.
For those at the bottom of the scale, struggles have often concentrated on the right to decent pay and conditions. But even here questions of defending public services arise.
One example is the recent industrial disputes involving hospital cleaners and domestic workers who have been contracted out of the NHS.
After the deaths of 90 patients from the superbug C difficile in an NHS hospital in Kent, it is difficult to deny the link between privatisation and poor public services.
Companies cutting corners by reducing wages and the number of cleaners have cost lives.
As fighting back increasingly takes on the language of defending services, it has the potential to unite highly skilled workers with those who employers have preferred to leave less well trained.
This has been true of a whole wave of strikes in Scotland, that stretch back to the nursery nurses’ strike in 2004, and continue to the recent daycare centre workers’ dispute.
Importantly, as New Labour has sought to open up a divide between the “suppliers” and “customers” of welfare and public services, trade unions have challenged this in new and important ways.
There is considerable opportunity and scope for such challenges to be built upon and reinforced, for instance by trade unions forming alliances with social justice movements.
In doing so, they challenge the government’s public sector agenda and the neoliberalism at the core of the drive to reshape Britain as a lean, mean and nationally competitive platform for capital, in which flexible work is the norm.
Gerry Mooney and Alex Law are editors of New Labour/Hard Labour? – Restructuring and Resistance inside the Welfare Industry published by Polity Press. For more information or to order a copy go to » www.policypress.org.uk