International unions confront privatisation

Most of us are familiar with privatisation – the outsourcing of traditionally government-run functions.

Erin Polaczuk, PSA national secretary (far right), at the PSI meeting.

Erin Polaczuk, PSA national secretary (far right), at the PSI meeting.

While there will always be a need to hire experts for certain tasks or get extra hands on deck during busy times, a disturbing and growing trend of ‘predatory privatisation’ is concerning unions across the globe.

Predatory privatisation is seeing more and more taxpayer dollars being diverted from the building of public assets and institutions to create long-term revenue streams and profit for corporations.

In 2009, the city of Chicago signed a contract giving revenues from parking meters to a group of corporations for the next 75 years. Not only did the city give up revenue, but it has to pay whenever a street is closed for repairs or for a street fair; with claims the city already owes almost US$50 million (NZ$74.4 million).

Predatory privatisation of governmental functions can result in the loss of quality public sector jobs, replacing them with insecure, often low-paid work and greater profits for private sector bosses.

As a result of the global concern from unions about these issues, Public Services International, the global federation of public service unions, called a meeting of all major affiliates across the world. Held at the AFSCME Offices in Washington DC in December 2015, the forum brought together union leaders from across the globe.

Unions in attendance represented over 10 million public sector workers from Europe; Oceania; North, Central and South America; Africa and the UK. Erin Polaczuk, one of the PSA’s national secretaries, represented New Zealand’s public servants.

Erin said that the presentations from affiliates at the event showed several clear themes in the approach governments and multi-national corporations are taking to create the scene for, and then move to, privatisation of the ownership of public infrastructure and the provision of services.

What struck Erin was “the absolute commonality of the issues being faced around the world. For example, everyone was talking about the rise of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and the growing acceptance of this model of privatisation.

“The other thing that was clear is there is a very small number of huge multi-national corporations that are bidding for and getting government contracts all around the world.

Because they are monopolising these industries, and are primarily interested in making profits, they cut costs however they can in order to offer the lowest prices for government contracts. That’s resulting in significantly less pay for staff on the frontlines.”

Erin said there were plenty of reasons to be positive, though:

“Although predatory privatisation is a big issue for all unions, there were some really heartening comments made. To echo the sentiments of a Canadian attendee: there are lots and lots of examples across the globe of unions and their members either delaying or completely fighting off privatisation. I think a big part of that is unions from all countries are coming together in forums like this one, sharing tactics and ideas, and helping each other to fight against issues like this.”

Unions were also able to share some of their success stories. Erin relates an Australian example, where they have created the concept of ‘public interest testing’.

“This concept would mandate that public interest criteria must be met by anyone bidding for a government contract. In the UK, they are looking at similar things - putting restraints around government contracts and having certain criteria relating to the public interest that must be met,” said Erin.

“There’s lots of examples of these kinds of ideas taking hold around the world, to help prevent predatory privatisation of government functions becoming the norm.” 

By Briar Edmonds