Union officials tell workers in public services facing privatisation that they won't be worse off because TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employees) regulations will protect them. Workers are told they will not lose their jobs and their existing terms and conditions will be protected. This protection is not only worth less than people are being told it's worth, it is also leading us into a dangerous trap. We must fight transfer itself not just start thinking about TUPE deals as soon as privatisation is mentioned.
There are two things that management and senior union officials are not prepared to acknowledge. Firstly, TUPE offers a degree of protection but it guarantees nothing. It only prevents you losing your job because of the transfer. If the employer can argue that they are cutting jobs for another reason they are free to make people redundant. For example, they might argue they have to cut jobs because of a cut in funding and that this cut isn't connected with the transfer. The same principle applies if they want to cut pay and conditions. The only real way to ensure you hold onto your jobs and conditions is strong union organisation; the law is a false friend.
Secondly, the whole business of privatisation and TUPE transfers is designed to undermine the public sector unions. Once privatised, workers cannot legally take part in public sector strikes, even if they affect their own pay and conditions. They can take official action to defend their existing terms and conditions only if it is their new employer that is attacking them. What's more the privatised worker is caught in the “TUPE trap”. If they fight on their own to get better pay and condit i ons for themselves any improvements they win will change their contracts and end what protection TUPE provided. Meanwhile, endless hiving off of different departments further reduces the strength of workers still in the public sector.
In Haringey Council housing workers facing privatisation are demanding to stay as council employees. This is not as contradictory as it seems. Under ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation) deals the housing stock is in theory still owned by the council, although a private company has been set up to manage it. If the tenants are being told this means they are still council tenants, then housing workers can still be council workers, “seconded” to the ALMO. Some public sector workers that the government has tried to transfer under PFI (Private Finance Initiatives) have already won this type of deal.
Privatisation is designed to undermine the power of the working class in the public sector. Workers who fight transfer are challenging this agenda head on so concessions won't be won without action like worker noncooperation and strike action, or threats of strike action. The more cautious union officials are also likely to reject action in favour of TUPE deals. Militant workers have to force officials' hand through independent organisation. We need to organise workplace assemblies and start thinking about unofficial forms of action. Remember, the future of trade unionism itself is at stake.