Over 60 PSI affiliated union representatives from the local and regional government sector (LRG) and from 30 countries worldwide gathered in Brussels, Belgium, last 19 September for a PSI and EPSU convened global LRG/municipal sector-wide conference, to share and identify common challenges, joint priorities and good practices.
Global LRG trends, shared trade union challenges
In spite of the wide international diversity and variation of local government systems across the world, Prof. Jane Lethbridge of PSIRU, University of Greenwich, UK, highlighted several converging tendencies that affect the availability, access and quality of local public services as well as working conditions in the sector.
For instance, the increase in frequency and severity of disasters and extreme events related to climate change is placing an increased strain on LRG resources and on the work of first responders, such as firefighters and emergency service workers. Likewise, the widening of the inequality gap within ever-rapidly urbanizing cities requires more resources to fight against social exclusion, and promote affordable social housing, inclusive urban planning and active local labour market policies, at a time where resources and social services are shrinking.
Digitalization in public service delivery has emerged as a global megatrend with mixed implications, requiring careful monitoring and governance that can only benefit from constructive dialogue between LRG unions and public authorities, with the aim to ensure that the pros, such as enhanced access and expedited service delivery, overweigh the cons, such as the digital exclusion of some users, de-personalization of services and the loss of control of the work-process and task repetitiveness for workers.
Finally, while privatization outsourcing and trade and tax deals, all pushed by business and private investors eyeing the lucrative market for public services, continue to strip local authorities of the resources and the control they need to process service delivery, narrowing user access and eroding public workers’ conditions and their ability to deliver quality services to local communities, the report noted an encouraging trend of re-municipalisation and in-sourcing across continents.
Setting priorities for the Global Network
PSI LRG affiliated unions were surveyed to inform the global conference and the PSI Global LRG/Municipal Network on their wins, initiatives, priorities and good practices in the local and regional government sector. On the basis of the feedback received, the sector priorities emerged as follows:
LRG/Municipal unions answers
In the discussion, LRG union representatives provided highlights of actions they carried out that have proved effective to tackle common challenges.
In Mexico, the Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores del Gobierno de la Ciudad de Mexico (SUTGCDMX) is proactively confronting digitalization by promoting the upskilling of municipal public sector workers, matched with adequate certification, so that their digital competences can be valued on the job market and used to ensure their long-term employability. The union has used its high density (60 percent) to open constructive dialogue with the Head of Government of Mexico City, which led to remarkable wins for municipal workers and the local communities alike. For workers, this includes a halt to the subcontracting and externalisation of municipal workers, a stabilization of precarious contracts and a push for a living wage addressing real inflation rates. For city dwellers, the union advocated for progressive taxation and was a leading actor in the launch and delivery of the ‘El Medico en tu Casa’ (Doctor in your Home) programme, which promotes a direct access and connection between medical and social care workers and the poorest and most disadvantaged city dwellers.
In South Africa, the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) succeeded in carrying out centralized bargaining and enshrined privatization-exclusion clauses and an obligation to consult with the union in their collective agreements, which can now be upheld in the court.
In the United Kingdom, UNISON succeeded to convey to the public opinion the gender-dimension of austerity policies and public service cuts which overwhelmingly place women and minorities at a disadvantage. UNISON has also included identifying and halting discrimination in employment in UK LRG public services within the union organizer’s training curriculum.
In India, the Indian National Municipal and Local Bodies Workers Federation (INMLBWF) organized, mobilized and won better conditions for street waste-sweeping workers, 80% of whom work for private companies and are overwhelmingly women, and denounced widespread sexual harassment. In Japan, the deficit of central government has been shifted and reflected onto municipalities that are now stripped of the cash they need to operate services. Municipalities have sought various inventive ways to raise new resources, including launching a city ‘mascot’ with its related merchandising that has been quite successful in some cities.
In Latin America, the public sector is under the attack of conservative political parties and bipartisan business élites, which are pushing privatization, cuts and layoffs: this is in the case in Brazil, where, following the controversial impeachment of Dilma Roussef, a 20-year hiring freeze was imposed on the public sector. Similar attacks are taking place in other countries in the region, such as Bolivia and Venezuela.
In Argentina, municipal unions have been mobilizing during the whole of 2016, asking mayors to comply with Provincial Law 14656 of 2015 on Labour Relations and Collective Bargaining for Workers Municipalities of the Province of Buenos Aires, the so-called "Paritaria" Law. This law replaced an earlier law which allowed local governments to unilaterally determine the conditions and benefits of local government workers and which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The “Paritaria” Law represents an important achievement of the Argentinean trade union movement: it recognizes the rights of collective bargaining for the workers of the municipal and provincial sector of Buenos Aires and mandates bilateral negotiations for the definition of working conditions and economic benefits for municipal workers. It also includes provisions on working time; living wage; lifelong training; establishes a national fund to guarantee the salary of the municipal workers in case of municipal bankruptcy; and sets a maximum ceiling for outsourcing workers (20 percent of total staff in 5 years). However, collective bargaining at the municipal level remains unfulfilled in most of the 2,189 Argentinian municipalities and 135 in the Province of Buenos Aires where the law is applied. This is why municipal unions continue their mobilization.
In Nigeria, municipal workers’ unions were granted constitutional recognition, yet implementation of municipal union rights and local government autonomy from central government remains a major concern; political fights and turmoil affect public service quality and delivery; corruption and cronyism deplete public resources: the people pay the high price and rural communities in particular bear the brunt of this situation. Under such circumstances, public sector unions can be a stronghold for democracy and good governance and drive the public sector towards responsibility and accountability to the people.
Among the winning strategies to pre-empt the privatization of public services, the tactic for a city to declare itself “trade agreement-free zone” was mentioned. For instance, in Switzerland, the cities of Geneva, Lausanne and Zürich declared themselves ‘TiSA-Free Zones’ and this can be replicated elsewhere when LRG unions and local authorities cooperate to halt the negative effects of international trade agreements negotiated by their central governments.
In the United Kingdom, the working conditions of home care workers – with an overwhelming majority of women workers –have significantly worsened, especially when services are outsourced to private providers. Often this creates low-paid, part-time work with no meaningful training and travel time not counted as working time. This is why UNISON carried out a thorough survey and research called ‘Time to Care’ on the conditions of home care workers in the UK and, on the basis of findings, launched a national campaign for local authorities to sign up to UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, and hence become Ethical Care Councils by ensuring that their private home care service contractors abide by a minimum floor of decent labour conditions for their workers, including the payment of a living wage, no use of zero-hour contracts, proper health and safety standards, sick leave coverage and adequate training. This implies the commitment by local authorities to include the Charter in contracts with private providers, and UNISON publishes the list of adhering councils on its website (positive listing).
In Colombia, in the city of Medellin, there is consortium of public companies (100% public investment) called EPM which manages essential municipal services such as water, sewerage, energy and telecoms and which performs particularly well. Within the corporate governance of EPM, service users are included. A similar system exists in Bogotà, Colombia, but the newly-elected mayor is planning to privatize them.
Regional perspectives on local government challenges
In Europe, LRG/municipal unions represent over 14 million workers and are facing a huge pressure on finances as they are the primary targets of austerity policies, while free trade agreements like TiSA, CETA and TTIP loom over the future of local governments’ financial and policy capacity. Digitalization is a major labour concern, as it is used to cut public administration staffing and increase workload and work control, leading to new psychosocial risks.
In the Caribbean, composed of 17 islands, climate change is a self-evident priority concern, along with IMF and WB-imposed financial adjustment plans with socially-regressive and labour-hostile conditionalities attached. In Jamaica in particular, IMF conditionality implied a major reduction and restructuring of local government towards resource recentralization and service privatization, which caused discontent among the population. Under such dire circumstances, the role, expertise and constructive approach of the Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers (JALGO) in social dialogue with Jamaica’s local authorities was critical in conveying the voices not only of local government workers but also of local public service users and beneficiaries, through a multi-stakeholder approach. Ultimately, local politicians, public authorities, the unions and civil society worked together to halt disruptive reform and ensure that changes were done in an inclusive way that did not unfairly overburdened the weakest parts of Jamaican communities.
In North America, where collective bargaining is fully decentralised and local governments are responsible for raising their own local finances, the current priority for LRG/municipal unions is to protect current rights and conditions. In the United States there is an on-going offensive by central government to seize the political and financial control of local governments by appointing commissioners who override and remove democratically-elected local councils and cut costs. This is what happened in Flint, Michigan. In Canada the situation is not as blatant as in the US, yet central government meddling with local government affairs is a serious issue. For instance, until recently a central government agency was acting as a gate keeper, overseeing country-wide infrastructure investment and PPP-promotion, even in cases where these were not wanted or supported by local government and communities. The Trudeau government is reconsidering this approach. Remunicipalisation is growing and is a major issue in Canada, especially, but not only, in water. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has compiled a remunicipalization report and a toolkit on municipal finance, which are important resources in these struggles, and CUPE holds regular anti-privatization and anti-PPP campaigns. In the US the American Federation of State Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been holding a number of city-based living wage campaigns in defence of poor workers such as the “Fight for $15”.
In Africa, major concerns exist in terms of the democratization of local and regional authorities and of central government meddling with LRG finances and policies. The presence of Chinese companies, grabbing essential services for profit-generation, was noted as a major concern, as the model they implement wherever they operate does not respect basic human and labour rights. This is happening in Greece, for instance, where the port of Piraeus was bought by a Chinese company which immediately denounced all collective agreements with unions. Public power stations in Indonesia are now being built by Chinese companies with the deal that once the plant construction is completed, they will be staffed by Chinese workers, making local union workers redundant. In Tunisia, local municipal unions succeeded in stabilizing 15,000 public childcare and kindergarten workers, following 11 days of strike, a major win in the region that has also contributed to changing the image of public sector workers as a ‘privileged elite’ to a much more realistic view.
Labour Relations in the LRG/municipal Sector
Carlos Carrion Crespo, Senior Specialist, Public Sector and Utilities at the International Labour Organization (ILO), emphasized the variety that exists in local government labour relations and the need for exchange of information on systems, good practices and innovative, constructive ways to handle labour relations at a local government level. He pointed to the ILO research and tools on collective bargaining in the public sector that can be a resource for PSI LRG/municipal unions and reminded how often political cycles have a direct influence on the quality of social dialogue at a LRG/municipal level. For this reason, it is important for LRG/municipal unions to approach candidates and their political parties prior to the elections, so that possibly a constructive contact will already have been made ahead of power change in municipalities and regions.
Magali Fricaudet, Secretary, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy and Human Rights (CISDPHR), illustrated the work of the Committee notably on the Right to the City and on Inclusive Cities, and stressed the importance for local authorities and LRG/municipal trade unions alike to join forces on the issue of inclusion and human and labour rights. Among the most active cities in this field are the municipalities of Barcelona, Madrid, Mexico City, Nantes, Delhi, Sao Paulo and Bogotá, to mention but a few. Remunicipalization is a trend in several cities: for instance, in the case of public housing management and social services in Amsterdam and, more recently, water services in Barcelona.
The public ownership and management of essential services address many social challenges, and is part of a vision that cities are not just opportunities for private investment but first and foremost are cities for people. The issue of municipal finances is a particularly hot topic: where regressive tax systems have been set up and investment in public infrastructures and services has defaulted, there have been clear social problems and many more severe economic losses for municipalities, such as in the case of some German cities. The key is to go back to look at the public - including public workers – as resources, not as costs, and to empower them and unleash their potential to make cities more inclusive.
Antonio Ratner, Municipal Workers’ Confederation Union (CTM), City of Rosario, Argentina, illustrated the case of how constructive labour relations between the local government of the City of Rosario and the local municipal workers’ union led to an important agreement on the elimination of violence against women. The progressive agreement includes public support to get women removed and sheltered from violence and give them the right to paid leave in case of domestic violence.
Dialogue with local and regional government employers
As a conclusion to the panel discussion that included a UCLG representative, several issues were mentioned which are common to LRG/municipal workers unions and progressive local authorities, including:
The way forward and next steps
Daria Cibrario, PSI LRG Officer, provided a summary overview of the LRG work undertaken since 2015 and presented the Draft Global LRG/Municipal Workers’ Network Charter previously circulated for consultation. This network is meant to be a member-driven, horizontal network to carry out dynamic work in the sector, not a formal structure. As a global network, LRG unions can better confront common challenges together: for instance, whenever there is a major attack on the trade union rights of LRG/municipal unions, LRG unions can speak with one voice in front of global local authority organizations. It is also a framework for goal-oriented, time-bound LRG union-to-union cooperation initiatives on specific priorities beyond regional boundaries (e.g. organizing in a specific sub-sector). The Network also aims to provide a legitimate and rapid system of information and consultation with PSI’s LRG affiliates and a platform for peer learning and knowledge building for the sector.
These activities would depend heavily on the expertise and knowledge of Network members who have already worked and had wins on this issues, as well as on those volunteering to host such events at their premises. The activities would ideally be accompanied by relevant research, to be widely shared via online tools. PSI would facilitate, assists and help planning and coordination, and incorporate this work into PSI’s LRG work plan, identifying synergies, opportunities, allies and experts. Unions participating in these activities will be invited to establish a plan of action on the issues and implement it back home.
Getting the voices of PSI’s LRG/municipal unions heard
During the 2-day meeting, PSI interviewed LRG/municipal union leaders and experts and has prepared 18 interviews that are available on the PSI YouTube channel. All interviewees consented to the dissemination of the interviews which have also been promoted on PSI social media.
Video Interviews with LRG/municipal union leaders
Global PSI LRG/Municipal Workers’ Network Charter
Global PSI Municipal Network Facebook Page
Pictures of the event