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Top campaigns for public services: An insider look

by Rosa Pavanelli – May 22, 2014

From South Africa to Brazil, from Italy to the US, in Uruguay, Greece, Norway, the UK and in many other countries, municipal councils are taking services back under public control. Public Services International (PSI) and the Transnational Institute have co-published an important survey on how union anti-privatization and pro-public campaigns have contributed to this change around the world, titled The tragedy of the private – the potential of the public.
This booklet by Hilary Wainwright is about how public service workers, with their fellow community members, are not only defending public services but also struggling to make them democratic and responsive to people’s needs and desires.
The privatization of public services and utilities has been tried and failed. It is now leading to an increasing number of decisions, mainly at a local level, to bring services back under public control.

Defending the commons

In the title, we use this phrase ‘the tragedy of the private’ to highlight the fundamentally inappropriate application of the logic of private business, based on maximizing profits, to the management of shared resources, natural and social, and the meeting of social needs.
The phrase turns on its head ‘the tragedy of the commons’, which was an attack on the idea that people can effectively manage common resources together for shared benefit.
‘The potential of the public’, by contrast, starts from exactly that awareness of mutual dependence, and an ethics of stewardship, mutual care and collaboration that arises from it.

Successful campaigns for strong public services 

Wainwright takes an insider look into some of the most powerful, dynamic and innovative campaigns that public sector unions have been a part of in the past few decades. A general lesson she draws is the need for resistance at many levels: the workplace and the locality, the national, and the more opaque level of unelected and secretive international bodies such as the WTO, the IMF and increasingly the EU.
Locally, it is essential to harness the know-how and creativity of both public service workers and those who use the services. This booklet describes how trade unions have deployed their
resources to make effective links with communities to transform public services for the benefit of all (e.g. SAMWU in Cape Town, South Africa).
The other side of pushing for democracy-driven transformation is by looking at the internal running of the public sector (e.g. Newcastle branch of UNISON, UK or the Model Municipality Project, Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees).
Finally, out of the highly effective transnational struggles against water privatization has emerged the innovative idea of public-public or public-civil partnerships, through which the public and civil organizations managing public services collaborate across national boundaries to share expertise.

Alliances with communities 

From my own experience in Italy, I can attest to the power of alliances between trade unions and community actors. I also believe, from the perspective of a trade union leader, that we require new ways of thinking, new ways of talking, and new ways of organizing and mobilizing.
Trade unions are legally obligated to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers and to defend their members against any violations. This is the bedrock of trade union work. However, as this research shows, public services unions that build alliances in their communities are better able to defend the rights and interests of their members. It is only when labour rights are understood to be part of the vital spectrum of human rights that we can begin to understand the imperative of joining forces.
As the leader of the global trade union federation Public Services International, representing 20 million public service workers around the world, I am committed to working with our unions to share their insights and experiences, build their strength in their workplaces and communities, and project the power of people united into the international decision-making arenas.
We understand that in this era of globalization, we must work together across our communities to develop our societies based on the principles of justice and equity, and on the foundation of quality public services.
We hope this booklet can be a useful tool for developing union strategy, mobilising members, and building new power structures at all levels.
Rosa Pavanelli is General Secretary of Public Services International. See the full publication at