The Real Public Sector

People are already aware of a lot of these things to some degree, but because very little attention gets given to them, their importance can fade from view. In the piece I wrote for the May Day International project, I looked at the sectors of the economy that had showed the greatest militancy, simply in terms of actually having engaged in industrial disputes, since the current crisis began.  This is a fairly crude measure, and it doesn’t say a great deal about how potentially militant other sectors are by comparison, given other potential conditions. However it does tell you which groups have demonstrated a capability to mobilise thus far.

We’re talking mostly here, of course, about workers in the public sector. And these workers have been the main target of a concentrated propaganda campaign, on top of being subjected to pay cuts on a scale scarcely if ever seen in rich countries.  As illustrated by Richard Wolff’s tweet here, this is not something IBEC members dreamt up in 2006 on a retreat to Lough Derg.

The whole point of cutting public sector pay has nothing to do with getting value for money; it is to drive down wages in the economy, part of what is known as ‘internal devaluation’: what happens when a government is unable to devalue currency to make its exports more cost competitive. The European Commission document ‘The Economic Adjustment Programme for Ireland’ describes how this works in practice in the Irish situation:

Led by cuts in public sector earnings which started in 2009, private sector nominal wages per employee also adjusted, including by declining hourly wages. By promoting cost competitiveness through an ‘internal devaluation’, these developments enhance medium term growth prospects.

Public sector wages maintain a standard for wages in the rest of the economy. This is because there is a greater concentration of unionisation in the public sector, not because the state is a benevolent paymaster.  If you can drive down pay and conditions in the public sector, you reduce the number of people affiliated to a union, union contributions fall, and the amount of resources unions have at their disposal to mount campaigns in protection of worker interests falls too.

When you have public sector redundancies, either you cut the provision of the service that the person was performing, you get someone else within the public sector to do more work (‘reform’), you get the public to pay a private company to provide the service (‘outsourcing’ and/or ’privatisation’), or you get members of the public to do it themselves (‘The Big Society’, ‘Meitheal Mentality’). The social costs of this can be immense for those who have to bear them –usually women- way beyond the reduction in what is being paid by the exchequer. But since the people who must shoulder these costs are often those with the least social and political power, it is relatively easy for a right-wing government, aided and abetted by big business propaganda, to mount a concerted campaign against public sector workers.

The means of doing this are so familiar that we tend to forget about them. The most obvious example is the division of workers into the categories of ‘public sector workers’ and ‘private sector workers’ as though these were two different species of human being that thrived in entirely different working habitats but were somehow doomed to co-exist.  The whole point behind this is to mobilise animosity among disaffected and hard pressed workers employed in the private sector, or unemployed workers who would expect to work in a private sector occupation, against public sector workers. Their reflexes are manipulated so that they seek, via the assault on the public sector, to drive down their own wages, working conditions and social provision.

As well as that, the purpose of the propaganda campaign is to efface the basic figure of the ‘worker’ from public discourse. Just as the incumbent Tory government in the UK introduced the ‘Minister for Women and Equalities’, where the plural of ‘equality’ indicated that there was no general matter of equality for the government to attend to, merely a series of particular dispersed scenarios where an equality needed to be enforced, the continuous references to ‘public sector workers’ and ‘private sector workers’ serve to develop the idea that there is no such thing as a worker, in the sense of a wage labourer who must sell her labour power to an owner of capital.

Instead, ‘work’ is just the stuff that everybody does to get on in life. There are no relations of power involved, and sure if you own a mobile telephony company and a series of media outlets, or if you clean toilets for a living, at the end of the day, isn’t either just whatever people have to do to make an honest buck? Class? No such thing these days, unless you’re talking about the villains who run the country –the unions, the government, and the public sector fatcats- against the rest of us. At the risk of exhausting my quota of Eoghan Harris references for the next twenty years, his antics in this regard give a really good cartoon sketch of the type of ideological manipulation that is being engineered, though usually under circumstances a little bit more subtle.

Furthermore, attacks on the public sector –the idea that public sector workers should be subjected to rigorous accountability trails, discipline and the fear of getting fired, when not just arbitrarily fired- offers a cheap sensation of power over others that most private sector workers are unlikely to experience in their own working environments. There is an invitation to identify with the managerialist world-view of industry bosses. What the CEO is to the workforce of his firm, the taxpayer shall be to the people working in the public sector.

It’s important not to confine our thinking about this –the attack on public sector workers- simply within the framework of the current crisis, or within Ireland. Consider this piece by Saree Makdisi, writing about California state workers:

The fixation on the basic benefits offered to state workers in return for years of public service, rather than on the grotesque inequalities that surround us, is problematic not only because it distracts us from core questions that urgently require our collective attention, but also because it embodies the potential victory of a stark and misanthropic way of viewing society – basically the view that there is no society, only individuals who are condemned to a primal competitive struggle against one another. Remember what Thomas Hobbes said about that primal struggle in the state of nature? The only certainty was that life was nasty, brutish and short.

What we are talking about here is, as Makdisi points out, the development of the habit of viewing society in a particular way, and one that fits in with the way the owning class portrays itself and society. This is not only in terms of the idea that those at the top (in these parts, wealthy white men) are there on account of the heroic struggles they have won, but also, more viscerally, in the sense that what is public is bad and what is private is good.

That is, the various characterisations of what public sector workers are, or what the public sector is as a whole, serve to shape perceptions of the public and the private, viz.

Public Private
Bureaucratic Streamlined
Lazy Hard-working
Inefficient Efficient
Unfit (for purpose) Agile
Parasitic Wealth-generating
Archaic Modern
Bloated Slimline
Secretive Open
Fat Lean
Gluttonous Hungry
Lethargic Vigorous
Intransigent Dynamic
Mandarin Leader
Drain Self-Reliant

And so on, ad infinitum.

Returning to the question of who is resisting this, and who is under attack. Let’s look at the gender breakdown of the three sectors who have shown the greatest resistance hitherto:

Nearly three quarters of workers in these sectors, habitually demonised as fat, lazy, bloated, inefficient and parasitic, are women.

Contrast this with the composition of the constituency for whom the EU-IMF-ECB bailout was engineered – the upper echelons of the financial sector. Pauline Conroy’s paper for the TASC conference in 2009 revealed that:

The Central Bank for 2007 when the banking crisis was dripping into the mainstream was composed of 13 governors of whom 1 was a woman.

AIB (2006) had a Board of 18 persons, of whom 2 were women.

Bank of Ireland’s Court (2007) and Non-Executive Directors come to 14 persons, of whom 1 was a woman.

At the European Central Bank, just one of the six members of the executive board of the governing council is a woman.

Just as public sector pay maintains the standard of wages in the economy, so too do public sector working conditions. We can take this further – pay and conditions for women in the public sector, sustained by protections won by unions- serve to protect pay and conditions for women in the rest of the economy. If the ‘internal devaluation’ program is –like all neoliberal projects- a project for restoration for class power, it’s also a project for the restoration of male power.

Angela Nagle noted on the special Crisisjam edition for International Women’s Day here that

Since the beginning of the recession, Dublin Well Woman Centre has reported an increase in women seeking crisis pregnancy counselling, with one in five citing financial concerns. Chief executive Alison Begas listed among these concerns unemployment, debt and the inability to afford crèche fees. This situation has, unsurprisingly, also been directly linked to an increase in Irish women seeking abortion illegally in the UK. For employed women who have chosen to have children during these turbulent times, UNITE trade union have reported a sharp increase in the abuse of Irish women in the workplace, especially around issues of maternity cover, with pregnant employees being verbally abused and told they would be replaced. For unemployed women who have chosen to have children during these turbulent times, the situation is also grim, with social welfare and child benefit being cut, the cost of education being increased and the chances of remaining in the home and falling permanently into a cycle of poverty rising by the day. Dublin Rape Crisis Centre reported a 42% rise in calls to their now even more under-funded emergency helpline in 2009 and refuges from domestic violence have noted an increase in demand for their services of over 40%. Women’s Aid have found themselves only able to answer one out of two calls because of a lack of resources and 70% of Irish women who reported being victims of domestic abuse cited economic dependence as the reason why they could not leave.

The antiseptic language of the programme of ‘internal devaluation’, which entails ‘getting our competitiveness back’ and ‘developing a leaner, fitter public sector’, is proferred by conclaves of male economists, male industry bosses, male technocrats and implemented by a overwhelmingly male government. We can improve on Makdisi’s description of a ‘stark and misanthropic’ view of society; what we are really talking about is a stark and misogynistic view of society. The class war underway is also, crucially and inseparably, a war on women, and it is women who are both the primary targets, but –as the figures show- also the people who have engaged in the most strenuous public resistance to date. Next time you hear about a bloated public sector that needs to be ‘leaner and more efficient’ or one which exists as ‘the enemy within’, don’t forget to remember who they really have in mind.


12 Responses to “The Real Public Sector”

  1. 1 LeftAtTheCross May 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Good article.

    The points you make cannot be repeated often enough.

    Just to follow up on the political misogyny, here’s a link to the Workers’ Party statement on International Women’s Day which highlights the anti-women nature of the austerity measures inposed in the last budget

  2. 3 CMK May 3, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Excellent post, Hugh. It’s the first time I have seen this particular line of argument articulated so clearly and comprehensively.

    Certainly in my union the more militant positions are something of the preserve of female colleagues. In my hierarchical and status conscious workplace the grunts (I include myself in that description) are overwhelmingly (90%) female while the more, ahem, ‘refined’ parts of the organisation are dominated by men (75%+). That may explain things.

    I’ve nothing more intelligent to add, just that I’ve enjoyed the past few posts and your piece in newleftproject. Keep up the good work!

  3. 5 John Joseph McDermott May 3, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    “If you can drive down pay and conditions in the public sector, you reduce the number of people affiliated to a union, union contributions fall, and the amount of resources unions have at their disposal to mount campaigns in protection of worker interests falls too.”?
    I worked in the “private sector” and witnessed the results of so called “deregulation” of one sector of the transport industry (the taxi industry) at first hand as a service provider (provision of a radio taxi service for self employed operatives)
    I saw the constant erosion of their income levels mainly due to an influx of retired civil servants, gardai,and foreign asylum seekers.
    Onthe other hand the political party in power for so long ensured the retention of that power -not only by their open support for a massive Ponzi property scheme, but by operating an ATM machine style “pay rise-on demand” ponzi scheme for the duration of their governance.
    Now please tell me who exactly will pay for the luxurious pensions promised to the public sector during the coming decades-the IMF?-I dont think so.

    • 6 Hugh Green May 4, 2011 at 7:36 pm


      ‘Foreign’ asylum seekers are prohibited from working in Ireland, so it’s unlikely they had any effect on the labour market for taxi drivers.

      I don’t think a decent pension is a luxury, but as the Makdisi article points out, something that everyone should be entitled to enjoy. He concludes thus:

      There is another way of viewing things, however; that we are all in this together, that we all benefit as we each benefit, that grotesque inequality is not merely destabilizing but unjust and that everyone in a wealthy country, not just state workers – and certainly not just wealthy CEOs – ought to be able to count on a stable and secure retirement.

      As for who is going to pay for it. Well, an immigrant population working in decent paid jobs might help.

  4. 7 Cissy Fuss May 5, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    It is a tragedy and a disgrace that many women in Ireland are traumatised at the thought of bringing a child into the world because of their anxiety about unemployment, hardship and the likelihood that their little ones will suffer deprivation…and yet there seems to be an absence of debate about why crèche fees are so high. I imagine that many child care workers receive only the minimum wage. Rent, insurance and the costs of compliance are likely to be high but it is still hard to understand.

    • 8 Tirnanog33 May 10, 2011 at 7:48 am

      I note an increasing “black market” in the child care industry.
      The highly regulated, highly priced, “official” creche industry is-like many other services- returning to the informal market, due to current market forces(unemployment, falling wages and the recession)
      This means falling tax income for the state.

    • 9 CMK May 10, 2011 at 11:53 am

      There are several points germane to this debate but which are also, I believe, deeply taboo in Irish society.

      Firstly, at an institutional level the Irish state couldn’t give a shit about children and by extension women as primary carers. We’ve ample evidence of this from the history of the post-1922 state (under all parties) and the ongoing childcare debacle is just the latest reflection of this tendency. A state that’s happy to allow tens of thousands of primary school kids be educated in pre-fabs (rat infestation optional) is not going to get too exercised by leaving pre-school childcare for its two-income families to a disastrous hodge-podge of unregulated creches, child-minders, montessori’s etc.

      A Minister for Children might make a difference but in these ‘revenue neutral’ days she probably won’t; and children don’t vote so their concerns are suitably externalised by the political process. I can easily imagine some Dept. of Finance drone putting the Children’s Ombudsman on the top of a list of ‘quangos’ to be cut. And the children’s rights referendum will arguably be sidelined by more pressing and important matters like, ya know, abolishing the Seanad or reducing TDs by 20 or cutting judicial pay. Ya know, ‘real issues’.

      Secondly, there’s the fundamental philosophical problem of trying to reconcile perhaps one of the deepest human duties – care for the young – with market style provision of this care. At the very least there should be a state agency dedicated explicitly to childcare provision, which should be on a non-profit basis either directly through the state or through state funding of community provision. When it’s left solely to the market and private sector provision (with minimal state subsidy) the pressures to cut corners are immense and paying staff a pittance is one obvious way for childcare ‘entreprenuers’ (sic) to make increased profits (which is what REALLY matters!).

      It’s telling that pre-school childcare is unregulated, with no appetite for regulation, while we have, to take one example, a well funded government body – Bord na gCon – to look after the welfare of greyhounds. Just shows where this state’s priorities lay. Believing a cohort of abysmally paid, poorly treated, economically insecure, often poorly trained childcare workers can deliver a good standard of care at the most precious age for subsequent development just illustrates, for the nth time, the power of neo-liberal capitalist ideology to short-circuit fundamental human duties and obligations.

      Just to finish up, I’ve two pre-school children and I’m not looking at this from an entirely abstract perspective. No doubt the hard-men (and women!) in FG/Lab would dismiss all of this as ‘soft’ nonsense or, more likely, ‘women’s’ work.

      • 10 LeftAtTheCross May 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm

        I think the phrase CMK is “externalised costs”. The state doesn’t address this properly because the costs are being carried elsewhere, “successfully” so in terms of the quantity of kids being cared for by the ad hoc arrangements, whatever about in terms of quality. So nothing to do there from teh state’s perspective. Same deal for care of the elderly, in spades. And when the state does intervene in the latter case it is prmarily in legislative collusion with private-for-profit care providers, e.g. the “fair deal” scheme.

      • 11 Hugh Green May 10, 2011 at 2:12 pm

        Thanks for the comments all


        I think one of the reasons there’s so little debate about creche fees is that, as CMK notes below, there is a long history of the Irish state taking almost zero interest in the matter of child care, and since traditionally it fell to the woman to do the (unpaid) work of child care, so paying through the nose for sub standard care is perceived as just deserts for the woman who chooses to work (because working when you have a child, when you’re a mother, is seen as a ‘lifestyle choice’).

        You might find this report interesting.

        High-earning investment bankers in the City of London are among the best remunerated people in the economy. But the earnings they command and the profits they make come at a huge cost because of the damaging social effects of the City of London’s financial activities. We found that rather than being ‘wealth creators’, these City bankers are being handsomely rewarded for bringing the global financial system to the brink of collapse. While collecting salaries of between £500,000 and £10 million, leading City bankers to destroy £7 of social value for every pound in value they generate.

        Both for families and for society as a whole, looking after children could not be more important. As well as providing a valuable service for families, childcare workers release earnings potential by allowing parents to continue working. They also unlock social benefits in the shape of the learning opportunities that children gain outside the home. For every £1 they are paid, childcare workers generate between £7 and £9.50 worth of benefits to society.


        I think there is an exemption from income tax for earnings below a certain threshold for people who care for other people’s children in their home. There may be a trend toward more informal arrangements, but this is partly facilitated by the State (which, as noted above, has no interest in the provision of decent and affordable child care.

        CMK, agree 100% with what you’re saying. I have two pre-school kids too, so I’ve had a fairly close-up view of how things work -or don’t work- here. On the neo-liberal capitalist ideology bit, I would advise you not to read this piece by Lorenzo Bini Smaghi in which he advises paediatricians to advise parents on how to make children fit in with the new reality called forth by the ECB and other ruling class institutions.

  5. 12 Hugh Green May 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Sorry, missed LATC’s comment when I was posting this. Yes, agreed on the externality point.

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