Public service workers on the frontline of massive industrial actions

Public service workers were hailed as “heroes'' throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. However, many governments failed to recognise their work by increasing their pay or properly funding our public services.

Workers need more public investment, safe levels of staffing, decent working conditions and pay. However, governments and the elites in power in many countries are refusing to yield.

After years of cuts, privatisation, austerity and attacks on public services and their workers, frontline staff are now struggling with soaring energy prices, rising inflation and the cost of basic goods. They are being forced to bear the burden alone, without little to no action taken by employers and governments.

A social uprising for public services, against social injustice

There is a limit to how much injustice public service workers can bear, and together with their unions they are taking to the streets in massive industrial actions. And public service users, civil society and other workers are standing shoulder to shoulder with them.

From historic walkouts of health and social care workers, teachers and education workers, firefighters, transport and national environmental agency staff in the United Kingdom, to millions in the streets of the major cities of France to fight against unfair pension reform; from North America where teachers are on strike, to Spain and Switzerland where hospital and nursing staff have had enough, public service workers and their unions are leading a series of rolling industrial actions - that have not been seen, in some cases, for more than 50 years.

Repressive government and employer reactions

In France, the government is pushing through a new pension reform that overwhelmingly penalises low-income, low-skilled workers with arduous jobs, precarious contracts, and intermittent or incomplete careers among whom women are the majority. As a result, French trade unions - including all CGT, CFDT and FO PSI affiliates - are fighting back with a united front taking millions to the street and proposing alternative, more socially equitable solutions including getting a fairer contribution from the powerful multinational companies of CAC40 to ensure sustainable retirement without penalising, once again, working people and the most vulnerable. Yet, the French government is holding firm on the age increase and is seeking to push the reform through without parliamentary debate.

full-frontal attack on working people and the trade unions they organise within

In the UK, trade unions have been fighting against a government that is determined to curtail the rights of workers. Rather than address the underlying issues, the Sunak government proposed the ‘Anti Strike Bill’ that will severely limit the ability of workers, particularly those within public services to take industrial action. The Bill will grant the UK Government the power to set ‘minimum service levels’ for six key public services: education; transport; health; fire and rescue; decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and border security. There is no detail in the Bill as to the limit of these ‘service levels’ – the power to set the level is given to the government, which may introduce legislation imposing restrictions without agreement with the trade unions. The government clearly intends to force some workers who have democratically and legally voted for industrial action to go into work on strike days.

UK unions affiliated to PSI are on the frontlines of the fightback. UNISON called it a “full-frontal attack on working people and the trade unions they organise within”. GMB said the government was seeking to “scapegoat the National Health Service (NHS) and ambulance staff”.  PCS declared that the “Government is working against trade unions, unwilling to properly negotiate with workers”. UNITE called on the Prime Minister to “instead deal with the critical issue of workers suffering pay cuts as prices rocket”. FBU, representing firefighters, stated that “Britain already has among the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in the western world”.  The fact that health workers are using food banks in their own hospitals shows how wages have failed to keep up with the spiralling cost of living in the UK. 


UNISON Ambulance workers on Strike around the UK.

UNISON Ambulance workers on Strike

The strike wave is washing up on the shores of North America as well. Last month, 7,000 nurses at two major hospitals in New York City took industrial action to demand better patient care. Despite the affordability crisis, pay was actually a secondary concern for the nurses. As elsewhere, the issues of overwork, inadequate staffing, and burnout making it impossible to provide the quality of service patients deserve were at the heart of the conflict. After three days of collective action, the nurses achieved improved patient staffing ratios and additional new hires on top of significant wage improvements.

Canada’s icy winter streets may yet be melted by the footfall of workers marching and picketing. Photo: FTQ/Front Commun

In Canada, 120,000 federal government workers represented by PSI affiliate Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC)/Alliance de la Fonction publique du  Canada (AFPC) will begin voting this month on taking strike action. They have rejected the government’s provocative offer that would limit pay rises to well below inflation, currently running at over 7% annually. The right-leaning government of Québec province has proposed a pay rise of just 9% over 5 years and pension “reforms” that will reduce workers’ benefits.

A common front of union federations representing over 500,000 public and para-public sector workers, including PSI affiliates Syndicat canadien de la fonction publique (CUPE/SCFP) of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) and Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) has decisively rejected the insulting offer. Canada’s icy winter streets may yet be melted by the footfall of workers marching and picketing.

Switzerland, public service workers are exhausted, understaffed and their salaries are not keeping up with real inflation rates. Photo: SSP-VPOD

Even in Switzerland, public service workers are exhausted, understaffed and their salaries are not keeping up with real inflation rates. In Lausanne, over 6,000 workers of the Vaud Cantonal services – including health, police, education, public administration and social care services - went on strike twice already at the call of public service union SSP-VPOD. Their fight continues and more industrial actions are planned as the cantonal government, currently ruled by a right-wing majority, prefers granting tax cuts to private businesses and plan a new wave of privatisations, all while sitting on a substantial budgetary surplus.

The world needs stronger quality public services now!

Working in public services is not like selling goods and services: it is a call and workers are attracted to the social and collective purpose the job affords. Yet, public service workers are leaving their professions in record numbers. Not just because their work is undervalued, difficult and underpaid, but also because of the loss of purpose and ethos of their jobs

 We must reclaim, rebuild and strengthen public services and social solidarity for peace, and a safe and equitable world

This is happening due to the severe underfunding of key services and the outsourcing of public services to private providers, which run services for profit rather than on a public good approach and place greater pressure on workers limiting their ability to serve their patients, users and communities. For example, the systematic lack of investment in public services together with poor conditions and remuneration has already caused vocational, recruitment and retention crises in much-needed health and care professions across the world. Indeed, the WHO estimates that by 2030 there will be a shortage of 10 million health staff.

There is no time to lose. Without immediate action by Governments and employers, public services will continue to break down. The magnitude of the intersecting crises the world is facing is unprecedented. The climate crisis, pandemics, entrenched inequality, structural discrimination and the depletion of our natural resources are all threatening the fabric of our societies. And the best antidote we have is stronger, better public services for all, ensuring they are properly staffed with well-trained workers, adequately equipped to save lives and with decent working conditions and strong trade unions so they can tackle the challenges facing our communities.

PSI stands firm in solidarity with all public service workers. PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli, said:

“This historical moment presents a unique opportunity for trade unions to push through the radical transformation we need: the shift from a system where public services are commercialised for profit, to a new paradigm where they are run on a public good basis and placed at the heart of our societies as strongholds of inclusion, equity, sustainability and democracy.

Yet many governments, powerful elites, corporations and employers continue business as usual defending a failed economic system against the engagement of people and workers committed to putting people and the planet first.  We must seize the moment to reclaim, rebuild and strengthen public services and social solidarity for peace, and for a safe and equitable world.”

Now is the time for solidarity with public service workers and their unions within and across borders. Unions worldwide are on the frontline of the fight for quality public services and social justice, advancing the rights of workers and quality public services for all. It is high time governments and employers listen and take concrete action to ensure their jobs and conditions are decent, and they are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.