Public services are key to achieving a socially just transition to a carbon-neutral economy and for climate adaptation

The International Centre of Research and Information on the Public, Social and Cooperative Economy (CIRIEC) research network organised a symposium in the Greek city of Thessaloniki on 22-23 May on "Global and local emergencies: ensuring the provision of essential goods and services through the social economy, public services and public enterprises."

PSI Belgian affiliate ACOD LRB contributed to the final debate through its representative Dries Goedertier. This is his report of the proceedings.

Alain Arnaud, honorary president of CIRIEC International, did not mince words. The economic, social, climatic and political crises of our era are the result of an unfettered market economy that has been liberalised to the extreme under the impetus of the financial sector. It is therefore of vital importance to aim for a fundamental transformation of our socio-economic model so as to enable a sustainable future for all on a liveable planet. CIRIEC International's current president, the Belgian economist Bernard Thiry, could only agree. He noted that public services and cooperatives will have to work together to achieve a socially just transition to a carbon-neutral economy. In this regard, the Belgian secretary of state for economic revival, Thomas Dermine (PS), also stressed that social inequality and global warming require collective solutions above anything else. “There is a need for public investment in renewable energy, energy efficient buildings, public and collective transportation, and cross-border energy infrastructures to transport renewable electricity and hydrogen” he said. 

Public services are indeed of great social and environmental value. Their importance should therefore increase in the coming decades .Public services have a redistributive effect because they represent a form of income and purchasing power, especially (but not exclusively) for people with lower incomes. Moreover, energy-efficient social housing, better public transport and public energy companies that focus on renewable electricity production could contribute significantly to more green jobs and lower CO2 emissions. Strong public services are also crucial for climate adaptation. It is healthcare, fire and emergency services in general that are already facing the consequences of more extreme weather events. They must therefore be strengthened so that we can adapt to the health and safety risks inherent in extreme weather events such as heat waves and flooding. Especially for local governments, this should be a major concern. All this means, among other things, that we need to structurally strengthen and revalue the healthcare sector, even more so than was the case at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several speakers at the conference stressed that during that global health crisis, public services really recovered their trust and standing. After all, it was public services (and other essential sectors) that keep society together in the hour of greatest need. 

Public service unions play a critical role to ensure equitable access to local quality public services

In my own contribution to the debate, I explained that as a public service sector union, ACOD LRB contributes to strong and responsive public services precisely through our commitment to better pay and working conditions and to equitable access to quality local public services for all. In public services, we work for and with people. We need to be able to build relationships and trust with the people and the communities we serve in order to meet their needs best. This requires time, resources and, above all, sufficient levels of employee staffing, well trained and equipped and with decent working conditions, including with access to trade union rights. By promoting public services as valuable tools with high economic, social and environmental added value, our union helps build crucial economic and social rights and build more just societies and communities. In this way, we shape what British political philosopher T.H. Marshall called “social citizenship”. Living together presupposes caring for each other. We must ensure that everyone's basic needs can be met. To achieve the promise of qualitative and universally accessible services, it is important that governments and local authorities keep their public services in-house, under public ownership and management and reclaim them through re-municipalisation and de-privatisation strategies. Privatisation, outsourcing and  public-private partnerships (PPPs) make us dependent on service multinationals, consultancy firms and predatory financial capitalists for whom public services are a market for profitability rather than systems to serve the people’s needs.

The profit logic of private capital reduces everything of value to a cost factor which has to be optimised accordingly. It implies cuts in human resources, which goes hand in hand with that a less qualitative and also more expensive service delivery for service users.  PPPs and other forms of public-private collaborations are supposed to be a win-win for both governments and private companies. In reality, the benefits are skewed to the private sector and the risks and losses overwhelmingly born by the public sector.

Local governments had better invest in solidarity and cooperation to achieve their (social) goals. We should not bet on PPP, but on public-public partnerships (PuPs) instead. In this area, local and regional governments in Belgium have a lot of knowledge and practical experience to offer. In Belgium, local care and social services are the responsibility of Public Centres for Social Welfare, that area local government institution. Many of these Public Centres work together in public welfare associations. Our international trade union umbrella organisation Public Services International, in cooperation with ACOD LRB, even issued a policy letter to promote such good practices of inter-local cooperation.

The advantages of public ownership: the case of the Welfare Care Kempen

In Thessaloniki, I presented the the case of Welzijnszorg Kempen. Welfare Care Kempen (WCK) unites 27 municipal Public Centres for Social Welfare in a single inter-municipal consortium that provides services to the residents of the Campine region in the North of Belgium. The cooperation between so many local governments makes it a prime example of a public-public partnership. A representative of each of the 27 Public Centres sits on the Consortium’s Board and municipal  budgets are pooled together proportionally to the population size of each municipality, building economies of scale. Pulling resources together enables WCK to provide a level of service quality that would be hard to achieve if each of its 27 members acted alone.

While some local authorities outsourced large shares of their services to commercial or non-profit operators, WCK has kept direct, public control by maintaining a majority of its services and staff in-house. As a public service operator, it has retained the power to choose to set progressive policies such as user fee levels according to user household income. The direct management of publicly owned and controlled home care services was a crucial reason why it performed so well during the pandemic. Local authorities that outsourced their care services to private contractors lost their means to respond flexibly especially during Covid. WCK by contrast could easily redeploy some of the home care workers to produce masks in-house for their colleagues or assigned them to other services and departments, which made it more resilient and effective in prioritizing the most vulnerable in the local community.

Strong social dialogue and collective bargaining key to service quality and resilience 

A critically important factor behind the redeployment of workers was yet another partnership: the institutionalized practice of social dialogue and collective bargaining between management and trade unions. The works council at WCK facilitates a permanent discussion about safety and governance issues, which enabled both social partners to identify a common approach to tackle the crisis. As I often say, good working conditions are a prerequisite for qualitative service delivery and constitute a win-win for both management and care workers.

Today, we are facing several global issues and challenges. In order to tackle global inequality, climate change and the hollowing out of democracy, local and regional governments have a key contribution to make. It implies that local governments must regain the tools to implement ambitious social and environmental policies with the support of their national governments. As we speak, cities across the world are taking back privatised public services in-house to ensure quality services at an affordable user price, often at higher cost effectiveness compared to when the services were still privately run. We have to revalue and re-treasure our public services. The global remunicipalisation movement is all about that.

For workers, too, remunicipalisation often means progress. After the bankruptcy of a private refuse collection company in Norwayv, union activists and members from Fagforbundet successfully put pressure on 137 local governments to bring these services back in-house. The union closely involved the affected workers in the campaign, managed to attract many new members and was also able to gain better pay and working conditions through action and social dialogue. In Flanders, Belgium, we can draw courage from such victories to continue our fight against the privatisation of welfare associations. Our care sector is too important to let it fall into the hands of for-profit care concerns and financial real estate companies. We should care for people, not for shareholders.

The core union message I brought on behalf of ACOD LRB to the CIRIEC symposium was that publicly-owned and controlled services and social dialogue in the framework of intermunicipal public public- partnerships (PuPs) are vitally important for service quality, equity, continued provision, social equality and human development. Not just in the Campine region of Belgium, but in many other parts of the world as well.

Next year, CIRIEC will host its 34th International Congress in Costa Rica on “strategies for a territorial and human development.”  In this regard, many researchers will certainly make a case for public ownership and services, in line with the core message of the symposium that  collective solutions are required to resolve the multiple crises that humanity is facing. In this regard, I can only urge CIRIEC International to keep bridging the gaps between academia and civil society organisations such as trade unions, as we are stronger together in our shared struggle for a better world.