As is well known, Napo is not regarded as a militant union and has only ever gone in for a token days withdrawal of labour very infrequently. Even then it's usually been a half-hearted affair designed to cause as little disruption as possible. But many are beginning to sense that this is different. This is not essentially about pay and conditions, pensions or workloads, it's about principle and the very existence of the job, service and profession. This is quite unlike any situation we've ever faced before and as a result attitudes to taking industrial action are changing.
By way of illustration, I hope Joe Public will not mind me reproducing their very candid assessment of the situation as published on the Napo forum website:-
A resounding 92%, in the indicative ballot, have voted to oppose the privatisation of probation. Maybe the turnout figure was not as high as that achieved by the Royal Mail in their ballot – 74% - but it's a rung on the ladder and a time to build support and keep adding to the awareness of how bad these TR plans are – not just in terms of the management of probation services, but the impact they will have on the livelihoods of the current workforce.
They may still be some staff who are living on Mars and think this change in ownership from public to private is a management transition that is happening above their heads. The truth is some of these optimists will lose their heads in further rounds of redundancies. The private companies are going to make deep cuts in order to make profit. They will cut into the living standards of the workforce, by lowering wages, weakening benefits across the board – from support if you fall sick to poorer pensions and zero hours contracts. These contracts which do not guarantee a minimum number of working hours each week are spreading like wildfire through the private and even not-for-profit sector. Even a charity such as Turning Point has introduced them. There is nothing alarmist in saying that if these privatisation plans go ahead it will be doomsday for your wages, holiday allowances, sickness provision, pay increases - and job security. It can get worse – and it will if left to its own accord.
For the last ten years or so you may have been listening to chiefs and senior managers who, as they have implored you to work harder, have told you that high work performance will protect your jobs and secure your futures. They weren't lying, they were just wrong. They underestimated just how determined the politicians are to see the public services, including probation, largely privatised. Those same managers will now reformulate their words and tell you that the best thing now is to keep working hard and deal with the forthcoming changes as good professionals. They won't dwell on things – in fact they won't mention wages and job security – that affect your standard of living because if these changes go ahead your standard of living will go into free-fall. It is time to stop putting your trust in the management interpretation of events, because they are pretending all will be OK when in truth they know it won't be, but because of pressure from the Ministry of Justice they are too frightened to make a stand and speak out. They will only ever be your managers, never heroes of your cause.
This is the time to make a stand if you want to stand a chance of preserving your standard of living and strengthening your say in changes that affect you. The results of the ballot are a good statement of intent. You cannot oppose, alone, as an individual, because you would be ignored, brushed aside, in fact your objections won't matter one jot. But when thousands of voices speak in unison, in solidarity, you have a powerful weapon. More of those outside the probation service will prick up their ears and become aware of your discontent. We will gain more support and attract alliances. The general public is increasingly cynical about private being somehow better than public provision. When they realise that these plans to privatise will increase the risk of harm to the public, they will put two and two together – but they won't do this if they see the bulk of probation staff passively going along with privatisation. Probation staff know these proposals are dangerous – don't we all have a duty to the public to be candid and truthful?
The government identifies industrial unrest in probation as high risk factor that may undermine the implementation of their agenda to privatise the probation service. What probation needs most at the present time is not stability – it needs unrest and agitation.
For the past decade probation staff have worked hard to sustain performance even when resources have diminished. The workforce has taken hits to their terms and conditions and wages have stagnated. And the government's reward for your public service is to basically kick you in the teeth and disown you. The government does not expect you to fight back. If the workforce does fight back the government may be forced into a U-turn or maybe the changes will still be imposed. But if we don't fight our hardest at this critical moment in probation history we will never know whether a public probation service could have been saved.
Here is a comment made to this blog by Tim and I hope he will not mind me quoting it in full:-
I voted 'yes' in the indicative ballot, will vote 'yes' in a strike ballot, and will be on the picket line if it comes to a walk out. I can't afford to lose a day's pay - but then I certainly won't be able to afford living on G4S wages.
I am worried, though, that we're too small a group, and too invisible a service, for a strike to work. If the bin men go on strike, you see the rubbish in the streets. If the teachers take industrial action, parents have to stay home with their children. We all know that what we do is important, even life-saving in some cases - but our successes are largely private and failures very public. And we struggle to articulate what we actually do in a comprehensible way - which has allowed Chris Grayling to paint probation work as simply "supporting" people. No mention of challenging people's beliefs week after week after week - no, just meet 'em at the prison gates and get them a job and a flat and all will be well.
I do think we need to take industrial action, and that it needs to be sorted out quickly given that the third reading of the Bill will be on us very shortly. And I also hope that there is some co-ordination with other justice unions to amplify the message - although we need our very specific cause to be spelled out very clearly.
Unless (straw-clutching time) Mr Grayling gets another promotion in an autumn Cabinet reshuffle, and whoever comes in decides to review things. I can just imagine him trying to crowbar Payment by Results into the Foreign Office... "Now, President Obama, you've had a couple of years to sort Syria out, but it just hasn't happened, and those nice people over at Sodexho reckon they can do it on the cheap."
None of this is going to be pleasant and we are in uncharted waters. But I really do think the time has come for us to make a stand as a profession and in the clearest terms say that we will take industrial action if no plan 'B' is forthcoming. We have no choice really in what will be a noble cause and not one of just self interest, but rather one that seeks to try and protect the interests of the public and clients as well.