What on earth is workplace democracy?

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the face of widespread attacks on public services, the trade union movement, collective action and our rights at work, all too often in our movement we fight react to “fight austerity”, “save our services” or “defend the right to strike”.

It is therefore refreshing to take some time to reflect on what we are for, for an alternative economy, labour market structure and workers participation.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation has issued a new policy paper “Rights and respect: a vision for democracy in the workplace”. It’s author Professor Gregor Gall’s starting premis is that other than sleep, most people spend the majority of our time at work, yet workers, even in unionised sectors have little say in who are the managers, directors and chief executive, nor how these people should run things. 

This is a democratic deficit in the workplace, which is amplied by an erosion of collective representation and union recognition and therefore workers influence over decisions that affect them, the biggest body of people in any organisation. Reducing workers to mere exchange of labour for wage, sweeps over the widespread exploitation, lack of voice, human rights or influence over work.
There are eight proposals for discussion in the paper:

i) Union recognition and collective bargaining for all workers in workplace of all sizes where a collective of two or more demand it.

ii) A constitutional positive right to take industrial action

iii) sectoral collective bargaining whereby workers in a sector of multiple employers can negotiate with bosses on a more equal footing rather than competition driving wages and terms and conditions down

iv) co-determination to give workers representation at a director or board level on company decisions, with a clear democratic link avoiding worker directors becoming incorporated into the company or worse, employee directors appointed by-passing the collective representation of unions

v) strategy of encroachment whereby trade unions step up engagement on the organisation of work, not just regulating pay and terms and conditions

vi) democratically accountable public ownership of key sectors of the economy

vii) genuine worker co-operatives as an alternative to private, not public ownership

viii) tripartism – the joint regulation of the economy by labour, capital and the state.

There is no such thing as a new idea. All of these eight proposals have been tested and hotly debated either here or elsewhere in Europe in the past. There are models of progressive advance, and others of regressive disaster.
How we might advance the debate is to consider these points in the context of the SNP Scottish Government, the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the current debate on Europe.

Is there in Scotland a model of industrial relations that can provide a climate to consider greater workplace democracy? Stephen Boyd of the STUC is not sure. The social democratic SNP government relative to either the Tory-Lib coalition or the current majority Tory Government certainly presents a better “offer” to creating such a climate. 

In spite of the limitations on constitutional control over employment law, the Scottish Government developed with the STUC, the “Working Together” review. This was in response to the appealing behaviour of a major employer Ineos towards its own workforce at Grangemouth. This has resulted in a Fair Work Convention, which has set a “business pledge” asking employers to self certify or pledge to pay a living wage, no zero hours contracts etc. 

Boyd maintains that there is a representative deficit amongst employers bodies. Those that exist so not speak for employers. 
The Scottish NHS partnership model of workers directors was not referenced in Gall’s work as he did not believe this to be a good example of genuine co-determination. Like many public sector partnership agreements, the “partnership” contract between employer and employee is not one of equals. Nevertheless, it should be noted as progress. It has been posed by Stephen Low that there is potential for the Scottish Government to facilitate sectoral bargaining in the social care sector, where workers are increasingly facing widespread exploitation.

It is possible that the Corbyn/McDonnell new leadership of Labour might provide opportunities to explore workplace democracy to a greater degree. If Sturgeon’s social democratic nationalism can make these (albeit limited) soundings. Then the class analysis of the Corbyn leadership will surely embrace a positive agenda for industrial democracy. John McDonnell’s long standing commitment to trade union freedoms is an excellent entry point to that debate.

At a European level, the debate over Brexit must strongly factor the workers rights agenda. Whether the EU is a Bosses Club or a protector of workers rights, we have a lot to learn from our sisters and brothers in other countries in how they practice collective bargaining and workplace democracy. 
So, let’s be brave and positive while we fight the Tory anti-union Bill, let’s begin the debate about our alternative for workplace democracy.

 

 

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