While they may be appealing on the surface, worker involvement schemes risk undermining trade union collective bargaining, says JACKSON CULLINANE
A MAJOR plank of the Scottish government’s pledge to workers in an independent Scotland is the proposition for increased employee involvement outlined in its Scotland’s Future white paper.
On the face of it such suggestions look attractive, contrasting sharply with the Con-Dem attack on trade unions and employment rights.
However, it is to be hoped that the recent input of trade unionists in the Scottish government’s “working together review group” — where the case has been made for the promotion of trade union recognition and collective bargaining — becomes the driving force for industrial relations in Scotland.
It is also to be hoped that the Scottish government shifts from its temptation to base its proposals on employee involvement on the adoption of imperfect European “models” involving non-union reps on employee forums, works councils and company boards.
As STUC general secretary Graeme Smith recently pointed out, there are “dangers if the focus is to be on employee representation rather than on trade union representation” or “employee involvement schemes that are used by some employers to bypass and weaken trade union involvement.”
The relevance of Smith’s warning is borne out by the fact that one of the companies that has established a works council is Ineos, the same organisation that is engaged in unfairly dismissing the trade union convener, the non-recognition of democratically elected shop stewards and the withdrawal of “check-off” facilities for the collection of trade union dues.
There are many other, albeit much more subtle, examples of employee involvement schemes being used to undermine trade union organisation.
As a young shop stewards convener in the chemical industry, I had to grapple daily with the employer’s attempt to weaken established union bargaining processes by taking issues out of the bargaining arena and floating them in a limited consultative process, within which “stock-market sensitive” information was denied to us.
The employer also initiated several attempts to bypass trade union reps completely through so-called “quality circles,” team briefings, suggestion schemes and “continuous improvement” work methods, while presenting these as positive steps to “encourage” and “value” the involvement of the workforce.
We should reject the suggestions being made in some quarters in Scotland that trade union involvement on boards should be limited to one union representative, sitting alongside potentially two non-union reps elected via a works council.
As presented by advocates of industrial democracy in the ’70s and ’80s — when the theme was previously dominant on the left — workforce board representatives, as well as those on employee forums/committees, should be elected by and from the trade union members at the workplace.
To do otherwise is to encourage non-union representation, ensure that real power and influence continues to rest with the employer and potentially undermine trade union organising strategies, based on the goal of 100 per cent organisation, empowerment of shop stewards, accountability to and communication with the membership and a preparedness to act on issues of concern to the workforce.
If we should be wary of any attempt to limit trade union representation in proposed employment involvement schemes, we should also guard against any attempt to limit the agenda and the range of issues which those reps should have a right to engage with.
If genuine industrial democracy is the objective, the issues to be addressed by greater employee involvement should include a right to participate in examination of business opportunities, improved work routines, workplace layout and design, the purchase and operation of machinery and resources and the general process of production or service delivery — as well as the obvious issues of hours, holidays, grading and training.
We should also be careful not to underestimate the potentially negative effect of any schemes which emphasise the “benefits” of “collaboration” and “common interests,” seemingly denying that there is an inherent conflict of interest between capital and labour.
Industrial democracy and collective trade union organisation should not only be about genuine employee participation, it should also be about building workers’ power, valuing their experience and expertise, giving them more control, ensuring fulfilling work, raising self-esteem and developing the confidence that they can forge alternative workplace relationships including, ultimately, an alternative to capitalism itself, through the realisation that we cannot fully control what we do not own.
On that score, the case for industrial democracy is inseparable from the case for workers’ control and common ownership in industry.
It should also link to the issue of community ownership triggered by the community right to buy in land reform legislation in Scotland.
After all, if the benefit of democratic ownership of the land on which a community relies is now, rightly, acknowledged in Scots law, why not also recognise the benefits of collective worker and community ownership of the industries upon which those communities also rely?
It is long overdue that the left revisited the issue of industrial democracy. In this respect, the discussions triggered by the Scotland’s Future white paper references to employee involvement serve a useful purpose.
However, we should not allow trade unionism and collective organisation to be undermined by charades of involvement used by some employers to break collectivism, making individual workers feel important while providing them with no real influence and failing to address the need to redistribute power as well as wealth.
As Tony Benn put it in his Arguments for Socialism: “We must reject the idea that one worker on the board is industrial democracy.
“We must reject phoney works councils not rooted in the strength and structure and traditions of the trade union movement.
“All of these are window dressing designed to divert the demand for democratic control into utterly harmless challenge. We should be talking about the transfer of power within industry.”
Jackson Cullinane is political officer at Unite Scotland.