Experience tells us that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the owners of companies and those who work for a wage. Employers want to squeeze out as much as possible for the minimum cost and the greatest flexibility. The workers want security, good terms and conditions and some satisfaction. Is industrial democracy a way of squaring these two conflicting interests?
Industrial democracy is one of the key issues being debated in Scotland at the moment, including at a Unite/Campaign for Socialism fringe meeting during the 2014 Scottish Labour Party Conference. Furthermore, the Jimmy Reid Foundation and the Common Weal have also both published documents on the topic and the Scottish Government has established a Review of Scottish Workplace Policies, including workplace democracy.
There are, however, significant differences in approach. Graham Smith, General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Council, while participating in the Scottish Government review, highlights a significant difference:
‘…there are dangers in this particularly if the focus is on employee representation, rather than trade union representation, if employee involvement is limited and does not deliver genuine influence over company decisions, or employee involved schemes are used by some employers to bypass and weaken trade union involvement in consultation and negotiation structures.” He argues that the extension of collective bargaining need to be accompanied by steps to promote union recognition.’
A worrying contribution to the debate comes from Jim Duffy, former Scottish Regional Secretary of the FBU, one of the authors of the Jimmy Reid Foundation report and supporter of the SNP’s approach to industrial relations. He writes:
“When faced with a proposal it is considerably easier for the trade union officials to determine to fight knowing they will lose than it is to take responsibility for a course of action that may be the best solution in the circumstances but will be unpopular. Union members expect their reps to be fighting on their behalf but industrial disputes are not resolved on the picket line, but rather around the negotiating table. If the seat at the table is available without the need for the fight to get there, is that better or worse for the trade union and its members?”
When it comes to representing the needs of working people in discussions with the Government we need to make a clear distinction between influencing political direction and incorporation. And it is incorporation that is at the heart of the SNP’s White Paper and the proposals from the Common Weal. The Trade Union Movement is only one amongst many social forces that would be accommodated in such a partnership. The Scottish Government’s White Papermakes a passing reference to Workers' on the Board, citing First Group as an example, but its main emphasis is incorporating the trade unions into national partnership agreements. Experience in Ireland and elsewhere confirms that the impact is a weakened trade union which acts more like an insurance company than a means of struggle.
Industrial democracy should not be separated out from workers control and common ownership. We may never return to the huge industry wide public sector bodies, but common ownership may take on different forms. In the recent Red Paper publication Class, Nation and Socialism authors explored different possibilities including Kevin Lindsey on the mutualisation of the rail service, David Shaw wrote about football fans owning their clubs and Gordon Munro described how a co-operative council can encourage small scale worker co-operatives. None of these options are without problems, but they have the potential for more democracy than a member on the board.
We need a government in Scotland and in the UK that puts public ownership back on the political agenda.