Opinion: Time for a grown-up workplace partnership

The Tories hate trade unions. In the context of the Social Liberal Forum’s conference on 13 July in Manchester, with the theme “Ownership and Democracy – where does power lie?” the Tories’ policies regarding the unions have been to try to remove as much power and as many rights from them as possible, in order to free up company bosses to use their power as they see fit without the need to discuss their plans with the workforce.

The problem with strengthening corporate power while weakening trade union and individual rights is that it allows a return to working conditions that any civilised person would consider in contravention of all the principles we hold dear.

As a national trade union official, I often hear of companies hiring people to work for them for expenses only – no pay. People are so desperate to get a foot on the ladder that they agree to this unlawful contract. Other companies ignore laws limiting working hours. Workers stagger home at 2am, knowing that they are expected to return seven hours later.

Perhaps some Liberal Democrats secure in high quality jobs never see the soul-destroying problems that unions deal with day in, day out. For millions of people, their trade union is the only real defence they have against blatant exploitation.

But this government has severely undermined the possibility of ordinary working people obtaining justice at an industrial tribunal. Now the individual has to pay hundreds of pounds merely to apply for a tribunal hearing, and possibly more than £1000 as it goes forward. These fees put justice out of reach for many, many ordinary people. Of course, sensible trade unions will recruit members on the back of it because the only way many ordinary working people could afford justice from now on is going to be via their union which will no doubt pay the fees for them.

In the public sector the Tories, Eric Pickles in particular, are trying to reduce the number of union representatives having paid time off to undertake trade union duties such as representing union members at grievance or disciplinary hearings or on health and safety duties. They are also proposing a new pointless waste of time ordering unions to carry out an annual audit of their membership and demonstrate that their membership figures are accurate. Given that large numbers of union members choose to have their subscription deducted from their pay by the employer and sent to the union, employers already know precisely how many members there are and even who they are.

I hope Liberal Democrats will join the discussion about unions and industrial democracy at SLF conference (more details from http://socialliberal.net/slf-conf-2013/) and listen to Deborah Hargreaves, director of the High Pay Centre, who will be speaking at this session.

It is to Britain’s shame that we lag so far behind the grown-up systems of workplace partnership and industrial democracy so common to many of our European partners. While in Germany, big companies have half their board of directors elected by the workforce, in the UK executive pay is getting further and further separated from that of ordinary workers as there are fewer constraints on corporate greed. This is an area crying out for real Liberal proposals for reform and greater opposition within the Coalition to Conservative attempts to turn the clock back to Dickens.

* Janice Turner is Vice Chair of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Racial Equality

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  • Surely the grown-up thing would be to do as Marx taught and for unions to set up their own workplaces based on their values and theories? The national unions have the resources to make a start, further jobs can be created out of the profits.

    The grown up thing isn’t stand whining next to the big boss like a teenager, it is to be like a young adult and leave.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Jul '13 - 1:49pm

    “As a national trade union official, I often hear of companies hiring people to work for them for expenses only – no pay.”

    Including a number of our own MPs and the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems on whose board the author sits and who were recently advertising for an unpaid intern. …..

  • A Social Liberal 8th Jul '13 - 2:04pm

    I always thought that the unions set up the Labour party, and so – within the boundaries of the law and the Labour Party constitution – whatever influence they do or do not exert is a private matter between themselves and the party apparatchik.

    If Unite had tried to stuff the membership of the Tory party with union backed applicants I would agree with Conservatives and Lib Dems jumping up and down – as it is, let them get on with it.

  • Steve Griffiths 8th Jul '13 - 3:50pm

    Is there not still an organisation called the ‘Association of Liberal Democrat Trade Unionists’ or has it become moribund? If it still exists, is this not an ideal body to bring in on the discussion?

    I recall in the 1960s or 1970s the forerunner of ALDTU, the Association of Liberal Trade Unionists, proposing that the Trade Union Act of 1913 should be amended to ensure that political affiliation funds should be sent to the political party of the choice of the individual, and that trade unions should be given positive recognition as responsible and essential organs of the modern state, so that they are in a better position to eliminate restrictive practices and unofficial strikes.

  • Definitely agree that it is time for a grown-up workplace partnership, particularly given as all our futures are tied to the success of British enterprise (private/public/third-sector).

    However I doubt the trade unions have the capacity for such a relationship. I base this on both looking back at what the trade union movement has focused on and achieved since the 80’s – when Margaret Thatcher’s reforms give a strong impetus to change, and my experience of multi-national board level employee representation through directors being appointed via both employee shareholders and employee union members, where frequently the union members couldn’t make a decision, because of the conflict with their traditional union representative role (yes you guested it, the union couldn’t let a mere member stand, candidates were chosen – behind closed doors – from among the existing union representatives…). Also I doubt that many of those who currently occupy the nations board room’s have the desire to radically change the way the business is governed. Although I do have respect for the directors I worked with, as they did activity engage with the change in corporate governance imposed on the company by their shareholder – an EU government. Whilst the change of governance didn’t really change many of the final decisions, they facilitated greater understanding and better implementation. Also they enable us (the employee representatives) the opportunity to float ideas without them having to be formally worked up and an executive director having to put their head on the line by presenting them.

    I believe that we need a fresh start or third-way to a grown up workplace partnership and should be using the intended privatisation of the Post Office (and future re-privatisation of RBS et al.) as the vehicle to focus proposals and discussions. So Janice, what is it that you are actually proposing?

  • jenny barnes 8th Jul '13 - 5:20pm

    Roland – do you remember the miners strike? How the police were used to smash the NUM?

  • Simon McGrath 8th Jul '13 - 6:02pm

    @jenny – the police were not used to ‘smash the NUM’.
    They were used to stop the NUM illegally stopping people who wanted to work doing so and blockading the Orgrave coking plant.

    The NUM was smashed by the folly of their own leaders.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jul '13 - 6:09pm

    Rather than shackle businesses further, the best thing we could do would be to remove the shackles from trade unions, including the requirement for balloted strikes.

    It won’t lead to mass strikes all the time because if they strike the business owners should be free to sack the workers. Freedom is rarely better than government control.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jul '13 - 6:10pm

    And workforces won’t be getting sacked all the time because businesses need them. My freedom solution is better than the conservative or socialist proposals that just want to shackle the “enemy”.

  • Anthony Hawkes 8th Jul '13 - 10:00pm

    @Simon McGrath – not so sure about your Orgrave NUM statement.

    “Ninety-five picketers were charged with riot, unlawful assembly and similar offences after the battle. A number of these were put on trial in 1987, but the trials collapsed, all charges were dropped and a number of lawsuits were brought against the police for assault, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. South Yorkshire Police later agreed to pay £425,000 compensation and £100,000 in legal costs to 39 pickets in an out of court settlement.”


  • Jenny, I’m well aware of the miner’s strike, along with all the other disruption of the 70’s and 80’s. Yes, you could say the NUM were ‘smashed ‘ and discredited, but they and the other unions were not outlawed – instead the government simply brought in new laws that effectively made it more difficult for a union to call a strike or cause disruption. To me the government effectively sent out a very strong signal to the unions: adapt to the new economic order or else, I think that is a pretty strong impetus to change and rethink what exactly is the purpose of your organisation, it’s public image and how it goes about achieving its objectives.

  • The smashing of the unions achieved a lower standard of living for 90% of the workforce, which is fine thing indeed if you’re not one of the 90%.

    What next from Simon McGrath though? At a time when the behaviour of the south Yorkshire Police at Hillsborough and Orgreave (it would help if you could spell the name of the place) has been shown to be completely corrupt, anti-liberal, anti-democratic and politically biased, why are you still defending this organisation? Why are you in a party that prides itself in evidence-based policy, freedom of the individual and equality of opportunity and equality of justice?

  • Ed Shepherd 9th Jul '13 - 6:20am

    “And workforces won’t be getting sacked all the time because businesses need them. My freedom solution is better than the conservative or socialist proposals that just want to shackle the “enemy”.”

    Companies would simply sack protesting workers and replace them with dirt-cheap labour from the hundreds of millions of desperate workers across the world who are un(der)employed. Removal of the right to strike (i.e. the right not to be dismissed for taking part in an official strike) would result in a world of monoplostic companies staffed by frightened workers on subsistence wages with thousands of millions of others being unemployed and starving to death. It’s a recipe for violent chaos. I work at the sharp end of the current economy and every day I see how frightened working people are, how their rights and wages are dminishing and how they have no-one to speak up for them.

  • Janice once again brings out that canard about facility time.

    What has been changed to unpaid time is Trade Union Activities. Ie time to attend branch meetings etc. Trade Union duties which includes representing members in disciplinary hearings etc is still paid time and is in fact guaranteed by law which states that a worker can have a representative in with them.

    Furthermore, there has been no change to health and safety representative time which as I understand it, is unlimited.

    As a Lib Dem and former TU rep, I’ve faced a lot of hostility and unthinking anti- coalition rhetoric in meetings where the default position is TU Good. Coalition Bad.

    I had enough after a couple years and jacked it in. If they don’t want me, that’s fine, I have better things to do with my life and don’t really miss it apart from the representing members bit.

  • Simon McGrath 9th Jul '13 - 8:23am

    The point about the Coalition NOT taking away Health and Safety time is important.

    Janice, will you ask the LDV team to take this out of your piece otherwise it will be used against us ?

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '13 - 8:31am

    No Ed, most businesses do not want a frightened workforce living on subsistence level pay. We need to stop this socialist class warfare against bosses.

    Saying giving business owners and trade unions more freedom would be a “recipe for violence chaos” speaks about the public as if they are dumb and the government knows what’s best for every business and every employee. It doesn’t.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '13 - 8:36am

    Even if there was chaos from time to time, such as if people like Arthur Scargill get to the top, it would soon stop because it’s not sustainable, but it would stop naturally – we don’t need the government to step in and save us.

  • Peter Chivall 9th Jul '13 - 9:17am

    Many Labour-supporting TU leaders are tribal and class prejudiced, even within the Labour Party. That doesn’t make them bad – just less effective in representing their members’ real needs.
    There are some excellent and very necessary TUs which have no political affiliation. Take Prospect which represents technical and scientific staff in public and private sectors. They have opposed the run down by New Labour of bodies like the Environment Agency and many Government Research stations, with minimal savings but much damage to the country’s scientific and technical expertise.
    The ALDTU used to be an Associated Organisation of the Party. I don’t believe it is any more.

  • Ed Shepherd 9th Jul '13 - 9:50am

    “No Ed, most businesses do not want a frightened workforce living on subsistence level pay. We need to stop this socialist class warfare against bosses. Saying giving business owners and trade unions more freedom would be a “recipe for violence chaos” speaks about the public as if they are dumb and the government knows what’s best for every business and every employee. It doesn’t.”
    I have met many company directors and managers who certainly do want to have a frightened workforce living on subsistence pay levels. Sadly, good employers find themselves in a race to the bottom with bad employers. Violent chaos would result from taking away the right to protest and to strike without being sacked. I have personally seen much violent chaos in the workplace resulting from bad management and lack of respect for people’s basic rights. Maybe the managers involved were “dumb”… No-one is saying that the “government knows best for every business” but currently working people have almost no bargaining power due to worldwide mass un(der)employment and laws are needed to ensure that human beings can maintain at least basic living standards. I base my views on decades of living and working in a major industrial city plus travelling extensively abroad to study other workplaces. What experience do you base your views on?

  • Steve Griffiths 9th Jul '13 - 9:56am

    Peter Chivall

    “The ALDTU used to be an Associated Organisation of the Party. I don’t believe it is any more.”

    It is still mentioned in the current Lib Dem Website.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jul '13 - 10:38am

    Ed I refuse to engage in petty arguments about one’s own direct experience of things, but I can assure you I have plenty of direct experience of employee and employer relations – both good and bad.

  • Re; Ed & Eddie’s discussion about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ employers and the roll of the state.

    I just find it interesting to look back at the industrial revolution, when effectively we had a free-for-all and the state did little to see what happened when the state didn’t intervene. The ‘good’ employers, which we all can probably name a few without too much effort all had one thing in common – they were run by Quakers.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Jul '13 - 9:59pm

    For millions of people, their trade union is the only real defence they have against blatant exploitation.

    Well that’s just not true. Their only real defence is the law, and trade unions are often found engaging in blatant exploitation (calling strikes and then negotiating payouts which are somewhat less than the pay that average workers didn’t get while they were on strike).

    I’m sure there was a time in recent history when trade unions were acting for the benefit of their members, but that time now appears to be in the past. Some sort of reform is needed. I’m just not sure what.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '13 - 12:05am

    Roland, I think there are plenty of good employers around. My point is I just think we should try giving them both a bit more freedom, without going to extremes, and see how it goes.

    I think it could be fairly easily sold to the public and if the Tories came out against trade unions and Labour came out against businesses then they would both look like sectional interest parties and we would be the only party who wants to give more freedom to both parties.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '13 - 12:09am

    I know I mentioned some more extreme ideas above regarding freedom, but I wouldn’t want to frighten anyone or be reckless so I think an honest argument can be made for more freedom.

  • Eddie, I agree that we need to give employers some freedom, whilst also providing incentives to be and become ‘good’. However, the ‘privatisation’ of the Post Office does provide government with a real world opportunity to show business what ‘good’ could be in today’s world.

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