Up the workers


At the aforementioned launch of his book last week, there was some discussion of one of Anthony Painter's key themes - the importance of institutional reform and innovation. The event was also on the day of Ed Miliband's speech about changing Labour's relation with the trade unions. I think it was Phil Collins of The Times who made a link, suggesting that if we were to ask in what part of society we most need new institutions we would be likely to identify the need for a more relevant and powerful voice for employees.

Indeed, there is a convincing argument that the shift in power across the eighties and nineties from employees to bosses and speculators  is implicated in the economic and the social unbalancing which formed the background to the 2008 economic crisis and which continues to hold us back today.

The institutional problem is this: while employees need help in organising and a stronger voice at all levels of policy making they generally don't want what they perceive to be on offer from trade unions. Political affiliation, activist capture, adversarialism and the tendency to define their role as defending the least effective members of the staff team, are all aspects of trade unionism which many people, especially I suspect the young, find unappealing. Add to this the hostility of employers and, of course, massive changes in the organisation of work and it perhaps not surprising that trade union membership rates are stagnant and very low (around one in six employees) in the private sector.

Yet the issues modern worker organisations could address, ranging from fair pay to employee voice, have not gone away, indeed many have become more pressing. Intelligent employers also know that disgruntled  employees are a problem even if they aren't threatening a strike and that employee engagement can be critical to productivity (a case made here by the IPA).

The consequence of the persistence of the need for employee voice and organisation alongside a failure of supply among traditional trade unions has been the proliferation of two other forms of response; first in-house staff organisations and second various schemes - such as Best Companies and Investors in People which seek to institutionalise employee voice as part of good management.

The problem with staff associations and best practice schemes is both that they are voluntaristic (relying on employer patronage) and that they lack any collective national or local voice in relation to public discourse or policy making.

Arguably, just as the business community has two major peak organisations (the CBI and the IoD) there is a need alongside the TUC for a new high profile, employee-focused body which makes a less politically-aligned (but more politically relevant), less adversarial case for employee voice and engagement, and which represents a more diverse set of institutions (possibly including enlightened employers) which share a commitment to this case.

But isn't employee voice too weak and amorphous a goal? Most bosses pay lip service to listening to their workers but that doesn't mean they act on what they hear. Being heard doesn't help with the things that really concern people such as low and unfair pay, job insecurity or over-intensive or inflexible working practices (the latter highlighted in this RSA report yesterday.  

A new peak employee organisation would need to have a credible entry bar on terms of what is defined as meaningful employer engagement. It would also be important to test the idea that employee voice is a good proxy for wider measures of good employment practice.

In case this post reads like a case for a patsy body which provides cover for bad employers, it is worth noting a contrast. The RSA does not have trade union organisation but our commitment to become a best company is driving us into levels of employee engagement, managerial self examination and concrete reform which are massively more demanding that the kind of superficial human relations management I often see in unionised workplaces.



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