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Democracy at Work – launch of JRF report on economic and industrial democracy

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The Trade Union Bill will shortly become law. It will undermine workers’ rights and enhance the power and control of managers and employers. But even without it, workers in their workplaces still continue to experience a fundamental lack of democracy and control at work. Currently, Scotland and Britain are in the bottom half of the European league table for democracy at work. This timely new report for the Foundation analyses the contours of this present lamentable situation and outlines a number of proposals to give workers the means to control their work and working lives.

It is called ‘Rights and Respect: a vision for democracy in the workplace’ and  is written by Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford. It is being launched today (Thursday 11 February) at a conference in the STUC as part of #heartunion week campaign against the Bill.

Amongst the proposals are measures on workplace and sectoral collective bargaining, right to take industrial action, co-determination, a strategy of encroachment upon the managerial prerogative, public ownership, worker cooperatives and tripartism.

The right to sectoral bargaining is worth highlighting in particular as a means to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ by taking out wages and conditions as a factor of competition between companies in the same sector. A form of co-determination is also worth highlighting so that workers can have their own representatives on the board of directors of the organisations they employ them.

In themselves the various proposals put forward are not new but what is new is using them together as a joined up, strategic means to solve a much longer standing issue of disempowerment and disenfranchisement in the workplace. Some of the proposals would provide for workers the greater ability to advance and defend their interests at work on immediate and day-to-day issues in the workplace – on such issues not just as pay but also the organisation of work – while others would allow workers to influence the decision making process within employing organisations and at the level of the economy. Without the latter, any advances in the former could be undermined.

Of the proposals, Professor Gall said: ‘The advance of neo-liberalism under the guise of human resource management has left workers in their workplaces more disempowered than ever before. This situation will only get worse with the arrival of the Trade Union Bill on the statute book. It is, therefore, imperative that in addition to opposing the Trade Union Bill the union movement takes a step back from this immediate task and considers how long-term and deep seated positive change can be brought about in workplaces so that workers empowered and enfranchised.’

He continued: ‘Although the times may seem inauspicious with a Conservative government and another looming recession, there are opportunities to be taken advantage to promote this radical reform of how workplaces are governed. Not least there is the new leadership of the Labour Party and in Nicola Sturgeon the first leader of the SNP who proclaims to be a social democrat. To do so would be to begin putting Scotland on Britain on a par with the current leaders in the field in Europe of workplace democracy like Germany and Sweden.’

Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) General, Secretary Grahame Smith added ‘Launched during #heartunion week, this paper makes a very welcome and positive contribution not just to the case for the value of trade unions, but by providing a vision of how properly organised workers, able to collectively bargain and participate in the management of their companies can change the industrial relations and the economy of this country for the better. The STUC intends to widely disseminate this paper which should part of the basis for unions’ work in improving the architecture of industrial relations in a Scotland.’

The full paper is available JRFRightsandRespect