Miguel Martínez Lucio, Professor in the Work and Equalities Institute and the Alliance Manchester Business School at The University of Manchester, and an expert of worker participation, trade union questions and the role of the state, discusses the renewed interest in industrial democracy and the need for a strategic plan.
- There is a growing interest in the idea of a broadening of worker control and influence within industry and business.
- Industrial democracy requires a strategic plan and an awareness of the limitations of previous debates.
- Ideas concerning how workers can play a much larger part within economic decision-making must be discussed more broadly and within a policy and educational context.
Various factors have given rise to a growing interest in the idea of a broadening of worker control and influence within industry and business. Whatever the future political context, it appears the issue of worker representatives and corporate governance is emerging as a point of interest. The policies of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn are beginning to refer to the need for workers to have some degree of institutional influence within their businesses beyond the tokenism of suggestion schemes and team briefings.
The idea is that a future Labour government would ask firms with over 250 employees to reserve up to one-third of the seats on company boards for the workforce as a way of ensuring greater vigilance and control of the business and to avoid wayward and short-term economic behaviour. This is a significant proposal which begins to look at the need for corporate governance to be democratised and a new role provided for workers that enhances both economic effectiveness and social fairness within corporate thinking.
But it is not just a response to the financial crisis of 2008 and the way that obscure decision-making has undermined the economic environment of the nation. It is also one way of countering the now stigmatised idea pushed by the Conservatives since 1979 that individual share ownership by workers is the best way to create a more popular and – supposedly – accountable capitalism: the Thatcherite shareholder approach has been uncommon, fragmented and highly individualised, so very little effective control of corporate boards has been achieved.
Alternatives to how firms are governed
The idea suggested by Labour seems promising, partly because the issue of a more collective form of worker influence keeps dropping off the political agenda and imagination of the left and the labour movement, as well as the discourse of academics studying the nature of work; hence it needs to be developed. We are focused on the social and economic costs of greater workplace degradation and new forms of exploitation in the so-called ‘gig economy’: the idea of developing alternative and participatory forms of organisation and governance appears to be difficult within this context.
Various radical debates on the sociology of work and the labour process tend to have been limited to the nuances of exploitation. Through my research, I have found that alternative emancipatory discourses on practices that expand the role of workers have not always been central to discussions on participation, as has consideration of extending worker democracy in industry beyond collective bargaining – itself somewhat in decline in the case of the UK.
The new interest in industrial democracy
There are three main factors that appear to have created a sudden interest in – or new fashion for – broader notions of industrial democracy.
- The first is the increasingly urgent need to regulate the structures of decision-making within businesses in the light of a growing tendency to ‘wayward’ behaviour amongst corporate directors and management more generally. There is an increasing realisation that corporate social responsibility is seen by many as a sham: a formidable body of work outlines the symbolic and disconnected nature of such debates within management.
- Second, there is growing interest in the history of worker control and debates in the 1960s and 1970s: the experience of Lucas Aerospace in 1976, when shop stewards and the trade union movement proposed an alternative production plan linked to socially useful production has been the focus of various academic and commemorative workshops. The work of the Institute for Workers’ Control as a more positive vision of how workers could influence and socialise the economy has been referenced again within various political debates.
- Third, the influence of the former ‘municipal’ left within the Labour Party, who have risen to prominence within its leadership, has been an important link into these discussions. Alternative economic thinking and social planning was a key feature of the work of individuals such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the Greater London Enterprise Board, as it was once known. So we should not be surprised at the renewed aspiration for some extension of worker control.
The challenges ahead
However, this return to an interest in industrial democracy requires a strategic plan and an awareness of the limitations of previous debates.
- The first issue seems to be that workers’ rights more generally – collective rights and representation – need to be extended and enhanced. That the Labour Party is proposing the removal of much of the Conservative-inspired (and to some extent New Labour-sustained) anti-trade union legislation is recognition of the fact that workers will need strong independent voices if they are to enter into such new and empowering roles within the firm. Related to this challenge are the high levels of degradation and fragmentation of work – the focus of many scholars – that in many cases lead to workers having little if any meaningful dialogue with their employers.
- Second, a broad training programme needs to be developed for organisations and representatives taking on these new roles within firms. Classic studies of the proposed industrial democracy of the 1970s – such as those by Eric Batstone, Anthony Ferner and Mike Terry – pointed out that dealing with the vagaries and complexities of corporate decision-making would be challenging for many workers and their representatives. The capabilities of trade union and worker representatives will need to be developed, as will the capacity of their research departments. There will need to be a more proactive supportive environment from within a reformed state that sees the worker influence as key to its progressive policies through the enhancing of its organisational capacities.
- Third, a more robust research framework and culture for these initiatives will be required. For all the somewhat surreally high levels of investment in management education in the UK, many business schools are not up to the task of supporting workers and their organisations, given their emphasis on more neo-liberal approaches to accounting and finance. Although various critical or progressive networks exist within and between various research centres, much of the focus has tended to avoid critiquing the economic and financial dimensions of capitalism, apart from recent debates on pension funds and industrial relations (the university dispute springs to mind) and the critical dimensions of sociology of work. Ironically, though, it is the experience of debates and interventions on pension funds and related counter-networks within the labour movement and critical academic circles that may create the momentum for these discussions.
Ideas concerning how workers can play a much larger part within economic decision-making must therefore be discussed more broadly and within a policy and educational context where building the capabilities of individuals and representative organisations such as trade unions is seen as a priority. It requires a fundamental democratising of the academy and various state bodies.