Mike Clancy is general secretary of Prospect union
Interesting times make for surprising alliances, so perhaps we should expect the CBI and TUC to be fairly aligned on Brexit, and not even raise an eyebrow at the Institute of Directors praising a speech by an opposition leader proud of his socialism. In that vein, a trade union general secretary writing for Conservative Home with advice for a Tory prime minister should not cause much alarm.
I am general secretary of a politically independent union, with a preference for evidence over rhetoric and a commitment to speak truth unto power, in whatever its industrial or political form. My job is to represent the interests of over 142,000 members to those who determine their future. Our polling tells us that around 25 per cent of our members regularly vote Conservative. We suspect that if other unions asked, they might get similar results.
Now, unions have, whether by design or default, become primarily represented as ‘political’ actors rather than their economic role being front and centre. It is perhaps no coincidence that this has coincided with a serious challenge to the membership base of British trade unions. To reverse this trend, unions need to reassert the primacy of their economic mission, while retaining the political voice necessary to advocate for members and campaign for change.
Theresa May entered Downing Street promising a government focused on economic and social reform, embracing an active role for government in directing the economy through industrial strategy and promising to tackle the root causes of the economic discomfort that drove many people to vote for radical change in the EU referendum. This agenda has largely stalled, as Brexit has consumed the government’s political capital and organisational bandwidth.
Whilst aspects of the Taylor review and the government response may prove useful, they fundamentally fail to address the fact that the key issue is not asymmetry of information in the workplace but rather asymmetry of power. Having greater clarity about your rights does not necessarily mean you can enforce them. Knowing your pay position, is not the same as being able to bargain to protect or improve it.
We believe that it is time for a radical shift and we are taking our ideas into territory that may not be natural or easy environments in which to win support. A new report from ResPublica, in partnership with Prospect, makes the case that if the prime minister is serious about a programme of reform then the union movement has a vital role to play.
The industrial strategy rightly identifies ‘people’ as one of the keys to solving the so called ‘productivity puzzle’ but limits its proposals to the familiar theme of centrally driven investment in skills. The strategy fails to consider how worker self-organisation and workplace collective voice can drive productivity gains or how unions may be lifelong learning banks and facilitators for retraining and reskilling of workforces impacted by technological change. In doing so it is ignoring the international evidence that higher union membership and the prevalence of collective bargaining, drives high performance work practices and productivity gains. It also ignores the UK experience where unionised workplaces produce strong trust relationships that allow knowledge to be unlocked, conflicts resolved, and and productivity enhanced. This is the real story of the capacity for unions to generate prosperity whilst also acting to ensure the workforce shares in the gains.
ResPublica and Prospect are calling for a new bargain between employers, unions, and government. This is something that should appeal across the political spectrum, but may be of especial interest to Conservatives concerned about how to maintain public faith in the current economic system.
Reversing the decline of collective bargaining in the UK would mean a reduced role for government as a negotiator of last resort, as collective agreements would diminish the argument for heavy handed legislative action. It would help to curb the excesses of capitalism, like extortionate executive pay, under-investment and short-termism, that discredit all businesses. And it can help secure lasting industrial peace, restoring to workers a sense of control that many feel is lacking in the UK economy and reducing the incentive to vote for radical economic upheaval.
Nobody wants conflict-driven industrial relations and this is not an argument to turn the clock back. The proposals in the report invite a step-change in public policy approaches to unions and, it must be one that Conservatives consider, to reap the substantial benefits that are on offer for a government that grasps this agenda. If government and unions show the courage to work constructively, then there is no reason why both cannot find a renewed purpose in a shared economic agenda of spreading prosperity and building an economy fit for the future.
If all we have in response to the big questions raised by the changing world of work are the economic answers that have given us a productivity deficit and wage stagnation, then it is more likely that political parties cleaving to past ‘certainties’ will be pushed aside. It is now time for a new bargain, one that challenges entrenched political, corporate and union views, which offers symmetry of power and real voice across our economy.