Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Individual empowerment stops at the workplace door

As is probably obvious, one of the things I am increasingly interested in is whether there is any prospect of a tilt towards to a greater role for employees in corporate governance and, if so, how this can be brought about. As I've blogged a fair bit recently, there are indications that, for the first time for quite a few years, these ideas are being knocked about again in Labour circles. I am aware of a least three bits of work going on that have relevance to this discussion that we should see this year & which I'll blog when they appear.

I think there are a number of reasons why these ideas are gaining more ground, including (in no particular order):
  • A sense that a UK-style market approach to corp gov has some big holes in it, such as the weak nature of shareholder oversight as a restraint on company behaviour;
  • A belief that labour's share of wealth has declined too far, and needs addressing (this is tied up with the view that greater economic inequality is a social problem, not only 'unfair');
  • An attempt to put some meat on the bones of 'pre-distribution';
  • An understanding that corporate governance reform is, potentially, a cheap way of doing stuff whilst we're in a period of austerity.
This is all well and good, and I share these views, but it is interesting that, so far at least, these ideas aren't being approached in terms of how individuals can be empowered in the workplace. In addition, despite the fact that there is a clear strain within their organising activity that is entirely about worker self-empowerment, I'm not seeing much recognition beyond Tigmoo, yet, of the role that trade unions could play in this.
On the first point, if there is anything that has unified the 'centre ground' of politics in recent years it has been that individuals should have greater power to determine their own path in society. That has been taken to entail greater individual freedom to make our own lifestyle choices, greater choice within public services and so on. Those Tory 'Big Society' posters in the 2010 election even had an element of Paris 1968 about them.

And yet there is a curious silence about individual empowerment in the one place that we spend most of our time - the office, factory or other workplace. Certainly the attitude of the Coalition seems to be that employers need more power relative to workers, in the name of economic efficiency (see Beecroft proposals etc), and they have spoken about making it less easy for workers to take industrial action (eg increased threshold for strike ballots). I think the prevailing view (mistaken) is that if you don't like a job you can always get another one, rather than entertaining the idea that you could think about ways that employees could seek to push back. It's the employment equivalent of "if you don't like it here, move to Russia". All the emphasis is on exit, not voice.

This contrasts, by the way, with much of the historical interest in employee empowerment at work. There has always been a strand in those discussions about how principles we observe in other areas of life could carry over into our working life, which is why we have the term 'workplace democracy' of course. So it's odd, in the era of apparent individual empowerment, that many people still consider that a very authoritarian model at work isn't worth much discussion. This has always, to me, been a gaping hole in the self-professed 'libertarianism' of those on the Right, but I'm surprised many on the Left don't get it either.

Similarly, thinking specifically about TUs, it is a bit odd that there isn't more recognition of how much organising activity is about individual empowerment (this book is well worth a read on this). Rather, lots of people seem to be of the view that a 'servicing' model of trade unionism is 'modern', even though it may not tackle power relations at work, and essentially sees the member as a pretty passive 'consumer' as opposed to someone that can become personally empowered.

So, if we're going to see a serious push on the employee role in governance, perhaps a greater stress on why empowerment at work would be desirable/effective should be part of the strategy. It would both draw attention to the disparity with policy in other areas, and demonstrate why the labour movement is relevant to such a modernising drive,

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