signs–DRAFT–

“We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organized workers’ associations… We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade…”

So declared anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1848 election manifesto. Prior to this, demands for workplace democracy had been largely the preserve of liberal democrats such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey. Then, soon afterwards, this became a key platform for many socialists. Then syndicalists and trade unionists chimed in, supported by various left intellectuals. Endless variations were developed upon the basic theme, until: “Taken together, the socialist tradition of workers’ democracy was one of the driving forces of political developments in the nineteenth and twentieth century.” This is the view of network member Markus Pausch, a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology based in Austria, in his recent paper “Workplace Democracy: From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back” (2013).

Then something kind of weird happened. As Pausch describes it: “In the 1990s, the idea was co-opted by organizational development and management studies and underwent a change: Workplace democracy, then mostly operationalized as limited participation, became a managerial tool that should help to increase employees’ motivation and efficiency and thereby contribute to entrepreneurial success”. (more…)

wdMembers of this network have been arguing that the union movement needs to become more involved in organizing for workplace democracy. Study after study, survey after survey, have shown that workers in post-industrial nations want more direct voice and influence in the workplace. However, by and large their aspirations are represented by a movement whose bargaining agenda has remained the same for decades.

Union organizers will be familiar with the tensions that result from this. What do you do when the members’ main concern seems to be about the boss making stupid decisions? Or the KPIs being out-of-synch with reality? Or a culture of nepotism generating widespread depression? Or a flash new I.T. system screwing up everybody’s workflow? How does all this fit into a program of achievable gains? Few workers will mention the word “democracy” during such conversations, but what they are wanting is to be heard. And they do not want to be sub-divided or co-opted in the process. This is clearly a role for unions, whether they decide to accept it or not. It is also a huge opportunity for recruitment. Think about all those employees who don’t join because they have it in their head that unionism is just about pay and conditions. (more…)

pcApologies for lateness! Paul Mason’s book PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future came out in 2015. However it wasn’t until the victory of Donald Trump that I realised how important it was. Do yourself a favour: grab a copy of this book and get familiar with the mess we’re in. Come to terms with the fact we won’t be saved by Bernie Sanders, yet alone Hillary Clinton.

That said, it’s not a grim read. Quite the opposite. I remember thinking so furiously as I was reading it that my internal discussions kept drowning out the text. It was like singing along (albeit terribly) to a new favourite song. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It didn’t really matter whether I was agreeing or disagreeing with what he saying (I was doing a bit of both); it was just bloody good fun.

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Why do we defer from 9 to 5? The “master-servant relationship” is a feudal phantom that still haunts today’s workplaces, thanks to English common law. Peter Hall-Jones argues that it’s time to exorcise the old ghoul. The workplace democracy movement aims to do just that, but where do unions fit in? The way they respond to this agenda might well determine their relevance in the workplace of the future.

O2Great_Chain_of_BeingNCE upon a time there was a great chain of being. Up the top was God; down at the bottom were all the inanimate objects[1]. Actually, somewhere beneath all this, below the rocks and lost socks and broken toasters in a kind of hidden underground lair, were the Devil and his minions. As for you and I, we were stationed at different points along the way depending upon our status. Kings were below angels; vassals below lords; apprentices below craftsmen; and wives below husbands. And there wasn’t much point in grizzling about it; all this was divinely ordained so we just had to lump it.

What we now call ‘English common law’ developed out of this medieval compost. Over the centuries, hallowed principles were codified into exacting social rules. Detailed treatises and regulations were drawn up to determine how people on different levels should relate to each other. Some of the central planks that emerged from this work of ages were the parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the guardian-ward relationship, and (our subject here) the master-servant relationship.

All of this ought to be the stuff of historical footnotes. However, English common law still underpins the legal systems in a large number of countries. The list includes the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Brunei, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. To make matters worse, through the process we now call colonialism, several of these feudal relationships leached across cultures and have become a kind of ‘default setting’. In particular, the master-servant relationship sets the general tenor for industrial relations worldwide. Trade arrangements reinforce it further, and it has been quietly hard-wired into international labour law. Perhaps we no longer hold cherubim below seraphim, beetles below ladybirds, or yew trees below olive trees, but our life at work is still very much configured around this medieval template. (more…)

chain2Following on from discussions with network members last year, we’ve been talking with the good folk at LabourStart about the creation of a new organisation: provisionally named The Fair Work Foundation. This body would aim to address the problem of weak or fraudulent labour standards. It would do so in two ways:

1) Fair Work Certified Standards
The Foundation would evaluate the labour standards conditions and auditing practices of private standards organizations. This would be done with an aim to certifying those that represent effective, good faith attempts to positively encourage and facilitate independent worker organization and collective bargaining.

2) Fair Work: Union Made
The Foundation would establish a new social label to certify that the workers who produce a labelled product or service do so in a unionized workplace where wages and conditions of employment are set via collective bargaining.

While these two initiatives cannot substitute for robust labour law, we believe they could be important as a means of promoting collective industrial relations. We invite all members of the Network to read of this proposal, drafted by member Dr Conor Cradden, and let us know what you think. Better still, let us know if you’d like to be involved in making it happen.

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1The usual story begins sometime in the late ’70s. Cue violins. “The rise of neoliberalism — as personified by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — signalled the beginning of the end for trade unionism. Since then, unions have experienced rapid and relentless decline…”  Right?  As a despairing friend put it, a while back: “Unions have spent the last forty years trying to turn a rout into a retreat”.

The trouble with this dominant narrative is that, according to the best data we have available, it is wrong. For most countries, at least. In this paper Peter Hall-Jones looks at how our perspective has been skewed by the experience of a relatively small number of post-industrial nations. The real story is far more interesting. It also suggests a positive way forward. Rather than running trade unions as ailing small businesses, we should be building cooperation along supply chains. (more…)

New Unionism says: In the UK the issue of the blacklisting of workers with union links, particularly in the construction sector, has been in the news on and off for most of the last twenty years. In 2009, public data protection agency the Information Commissioner’s Office closed down a group called The Consulting Association on the grounds that it was illegally collecting and selling information about construction workers. The Consulting Association was founded and run by a group of major construction companies and it was these companies that were paying for its ‘employee vetting’ services – services which in reality were about ensuring that workers with a history of union involvement or whistleblowing on health and safety breaches were not taken on at any construction site. Although these companies have apologised for their involvement with the Consulting Association, they have not admitted any liability and remain eligible for public contracts. Despite a recent parliamentary report calling for further action to be taken against businesses involved in blacklisting, the government is resisting calls for a public enquiry. Now the Chartered Institue of Personnel and Development, the professional association representing human resource and personnel managers, appears to be attempting to minimise the damage that blacklisting causes, prompting a robust response from the chair of the UK’s respected public industrial arbitration and conciliation service ACAS. Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group reports. (more…)