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A decent deal for workers

I have been a proud trade unionist for decades and have lived through some of the darkest times. But I have been truly saddened over the past year by the distrust that continues to exist between management and workers. Most employers strive for the best possible relations with their employees, but with the balance of power between management and workers so uneven, the reality is often an environment of hostility and a lack of trust.

Over the last thirty years there has been a significant decline in democracy in the workplace. This has been brought about by the decimation of the trade union movement, the destruction of employment rights, and the demolition of collective bargaining structures which were established to ensure a collective voice at work.

I believe we have reached a decisive moment, with public opinion turning against companies that exploit their workers. There is now scope to re-open some of the discussions around the issue of worker representatives on boards that took place in the 1970s.

I do not want to see another generation believing that zero hour contracts and poor workplace rights are the norm of working life. We need a change. Working relationships between employers and employees could be vastly improved by offering a voice to workers in the corporate structure.

A paper I wrote recently for Class looks at the concept of workplace democracy, and focuses in particular on the inclusion of employee representatives on company boards. It is clear that employees must be given a stronger voice in the strategic direction of our businesses. Board-level decisions have a huge impact on workers - it is obvious that they should have a say in the decision-making process.

In fact most countries in the EU have systems in place to give employee representatives a place on company boards. It is a system that is, in principle, good for business, good for consumers and most of all, fair for employees.

My paper for Class draws on interviews with colleagues in Sweden, where the practice of having workers on boards has existed since 1973. The evidence strongly suggests that this system benefits everyone involved: employees are able to present issues at board level; trade unions form better working relationships with management; and boards benefit from the expertise of employees working on the shop floor.

Having workers on boards helps employers make good decisions that work for everyone. Negotiations take place before it is too late, and profit-obsessed directors stop to think about employees as well as shareholders when signing on the dotted line. My paper outlines in more detail how this policy could be piloted ahead of legislating to ensure the most effective methods of including worker representatives on boards could be introduced in the UK.

It’s clear that if workers are to get a decent deal there must be a big change in industrial relations in this country. As part of a broader programme of improving rights at work and the role of trade unions in the economy, the inclusion of worker representatives on company boards could be one way of achieving a more cooperative relationship between management and employees.

To read Jim's paper - Securing a decent deal for workers: Employee representatives on boards - click here.