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Industrial Strategy and the Importance of Worker Voice

As the deadline for responses to the government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper closes, it’s worth taking stock of the extent to which things have moved on and how much further there is still to go.

The return of industrial strategy to government thinking and the tacit acknowledgement that the state has a role to play in shaping how the economy works is welcome. It’s not that long ago that a previous Business Secretary preferred to talk of an ‘industrial approach’ rather than an industrial strategy.

Also welcome is the Green Paper’s stated objective of improving living standards and economic growth by increasing productivity. But, necessary as they are, better productivity and growth alone won’t improve people’s working lives or deliver the good jobs that are so desperately needed. Actions speak louder than words, and the government needs to be bold.

The most glaring omission from the government’s Green Paper is worker voice and trade unions, which must be understood as ‘partners in productivity’ and a frontline resource to help drive up skills and empower workers. If the government is serious about achieving its aims, it must acknowledge the importance of worker voice and what goes on in workplaces.

The Green Paper proposes ‘10 pillars’ for the industrial strategy. One of these is for “institutions to bring together sectors and places.” Trade unions, collective bargaining and social partnership are precisely the sort of institutions and mechanisms that need to be part of delivering a sustainable and equitable industrial strategy.

To quote the House of Commons BEIS Select Committee from its first review report on industrial strategy: “It is crucial the government’s industrial strategy sets out strong mechanisms for dialogue and collaboration with businesses (of all sizes) and unions (my emphasis), aimed at facilitating consensual agreement on future policy direction where appropriate.”

As I have written before, trade unions are central to productivity, and when the government praises the success of the UK motor industry it should not forget the contribution of Unite the Union representatives. During the last economic crisis, companies such as Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) worked pragmatically with trade unions to ensure workers and their skills were not lost to the sector and the economy. Unite has also been involved in initiatives to retain capacity and skills during downturns in aerospace and shipbuilding.

The Green Paper proposes that a series of ‘sector deals’ underpin a new industrial strategy. While Unite is in favour of an industrial strategy which works across sectors – from foundation manufacturers to transport, utilities and the public sector – we would also support ‘sector deals’ with the right institutional framework. Such a framework must include trade unions as workers’ representatives.

An industrial strategy must consider how national sector bargaining can be rebuilt for the 21st century. In addition, ACAS should have its duty to promote collective bargaining restored, and fair wages resolutions should be re-introduced in public procurement, establishing a wage floor on the basis of the relevant collective agreements.

In Unite’s response to the Green Paper, we propose ‘six pillars’ which overlap and develop the ten put forward by the government. These are applicable across the economy and are vital for an integrated and long-term industrial strategy.

1.       Investment in infrastructure (including transport, housing and energy), research and development, and public services in order to boost productivity, create good jobs, raise living standards and build a more equitable society.

2.       Positive procurement: creating a stable, internal market by recognising social value and using public spending to support UK manufacturing and services, and promote and advance equality, fairness and a sustainable environment.

3.       Skills, reskilling and apprenticeships: including offering genuine opportunities for advancement through high quality apprenticeships and opportunities for re-skilling and upskilling to meet the country’s needs and technological changes.

4.       Automation: making the UK a leader in the new technologies which will revolutionise manufacturing, the service sector and transport industries. This must be coupled with policies to ensure that the positive potential of technology is realised for all.

5.       Corporate governance: giving people genuine control over their working lives, from the shop floor to the boardroom. Reform must end the endemic short-term culture of UK business, ensure transparency and provide protections for workers and communities affected by takeovers.

6.       Working rights and worker voice: supporting worker voice, strong trade unions and collective bargaining, providing secure, decent jobs, and ending exploitative practices such as bogus self-employment, zero hours contracts and blacklisting.

The purpose of an industrial strategy should be to build a strong, sustainable economy that genuinely works for all, underpinned by secure employment and decent pay and conditions. But it will only do so if it involves workers and their representatives.