Democracy. At Work.

In his heyday, Jimmy Reid was among the very best of the passionate, articulate and effective advocates of the value of meaningful, civilising and satisfying work that Scotland has ever produced. His 1971 University of Glasgow rectorial address – which railed against alienation under the profit regime of capitalism – is a well known example of this. Elsewhere, he was a consistent advocate of workers’ right. But more than that, he highlighted in a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that workers – when mobilised collectively in a highly conscious, oppositional and assertive way – have the potential to dramatically change the social relations around them and which they are normally the mere subjects of.

I am, of course, referring to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilder’s (UCS) work-in of 1971-1972 of which he was the pre-eminent leader. This action transformed mere – if powerful – words into history-changing deeds, and in a spectacular fashion. In constructing this mass action, he and his colleagues become active objects in history.

Thus, Jimmy Reid understood that workers’ rights could best and most fully be pursued as collective rights of labour which then hold out the opportunity of transforming the economic and social relations of capitalism for progressive ends and for the majority of society. The theme which ran like ‘Brighton’ or ‘Blackpool’ through the proverbial stick of rock in the UCS action was that capitalism is a rapacious system based on servicing the greed of the minority to the detriment of the need of the majority.

Consequently, capitalism either needed thorough going reform or abolition if the righteous needs of the majority were to be satisfied. The UCS work-in more than any event in post-war Scotland was an exemplar of showing how the operation of the capitalist market can be socialised and in doing so ‘democracy’ can be extended from outwith the Palace of Westminster.

Workers, individually and collectively, experience – and are subject to – a fundamental lack of democracy in the places in which they work (and where they spend a considerable period of their lives). While there are some limited forms of political democracy through indirect representative institutions such as parliament, there are no corresponding bodies for providing for industrial or workplace democracy.

Moreover, those representative political institutions do not exercise much influence over the workplace – they choose not to because of the voluntaristic tradition of industrial relations and because of the way that parliament was fashioned to leave the economy essentially under private control and in private ownership. Consequently there is no tangible workplace democracy. Moreover, because there is a lack of democracy at work, where goods and services are produced, distributed and exchanged and decisions are made over these matters, there is also an absence of economic democracy. Consequently, there is a sizable democratic deficit.

Of course, workers have traditionally sought interest representation directly at work through collective bodies – unions – but they are heavily dependent upon others parties, namely employers and the state, for acceptance, legitimacy and recognition, so workers have no automatic, inalienable or inviolable rights for exercising some form of control over their working lives at work. Furthermore, union power ebbs and flows because of movements in labour and product markets as well as union strategies.

Workers, individually and collectively, experience – and are subject to – a fundamental lack of democracy in the places in which they work

What has brought this issue of the abject lack of workplace (and economic) democracy back into sharp relief has not just been that workers are being made to pay for a crisis not of their own making but that the state has handed over public money to bail out capital without capital forfeiting any control and the crisis being used to extend the reach of capital and the market. If many of the banks had really been ‘nationalised’ as we were often told, back in the day this would at least have meant civil servants would have run them (allegedly) on our behalf. Of course, ‘nationalisation’ in this instance did not mean that at all. But it does at least highlight that capital can be regulated and regulated in a progressive way.

But to stop the alienation that Jimmy Reid talked of so eloquently in his rectorial address requires not just that we have genuine nationalisation of the post-war settlement period but rather that instead of civil servants running the leading companies within each industry, workers themselves – through their democratically elected representatives – run them on their own behalf and on behalf of citizens in general. So instead of the statist means of ‘nationalisation’, we would be talking about social and public ownership of what are often referred to as the commanding heights of the economy.

From where we are now, this utopia would be a bold step indeed. Some may see at it as revolutionary or at least very radical. Yet in all likelihood, it is a goal that is a bit too far ahead of the curve for most citizens. They may think it a good idea but say it’s not likely to happen. Indeed, such an idea may be attractive but lack credibility because the very social forces needed to impose the idea upon resistant capitalists and a neoliberal political class are abjectly lacking. Consequently, the bridge of the means of worker directors can be used to move from where we are now to this fuller goal of social and public ownership where the process and outcomes of the market are regulated. Alongside the idea of worker directors, three further and complementing ideas or proposals are put forward as a means to rebalance economy and society in order to deliver a large measure social justice and equality.


Worker directors existed in the Post Office and British Steel in the 1960s and 1970s in a very mild form. The Royal Commission on Industrial Democracy (the Bullock Report) established in the fag-end of the 1974-1979 Labour government did not do much to advance the idea or the practice. But none of this should detract from their purchase and potential. Worker directors have been a central feature of the system of industrial relation in post-war Germany called co-determination. Here, worker representatives sit on the supervisory boards of large companies. The likes of Will Hutton advocate such an idea because it can help control, stabilise and civilise capital and capitalism, and indeed make it more efficient. The advocacy here is not for those reasons but rather for the themes that Jimmy Reid spoke of – to end the alienation as a result of the lack of control over work and the meaningless of work.

If worker directors existed, the potential would be to institutionalise a form of worker control that could help delay, reduce or halt many of the decisions that employers routinely make in a unilateral manner, whether this be over redundancies, pay cuts, outsourcing or offshoring. More than that, worker directors could be a form of creeping or encroaching control upon capital because the implementation of the idea could help stimulate further demands from workers and recreate the confidence and capability to challenge capital. As such, worker directors would do far more to create and extend genuine workers’ control than all the directives from the social dimension of the European Union and the human resource management inspired employee involvement initiatives of employers put together. Under these, consultation and not negotiations rights are given. Consultation essentially amounts to be told what is going to happen before it happens.

One of the ways to broaden the appeal and purchase of worker directors is to insist that consumers – one of the so-called stakeholders – of the goods and services should also have some representation on the board of directors too. The RMT union provided such a model of social ownership in 2005 when, in proposing a model of a future structure of ownership and control for the railways in Scotland, it signalled that a third of the board of what is Scotrail should be comprised of rail unions, a third the travelling public and a third local authorities.


One of the hallmarks of the UCS campaign was the community campaign which mobilised tens of thousands in demonstrations and other solidarity actions. Clearly, the UCS campaign did not then just merely start and end at the shipyard gates. This same principle needs to be applied in an innovative way to the current challenge of opposing the age of austerity courtesy of the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Alliances of public service providers and users, when effectively mobilised, would make the point that the defence of jobs and conditions of the service providers is intimately bound up with the provision of the right amounts of good quality services. For service providers to oppose the cuts and privatisation on their own risks allowing the political right to characterise such action as merely being the protection of vested, sectional interests. The idea of alliances can not only sidestep this but also create powerful counter-coalition to the implementation of the policies of the coalition government. This would mean unions taking the lead in doing so.


The Unite union in Scotland launched an important policy document at the 2011 STUC congress called ‘Making Devolution Work’. The key proposal in the document was to establish statutory sector forums which would allow workers through their unions to bargain with their employers. By establishing sector minima above the minimum wage, wages and conditions would not only be raised but they would be standardised so taking them out as a factor of competition between employers. In doing so, the downward pressure of employers seeking competitive advantage would be removed and attention focussed upon instead productivity, investment and quality of goods or services. Unite suggested that the sector forums could best be piloted in tourism, road haulage, the renewables industry and the voluntary sector. Such sector forums de facto exist in many continental European countries without detriment to economic efficiency. Indeed, the reverse is true – they aid it.


The reach of unions is lower than it has been for many years. Even when unions were stronger, many sectors were still difficult to organise. However, unions along with other pressure groups, NGOs and researchers like academics could play a vital role as public advocates and investigators for those workers who are unable to gain the benefit of collective union representation because of the sectors in which they find themselves working. Unfortunately, government bodies and the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux no longer play this kind of role. Breaches of health and safety, denial of rights at work, flouting of the minimum wage and the like could all be highlighted and publicised by a Standing Commission on Workers’ Rights with a view to lobbying the offending employers to mend their ways and to put pressure on the relevant government agencies to take appropriate action. Where existing government powers are inadequate to deal with this, the Commission could advocate for the introduction of new ones.

Jimmy Reid had bold political imagination, this being best illustrated by the UCS action being a work-in rather than just an occupation. The tactic of the work-in was critical to the success of the UCS struggle. The Foundation in his name needs to adopt a similar innovative perspective if it is to be successful in making relevant the vision that Jimmy had for Scotland and to do so in the twenty-first century. The proposals set out here in regard work, employment and the economy are offered as suggestions of some concrete means to do so. Whether they exactly hit the spot or not is less important than generating the discussion and debate about the kind of ideas and proposals that are needed to effect radical social change in this arena. From consensus upon ideas can then come consensus upon action.