Workplace revolution promised by Labour?

As the contest heats up with ballots papers now out ahead of the end of the voting period on 21 September, and the announcement of the result on 24 September, it is clear that Owen Smith has had to tack left to have any hope of credibly competing with Jeremy Corbyn. This is evident particularly in regard of his policy on reforming workers’ rights in the workplace. This short article looks at the policies of both candidates and critiques them.

Smith’s ‘Workplace Manifesto’ in his own words, promises a ‘revolution in workers’ rights … [making] Britain the envy of the world for employment rights’. Amongst these are strengthening union recognition rights, providing mandatory access arrangements to workplaces for unions, removing unfair obstacles to industrial action, modernising balloting with e-balloting to increase participation, creating worker representation on all remuneration committees, and repealing the Trade Union Act 2016 immediately on taking office.

The strength of his manifesto is that it seems to cover almost all areas of concern with something said about each. In that sense, it is more joined up. Yet it also reads like a rather overly long and quickly drawn up shopping list and there is considerable inexactitude in a number of his key proposals. For example, in calling for the strengthening of union recognition rights to provide for recognition where majority support exists, it is not clear how this is an advance on the current arrangements embodied in the Employment Relations Act 1999. What needs to be offered instead are means to prevent employers working to stop union members becoming a majority. Another case is that in providing mandatory access arrangements to workplaces for unions ‘where requested by workers’ this could allow employers to influence workers so that they are convinced not to request it. It would be far simpler and better to have a universal right to access. Two further examples are that in a) suggesting worker representation on remuneration committee, just like with Theresa May’s proposal on worker directors, the critical issue of the balance of numbers and power between workers and managers is not spelt out; and b) providing ‘a legal framework for voluntary sectoral collective bargaining’ shows the ineptitude of not understanding the distinction between statutory and voluntary mechanisms to the effect that this undermines the potency of the former by the latter.

But more important than these points is that Smith’s pledges lack credibility because it is Smith that is making them. His voting record since entering Parliament in 2010 and his previous career suggest (working for drug company, Pfizer, as a lobbyist) that, as alluded to earlier, he is only proffering them in order to necessarily compete with Corbyn on the ground that is now the centre of gravity within the extra-Westminster Labour Party, namely, the left. The suspicion might then arise amongst voters that Smith is a ‘Johnny come lately’ and would then unceremoniously drop such pledges once the contest is over. By contrast, Corbyn has long advocated the kind of views that he does in this contest so his credibility in doing so is the reverse of that of Smith.

Corbyn’s proposals on workplace rights are to be found as one of the ten pledges of his manifesto. The pledge in full reads:

We will give people stronger employment rights from day one in a job, end exploitative zero hours contracts and create new sectoral collective bargaining rights, including mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees. We will create new employment and trade union rights to bring security to the workplace and win better pay and conditions for everyone. We will strengthen working people’s representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise so that working people have a real voice at work. And we will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe.

His commitment to utilise the law to create new rights rather than suggest voluntary codes is to be welcomed, especially on the issue of the legal right to sectoral collective bargaining for if bargaining rights only exist at the enterprise or company level, the terms and conditions of workers in different companies in the same sector would still be the subject of downward pressure in a ‘race to the bottom’ as companies compete against each other on the basis of labour costs. But the absence of any further detail is still noticeable and of concern. In particular the statement that: ‘We will strengthen working people’s representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise so that working people have a real voice at work’ is woefully inadequate. Another example of the lack of thought out proposals concerns Corbyn’s pledge of mandatory union recognition in companies of over 250 employees (which is the standard definition of a SME (Small and Medium Enterprise). This pledge ignores that:

  1. Companies will reorganise themselves into units of less than 250 employees to avoid such a new law if they so wish;
  2. The majority of employees (in 2015, 15.6m or 60% of those in the private sector) work in companies of less than 250 employees;
  3. Guaranteeing the right of the process of collective bargaining does not mean the outcomes of collective bargaining are any good – cuts to jobs as well as terms and conditions (pay, pensions etc) happen in unionised workplaces as well as non-unionised ones.

So this pledge needs to be rethought in order to see, inter alia, i) the creation of a ‘duty to bargain’ obligation where outcomes can be broadly specified; ii) the introduction of a United States style but stronger ‘unfair labour practices’ offence so that employers are barred from undermining the ability of unions to organise so that they can exert the necessary leverage over employers in collective bargaining; and iii) obstacles placed in the way of employers circumventing any size threshold by re-organising and configuring their operations.

Sympathetic commentators have noted similar problems with Corbyn’s pledges here. Writing in the Morning Star (3 August 2016), Keith Ewing, John Hendy and Carolyn Jones from the Institute of Employment Rights noted that ‘Most employment is with small and medium-sized employers (SMEs). To get the economic benefits, especially by the avoidance of undercutting, it is essential that all businesses in an industrial sector are bound by the same conditions … Enterprise level agreements, even with the biggest firms, simply cannot either prevent bad employers undercutting or raise income across the working population’. This is a precursor to their promotion of their Manifesto for Labour Law: towards a comprehensive revision of workers’ rights which is a worked out and thought through set of proposals.

The sets of proposals from Smith and Corbyn are to be welcomed. Notwithstanding their weaknesses (Corbyn, Smith) and doubts over the degree of commitment to them (Smith), they present an opportunity to re-open a public debate on a long marginalised subject, namely, levelling up workers’ rights and asserting the rights of labour over capital. They open the door to the ability advocate truly radical demands like maximum wages, where the highest remunerated (that is, not just pay) is paid no more than a set ratio of what the lowest remunerated are paid. This could be one-to-ten or one-to-five. It must be the job of the left-led unions and their activists to seize the opportunities presented by these proposals in order to develop more concrete and effective iterations of these so that the potential represented by the bald proposals can be fully realised. And within the confines of the Labour Party, such proposals must through the Workplace2020 consultation form the basis on which Labour fights the next general election.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and editor of the Scottish Left Review