The first of May every year is universally known as May Day and May Day is most commonly identified as International Workers’ Day. Three hundred and sixty four days a year are those dominated by capital given we live in a capitalist society so to have a day for labour and labourers is, at least, a token acknowledgment that, according to Karl Marx, workers do, in fact, create all the wealth in society.
The battle between capital (employers) and labour (workers) over how to distribute the wealth made by capitalists when they put workers to work as well as the conditions under which workers work for the capitalists has been an unceasing one since capitalism first emerged in the early nineteenth century.
This battle has taken many forms, giving rise to the ideologies of social democracy, socialism, communism and anarchism. However, all of these ideologies have been in retreat for more than 40 years as a rampant form of super-charged capitalism, called neo-liberalism, has dominated the economic, political and social landscapes of the globe. Britain is one of the countries that has experienced and continues to experience one of the most far-reaching experiments in neo-liberalism, the notion that the unregulated market is the best means of organising economy and society.
Yet the battle by capital to dominate and control labour has not been fully won. Emerging from the contemporary and historical experiences of workers’ struggles, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has recently published a vision for economic and industrial democracy where strategies and tactics for workers re-gaining control over the workplaces they work in and the work they engage in. Jimmy Reid was a communist and the leader of the successful mass struggle of shipyard workers’ in Scotland to save their jobs by establishing a novel work-in between 1972 and 1973.
Called ‘Rights and Respect: a vision for democracy in the workplace’, the vision comprises proposals on workplace and sectoral collective bargaining, right to take industrial action, co-determination, encroachment, public ownership, worker cooperatives and tripartism. It then discusses how these can be achieved.
These proposals are all the more pertinent as the present Westminster government’s Trade Union Bill will shortly become law. The Bill will undermine workers’ rights and enhance the power and control of managers and employers. But even without it, workers in their workplaces still continue to experience a fundamental lack of democracy and control at work. Currently, Scotland and Britain are in the bottom half of the European league table for democracy at work.
The right to sectoral bargaining is worth highlighting in particular as a means to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ by taking out wages and conditions as a factor of competition between companies in the same sector. A form of co-determination is also worth highlighting so that workers can have their own representatives on the board of directors of the organisations they employ them.
In themselves the various proposals put forward are not new but what is new is using them together as a joined up, strategic means to solve a much longer standing issue of disempowerment and disenfranchisement in the workplace. Some of the proposals would provide for workers the greater ability to advance and defend their interests at work on immediate and day-to-day issues in the workplace – on such issues not just as pay but also the organisation of work – while others would allow workers to influence the decision making process within employing organisations and at the level of the economy. Without the latter, any advances in the former could be undermined.
It is fitting on May Day, International Workers’ Day, to draw attention to these proposals so that there is the hope that in the not too distant future there will be more than just one day a year that is given over to acknowledging and celebrating workers and the wealth they create.
The full report is available at http://reidfoundation.org/2016/02/democracy-at-work-launch-of-jrf-report-on-economic-and-industrial-democracy/