Ahead of the annual gathering of trade unions Maurice Glasman has set out his ideas for a new partnership between unions, Labour and business in an interview for Unions21. He says businesses “do not think the coalition government is serious about growth”, and says they think it would a “great idea” for Labour and the unions to be “partners in growth”.
In the interview, published in the Unions 21 journal Forefront (pdf), Lord Glasman gives unions 18 months to transform their language and agenda in order to forge such a partnership, that “we’re either going to have a partnership agenda, or we’re not”.
At London Citizens, Glasman worked on the living wage campaign so contracted-out cleaners, cooks and security guards could be paid enough to make ends meet without having to do two jobs. Ten years of community organising have imbued in Glasman a strong belief in the power of ethical social institutions, and clear views on how unions can maximise their power by working more closely with organisations such as London Citizens.
One of the recommendations from Unions21’s recent focus-group work with young people (pdf) was that groups of young workers should be brought together to be invited to join unions, to avoid any fear of isolation.
Glasman’s work with domestic workers brought him to the same conclusion:
“I was involved with organising migrant worker nannies, domestic workers, in New York State with the IAF. We flew them to a hotel, got them together, and got them to talk to each other about what their issues were.
“What was incredible was that out of those 300 nannies all of them were prepared to pay a not insubstantial part of their wages to join a union that could articulate their concerns.
“They were getting sexual harassment, exploitation. It only grew out of them meeting each other, they had to have that initial investment to get them together. They came from all over the world but what they found when they got together was they had the same issues.”
From such experiences, he brings a vision of a greater potential for unions to bring people together around a common cause, and encourage relationships to be built, with action to follow.
A recent Unions21 YouGov survey (pdf) found only 15 per cent of non-members believe unions are good at improving productivity or quality of work; Glasman believes this reflects a feeling of resentment that can be tackled by visible support for good work and increased productivity:
“If people knew you could join a union, get on, and protect each other it would be transformative – we’ve got to find a way, to put it bluntly, of supporting good work. There needs to be a complete transformation of the language and agenda of unions.”
Glasman believes unions must work harder to show they are willing to work with management to improve businesses, an approach Unions21/YouGov polling (pdf) indicates could be popular, with 77% working people expressed a strong preference for a union approach based on working with management to improve the workplace and working conditions.
On the relationship between unions and business, he says unions need to show the value employee engagement can bring to an organisation, that unions bring benefits to businesses through improved accountability, and better decisions are made when the view from the shop floor is taken into account.
Glasman says that failure to do so was part of the reason for the financial crash:
“The crash was down to a lack of accountability in firms – accountability is too important to be left to accountants. They were doing leverage beyond human imagination and no-one was calling them on it. The crash was a disaster for businesses and now they acknowledge the need for change.”
Central to his vision is the example of union partnership in the success of the German economy:
“With its worker representation on the management board, works councils, pension co-determination, regional banks and vocational regulation, in other words with high levels of democratic interference in the economy, Germany has emerged with a more efficient workforce, greater growth and with a genuinely modern industrial sector.”
And on Labour’s relationship with the unions, Glasman views trade unions as the natural partners of Labour in the fight for the good, because of their closeness to ordinary people – but believes it will be challenging to ensure they work better together:
“This is going to be sorted out within 18 months. We’re either going to have a partnership agenda, or we’re not.
“Private sector growth, a positive role for unions, more power for workers. This is a programme that can be presented with broad support. If unions can show they are willing to change this is what we can do.”