Sunday, 24 May 2009

Trade Unions & Employee Ownership: Mutually Exclusive?


On Friday I chaired the afternoon session of a lively, enjoyable event that had been organised jointly between Unions21, Ruskin College and Cooperatives UK, the umbrella body for the cooperative/employee-owned sector. The agenda for the event can be seen at:

Somewhat controversially the event was kicked off by Hazel Blears who, recent events apart, was welcome to the event as someone who had supported cooperative ideals not least as a method to support community cohesion and development. Pictured left also is Sue Ferns (Chair, Unions21) and Pauline Green (Chief Executive, Cooperatives UK).

The catalyst for the event was the need to stimulate some debate about a rejuvenation of activity between the cooperative and labour movements.

Although there is much mutually advantageous, collaborative work that can be done the event partly focused on the potentially contentious issue of the consideration of employee ownership/social enterprise in a situation of the externalising of public sector services.

Guy Collis, UNISON policy officer gave a largely oppositional view while Mick Taylor of Mutual Advantage outlined several case studies where employee ownership had safeguarded jobs, secured union recognition and improved terms and conditions of employment.

The event was a great opportunity to air and debate the issues surrounding this and will act as a springboard to further investigating the nature of joint work between the trade unions and the cooperative movement.

It will be interesting to have your views pro/anti about the concept of social enterprise as a route to safeguarding jobs.




Never Surrender! said...

I can't get my head around this one.

Why are you proposing that trade unions run businesses?

Bosses run businesses and unions resist what they do. If workers ran a business where do unions fit in?

Is this another strategy to try and kill of the union movement?

Seems off that you spent a day with other people (Hazel Blears!!!) discussing how best to destroy the movement.

Del Ansar said...

Hi Ian,

Must admit that like the last person I am not sure what you are after here.

Are you suggesting that when services are being transferred from the public sector that the union buys them and runs them?


Jenny Harvey said...

Social Enterprise is a no no at the mo for us in PCT land. Still two many unanswered questions.

As for the principle of employee ownership. Well the amount of shares invested by LG pension funds in some private contractors, could mean that effectively they do.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Jenny (and other colleagues who posted a response),

Can I just clarify firstly that employee ownership does not mean that a trade union moves to become the employer through a bid for the externalised services.

The concept is that the employees, and only in the right cirumstances, consider a bid to run the services. Have a look at the web-site of for examples.

Jenny, you raise a wholly valid point also which, added to current state aid for the banking sector, that the public already has significant stakes in private enterprises.

This post, as with the event on Friday, is exactly what I had hoped for which is at least some debate about the merits or not of employee ownership and the role, or not, that trade unions can play.



Alan said...

Like my NHS colleague previously all of this does make me nervous.

The critically important issue for me is to simply defend public services not suggest that there is an alternative.

Sadly the government has latched onto the employee-owned concept by setting up the Social Enterprise Unit within the NHS - and I don't see why union's should aim to do the government's bidding for them.

I have no doubt that there is the odd example where this can work, but the NHS is splintering at too great a rate to suggest that employee ownership is sufficient a response to safeguard employee interests.

The best, and indeed, only response is a trade union one.


John Atherton said...

Worker ownership of business can be a difficult concept to get your head round.

Co-operatives, through their focus on member involvment can fully engage workers and other stakeholders in decision making. But this does not mean a reduced need for trade unions.

Suma one of the largest worker co-operatives has about 70% union membership and the union play a clear role within the business.

Although all members are both employees and owner/managers,
conflict between these two roles can still occur and trade unions are best placed to meet this need for a third party.

Using co-operatives as a vehicle for public service delivery is just one approach and i believe a better approach than shareholder, or entrepreneur led businesses delivering these services.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi John,

Many thanks for your input.

By coincidence SUMA was represented at the event on Friday and, as you say, membership density is high and members have no sense of displacement.

Basically, trade union membership is cognisant with concepts of free, independent trade unionism.

I agree that worker cooperatives is one approach amongst many for public service delivery, but it can be one of the better options.

Thanks again John.