Fabian Pamphlet on the Future of Industrial Democracy : Part 1

The Future of Industrial Democracy, by William McCarthy (London: Fabian Society 1988).

A few days ago I put up a piece about a Fabian Society pamphlet on Workers’ Control in Yugoslavia, by Frederick Singleton and Anthony Topham. This discussed the system of workers’ self-management of industry introduced by Tito in Communist Yugoslavia, based on the idea of Edvard Kardelj and Milovan Djilas, and what lessons could be learnt from it for industrial democracy in Britain.

William McCarthy, the author of the above pamphlet, was a fellow of Nuffield College and lecturer in industrial relations at Oxford University. From 1979 onwards he was the Labour party spokesman on employment in the House of Lords. He was the author of another Fabian pamphlet, Freedom at Work: towards the reform of Tory employment law.

The pamphlet followed the Bullock report advocating the election of workers to the management board, critiquing it and advocating that the system should be extended to firms employing fewer than the thousands of employees that were the subject of reforms suggested by Bullock. The blurb for the pamphlet on the back page runs

The notion of industrial democracy – the involvement of employees in managerial decisions – has been around at least since the time of the Guild Socialists. However, there has been little new thinking on the subject since the Bullock Committee reported in the 1970s. This pamphlet redresses this by re-examining the Bullock proposals and looking at the experience of other European countries.

William McCarthy outlines the three main arguments for industrial democracy:
* it improves business efficiency and performance;
* most workers want a greater say in their work environment;
* a political democracy which is not accompanied by some form of industrial power sharing is incomplete and potentially unstable.

He believes, however, that the emphasis should no longer be on putting “workers in the boardroom.” Instead, he argues that workers ought to be involved below the level of the board, through elected joint councils at both plant and enterprise levels. These councils would have the right to be informed about a wide range of subjects such as on redundancies and closures. Management would also be obliged to provide worker representatives with a full picture of the economic and financial position of the firm.

William McCarthy argues that Bullock’s plan to limit worker directors to unionised firms with over 2,000 workers is out of date. it would exclude over two thirds of the work force and would apply only to a steadily shrinking and increasingly atypical fraction of the total labour force. As the aim should be to cover the widest possible number, he advocates the setting up of the joint councils in all private and public companies, unionised or otherwise, that employ more than 500 workers.

In all cases a majority of the work force would need to vote in favour of a joint council. This vote would be binding on the employer and suitable sanctions would be available to ensure enforcement.

Finally, he believes that this frame of industrial democracy would allow unions an opportunity to challenge their negative and reactionary image and would demonstrate the contribution to better industrial relations and greater economic efficiency which can be made by an alliance between management, workers and unions.

The contents consist of an introduction, with a section of statutory rights, and then the following chapters.

1: The Objectives of Industrial Democracy, with sections on syndicalism, Job Satisfaction and Economic and Social Benefits;

2: Powers and Functions, with sections on information, consultation, areas of joint decision, union objection, and co-determination;

3: Composition and Principles of Representation, with sections on selectivity, the European experience, ideas and legal framework.

Chapter 4: is a summary and conclusion.

The section on Syndicalism gives a brief history of the idea of industrial democracy in Britain from the 17th century Diggers during the British Civil War onwards. It says

The first of these [arguments for industrial democracy – employee rights] is as old as socialism. During the seventeenth century, Winstanley and the Diggers advocated the abolition of landlords and a system of production based on the common ownership of land. During the first half o the 19th century, Marx developed his doctrine that the capitalist system both exploited and “alienated” the industrial workers, subjecting them to the domination of the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production. Under capitalism, said Marx, workers lost all control over the product of their labour and “work became a means to an end, rather than an end to itself” (see Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, R. Tucker, Cambridge University Press, 1961). During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Sorel and his followers developed the notion of “revolutionary syndicalism” – a form of socialism under which the workers, rather than the state, would take over the productive resources of industry. Syndicalists were influential in Europe and America in the years before the First World War. They advocated industrial action, rather than the use of the ballot box, as a means of advancing to socialism (see The Wobblies, P. Renshaw, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967).

In Britain, syndicalism came to adopt a more constitutionalist form with the formation of the guild socialists. They did not reject the use of parliamentary action, but argued that a political democracy which was not accompanied by some form of industrial power sharing was incomplete and potentially unstable. This was the basic argument of their most distinguished theoretician, G.D.H. Cole. In more recent times a trenchant restatement of this point of view can be found in Carole Pateman’s Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

In his earliest writing Cole went as far as to argue that socialism required that that “the workers must election and control their managers”. As he put it “In politics, we do not call democratic a system in which the proletatiat has the right to organise and exercise what pressure it can on an irresponsible body of rulers: we call it a modified aristocracy; and the same name adequately describes a similar industrial structure” (The World of Labour,Bell, 1913).

Subsequently Cole came to feel that continued existence of a private sector, plus the growth of collective bargaining, required some modification of the syndicalist doctrine behind Guild Socialism. By 1957, he was arguing for workers to be given “a partnership status in private firms, “sharing decisions” with the appropriate level of management C The Case for Industrial Partnership, MacMillan, 1957. This is very much the position advanced by Carole Pateman after her critique of more limited theories of democracy-eg those advanced by Schumpeter and others. These “minimalist” democrats took the view that in the context of the modern state, the most one could demand of a democracy was that it should provide a periodic electoral contest between two competing political elites. After reviewing examples of industrial democracy at work in a number of countries Pateman concluded “…it becomes clear that neither the demands for more participation, not the theory of participatory democracy itself, are based, as is so frequently claimed, on dangerous illusions or on an outmoded and unrealistic theoretical foundation. We can still have a modern, viable theory of democracy which retains the notion of participation at its heart.” (op. cit.)

Continued in Part 2, which will cover the sections on the pamphlet ‘Ideas’ and ‘Legal Framework’.


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