I can’t believe it’s not a trade union!
Should we denounce these mechanisms as toothless alternatives to undermine trade unionism? Or should we work with them, to complement our work, or convert them into genuinely representative bodies?
Our good friends at Labour Behind the Label have just realised their latest “Let’s clean up fashion” report. It contains an in-depth look at what some of the major high street brands are doing – or not doing, as is more often the case – on making sure workers making their clothes get a living wage.
It provides a thoughtful and technical look at the steps needed to deliver a decent wage – and fundamental to that is having a union in the workplace to bargain for it. But a key problem identified by the report is that companies are instead working with suppliers to set up “workers committees” – consultative workplace bodies usually under the thumb of management. As the report explains:
Most employers are instinctively hostile to trade union organising and to push for trade unions to be not just allowed but encouraged is a difficult task. Brands and retailers therefore view workers’ committees as an easier way of getting worker representation into their projects. The trouble is workers’ committees not only fall short of genuine attempts to organise, they carry the risk of actually undermining the setting up of independent and effective trade unions.
And this trend of “union-lite” is growing in the UK. As Chris Wright states on this blog: “unions face the reality of an increasing trend among employers to use non-union mechanisms for communicating with their workers.” (Chris goes into this in much more detail in his recent paper for ACAS see pages 4-5) .
As union activists, to what extent can we work with such mechanism, or transform them into genuine trade unions? Are there examples out there that we can draw upon? Or should we just give them the red card?