Author: Paul Hindley

Recently, Britain witnessed a series of rail strikes across three alternate days leading to six days of disruption on the railways. The railway union, the RMT, have not ruled out a future series of strike action in the weeks to come. The threat of industrial action is not just limited to the railways. Nurses, teachers and barristers are also considering industrial action. Britain may well be on the verge of a summer of discontent.

This is yet another consequence of the cost of living crisis. The squeeze on living standards that is being caused by rising inflation is adding to demands from the trade unions for higher wages for their members. This comes on top of years of stagnant wage growth in the public sector stretching back to the years of austerity in the early 2010s. The cost of living crisis is nothing new, it has been a lived reality for the poorest working class communities for well over a decade. The difference now is that due to rising inflation, this crisis is gathering pace and is starting to impact upon the budgets of middle class families.

All of which has summoned memories of the 1970s. However, it is important to recognise that Britain is not going to experience the level of strife and militancy that was seen in the 1970s. In 1970 alone, 10 million working days were lost due to strike action. Today, the trade union movement is much weaker and with a much smaller membership base than was the case in the 1970s. For any capitalist economy to be fair, it requires an active trade union base. There will come times when trade unions have to collectively bargain and strike to achieve fairer pay and conditions for their members. In fact, part of the reason for the stagnant wage growth in the public sector is due to the weakness of the labour movement, not its strength.

The Conservative Party will nevertheless use this opportunity to resume its historic role as the class warriors fighting for the interests of capital against labour. The Tories have been vociferously anti-trade unionist for decades. Tory ministers will actively use the opportunity of the RMT strike to drive forward their own divisive right-wing politics in an attempt to drive a wedge between the public and the trade unions, while the Labour Party of Keir Starmer seems adrift in the face of the current industrial action, devoid of big ideas and unable to develop a compelling narrative to advance social justice and workers’ rights.

The industrial strife of the past must never return. But equally, we must recognise that the crushing victory of Thatcherism in the 1980s, along with the impact of austerity in the 2010s, has left workers powerless and with stagnant wages. Labour both appears to be unwilling and reluctant to revisit the anti-trade union laws of the past. Besides, even if it was possible to unleash trade union militancy again, this would only play into the hands of the Conservatives. The rise of Thatcherism in the 1970s was helped, in part, by the industrial unrest of the period.

The real radical response to industrial unrest is not to unleash it, but to seek to end it once and for all. Not by having a crushing victory over either capital or labour, but by forging industrial harmony between the two sides of economic life. This is the stance of social liberals. Social liberals neither except the militancy of hard-line socialists, nor the economic hardships of ruthless employers. In the historic class struggle, social liberals sought to build a bridge between bosses and workers. On the one hand, supporting social welfare, public services and rights for workers, while on the other hand valuing the contribution of ethical employers and socially responsible businesses.

Social liberals however, do not think it is sufficient just to guarantee that workers and employers exist and operate within a framework of fairness. What is needed to establish industrial harmony is for power to be shared between capital and labour and for the two to work in tandem with one another. This is epitomised by the social liberal commitment to co-determination. It is not enough just to ensure a fairer firm and a fairer set of labour relations; the whole nature and power structures of the firm and labour relations need to be radically overhauled.

Co-determination is where both workers and bosses would act as partners within the company, firm and workplace. The employees would be able to elect a works council. This would be made entirely of worker representatives and would address matters in the workplace such as, terms of employment, human resources and worker productivity. In the age of the Internet, E-democracy holds out the prospect of workers being able to participate in workplace elections across a large geographical area. Platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams could enable elected members of a works council to convene with each other virtually at opposite ends of a country, or even on the other side of the planet. The capacity for virtual works councils elected via E-democracy, only strengthens the contemporary relevance and necessity for co-determination.

The members of the works council would also in turn be able to elect representatives onto the overarching company board to sit alongside traditional professional managers and senior stakeholders. It is not enough just to have a single tokenistic worker representative on a company board. Social liberals must strive for worker representation on company boards to range from 33% of the board to 50%. Such a model of co-determination as outlined here has proven to be successful in Germany, especially in post-war West Germany. It has led to higher productivity, higher worker satisfaction and personal welfare and greater ethical conduct by the company management. In time, it is also reasonable to assume that co-determination would result in fairer wage rises for workers and less need for industrial action, due to greater levels of engagement between employers and employees.

Co-determination represents a form of industrial or economic democracy. Radical liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, John Dewey and Jo Grimond were committed supporters of expanding democracy into the workplace. The social liberal commitment to co-determination should not be seen as an unpalatable compromise between capital and labour. In reality, it represents the empowerment of workers after decades of neoliberal disempowerment, demoralisation and economic hardships. Workers would be given a democratic voice and have the ability to exercise power within the workplace to the benefit of the workforce and the firm overall.

Strike action is not glorious, it is a reluctant necessary evil for every worker involved. Bulging executive pay packets in an age of food banks is not a sign of economic progress, it is a sign of fundamental hardship, even oppression within the economy. It is the job of social liberals to end all forms of hardship and oppression. It is the job of social liberals to build a new more egalitarian model of capitalism, one built on social justice and co-determination. One which ensures social welfare and public services to the least advantaged members of society, while giving all workers a democratic voice and a degree of power within their workplaces.

The strife and class warring of the past must be rejected. Economic hardship and workplace oppression severely restricts an individual’s freedom and autonomy. The time has come for co-determination. The time has come to truly empower workers in partnership with their management. The time has come to strive for industrial harmony. Let this be the mantra of social liberals in the trying economic times to come.

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