Bill Mullins, Southwark Socialist Party
In her Tory party conference speech on 5 October, Theresa May sought to reposition the ‘nasty party’ more to the centre and away from the legacy of Thatcher.
Claiming the Tories to be the “party of workers”, May said there will be consumers and workers represented on company boards, while employment rights will be protected and enhanced.
Given that the Tories have introduced more anti-trade union laws since they won the 2015 general election these ‘promises’ look highly unlikely to say the least.
The reference to workers’ representatives on company boards also has many dangers.
The bosses have from time to time played with this idea – not to give more say to their workers but to try and ensnare the workforce. The idea is to make workers responsible for the state of the company, without giving them any real say.
The Tories recognise that the growing discontent of the mass of working people with the way the economy is developing – not for them but for the small super-rich minority – is leading to a groundswell of opposition to their rule.
This has manifested itself around the Corbyn movement in the political sphere, but in the future it will begin to also develop in opposition to the bosses in the workplace (see Trade Unions and the Gig Economy, Socialism Today, October 2016).
The idea that workers’ representatives on the boards of companies will make any difference is a complete myth. The only real way that workers will have an effective say in what is going on is through strong trade union organisation.
Jeremy Corbyn recognised this in his Labour conference speech: “We will strengthen working people’s representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise so that working people have a real voice at work.”
In the 1970s, when trade union membership was twice the size it is now (13 million peak in 1979 compared to today’s 6.5 million), the capitalist class was desperate to curtail the strength of the unions at work. One idea they came up with was also having workers’ representatives on the management boards of the big companies.
The 1977 Bullock report (named after Lord Bullock, the chairman of the committee charged by the Labour government to introduce so-called ‘workers’ democracy’) proposed a system of a single tier company board made up of shareholders and union members with equal representation and another third chosen by the first two parts (the so called 2 X+Y group).
Militant, forerunner of the Socialist, explained that this was an attempt to “marry the irreconcilable interests of the capitalist class and the working class”.
As long as the economy is in private ownership and subject to the periodic crises of capitalism, then the system proposed by Bullock (backed up by the trade union leaders on the committee) would mean the workers and their trade unions taking responsibility for carrying through mass sackings and plant closures to make the companies profitable against their competitors!
This was the system developed in Germany in the post-war period known as ‘co-determination’ – with workers on supervisory boards but with no right to strike, rubber stamping the business decisions of the directors.
One worker representative after experiencing this process said what they wanted instead was “a shop stewards system similar to the one in Britain”.
In the 1970s at British Leyland (the former UK car manufacturer) the commercial crisis in the company led to the independence of the shop stewards committees being undermined by what was called a “participation committees system” (read more in Bill’s book ‘On The Track’).
Only strong trade union organisation in the workplace, not the myth of workers on the boards of big companies, is effective in improving workers’ pay and conditions. Real workers’ management can only be achieved by implementing socialist policies – nationalising major industry under democratic workers’ control and management.