LETTER TO THE TIMES 3 April 1973
From Mr P J Collier
I was interested to read Elliott Jaques’ article on workers’ directors in the Times of March 12. A point however puzzles me: Jaques himself remarks that if participation is to be real it must be based on a full recognition of the realities of power in industrial organisation. Since at no point does he give serious attention to either unions or collective bargaining, I am inclined to wonder just what are the political realities that he is claiming to recognise.
If participation is to be based on the realities of power and conflict in industrial organisation, then there can be no escape from the fact that unions must be involved. For essentially the right to veto policy cannot be made effective as Jaques suggests by constitutional guarantees alone. The only guarantee that a veto will be effective is the organisation and strength to strike.
Now this is a fundamental point that poses very serious problems for advocates of workers’ councils. Are unions to be incorporated into the council system, or is the proposed system to be kept separate from that of collective bargaining? If unions and councils are to be kept independent of each other, then as experience with joint consultation has amply proved, no constitutional guarantees will establish more than the meaningless charade that Jaques professes anxiety to avoid. But if on the other hand the works council is to be built upon the framework of plant or company collective bargaining, and this may well mean to exclusion of non-union employees, a fresh approach to the whole problem is required. What must be examined is the scope collective bargaining offers for the development of a high degree of participation.
Despite the probability of continuing growth of collective bargaining over the next decade or so – stemming in part from the growth of white-collar unionism – I do not see collective bargaining providing an adequate basis for a participative system. For firstly I am not convinced that even such an extended system will give the effective influence that is required in relation to major questions of company policy: for instance, the opening and closing of plant, the planning of investment and the distribution of profits. But secondly if representation is effective at this level, the result may only be a destructive polarisation of attitudes. For the present organisational framework is likely to prove inadequate.
Two considerations underlie this point. Firstly we are living in a time of increasing industrial conflict: the framework of consensus politics and pf moderate union leadership that characterised society at the time for instance Jaques was consultant to the Glacier Metal Company, has largely passed. As a result an institution or procedure that would have been effective in the resolution of conflict may now prove to be inadequate.
Secondly the growing influence of financial institutions in the boards of companies may have the effect of intensifying rather than moderating the degree of conflict in industrial organisations. For surely the central lesson of post-war experience in West Germany is that an effective system for the supply of capital to industry – something that we manifestly lack at present – is likely to be accompanied by increasing financial intervention and representation in the boards of companies. I would suggest that in the present situation, the only effect of such a development would be an exacerbation of conflict.
In the case of such an occurrence, the principle of workers’ directors once again becomes very relevant – and there is no reason in principle why directors must be appointed as Jacques seems to think. What the establishment of workers’ directors may provide is an important means whereby shared norms and shared values can be established that may moderate rather than intensify the extent of conflict. Thus workers’ directors must be seen as a further method whereby the intricate weave of relations and institutions that is the basis of this pluralist society is maintained and strengthened.
Peter J Collier.