A report from GMB Young London – A fight worthy of persistence

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Putting workers on boards is a fight worthy of persistence - By Finn O’Dwyer-Cunliffe

Many of us will remember Theresa May’s first, most encouraging, pledge: to protect the interests of workers, proffered in a speech the day before her elevation to the position of Prime Minister last summer.

Having discussed her desire to address society’s “burning injustices” and create “a country that works for everyone”, the former Home Secretary announced a plan to put workers on corporate governing boards and cement the Conservative Party’s place “at the service” of working people.

Four months later, May dropped her promise to ‘challenge the system’, replacing lofty rhetoric with whimpers of allowing companies to find the model of governance which “works best for them.”

The upshot being nothing will change, and an opportunity for progress is missed. In the wake of the introduction of the much amended and broadly criticised Trade Union Act last year, it is crucial that workers’ rights are not only protected in their current state, but genuinely enhanced.

A move towards ensuring employee representation on company boards could have been a nice start.

Alas, it is not to be; though the trade union movement fights on, and will continue to speak up for workers suffering discrimination and exploitation in the workplace.

Irrespective of May's homeopathic dilution of her opening hand; representation at board level is something we, the press and public, should not give up on, and an issue for which we must hold the Government to account.

Workers have been represented on company boards across the OECD for years, and in Europe it has become a particularly well embedded practice.

19 EU states, including Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Ireland and Spain have provisions to place workers on governing boards - and most of these nations have a better Gini coefficients than the UK, as in less of a problem with rampant inequality. Workers on boards isn't the only measure which helps with this, but it's important.

There are few, if any, good reasons the UK should not emulate our European neighbours. CEOs and directors are wary of upsetting the balance of power in their companies, but arguments against granting a voice to the powerless based on the concept of “disruption” have been periodically thrown out and left to rot in the wake of history’s most significant and progressive events - think of women and the working class attaining the right to vote, or emancipation.

Perhaps the hardest part of this battle will be to change attitudes at boardroom level. With a Conservative Government in power, and the Prime Minister reneging on her commitment to elevate social justice, workers must try to convince their bosses that employee representation at the highest level is important.

The benefit is not only to unions and those employees working further down the food chain but also to senior managers, to ensure the health of organisations as a whole.

I’ll never forget the disdainful look I earned from a member of senior management at a previous job upon suggesting the organisation would benefit from employee representation on its governing board.

The executive sharply asked in return, “why would we do that?” I may not have answered in the most eloquent and convincing manner, but were I to be asked the question again, I would say that putting workers on boards: gives employees a feeling of ownership and attachment to their workplace, strengthens their sense of value, aids workplace camaraderie, improves channels of communication, and - most importantly - gives workers a say in decisions affecting their future and the future of organisations they’re dedicated to.

Worker representation on boards should not be seen as the start of a Marxist coup, but a means of promoting communication and collaboration across all levels of an organisation, and indirectly sustaining and evolving capitalism by reigning in its excesses.

The thing that strikes me about the way my old colleague responded is that – rather than indicating sarcasm or superiority – the retort revealed a complete lack of awareness of the benefits such a change could bring.

Whilst the Government may have retreated to a safe space on this issue, the rest of society must push for wider acknowledgement of the benefits of putting workers on boards; in doing so play our part in creating businesses and societies which truly work for everyone.