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The Labour Party was conceived as a political-electoral wing of the labour movement, to give working people a voice by winning power in Parliament. As the industrial age ends and a new technological revolution approaches, what it means to be empowered and organised at work has changed. While some are given increasing autonomy and agency within their workplace, the collective power of working people is declining with falling unionisation and the growth of the gig economy. Zero-hour contracts promise flexibility, but remove rights to sick pay and pensions. As the party of labour, Labour must pose fundamental questions about the world of work, understand the changes taking place and explore how working people today are challenging, losing and building power in the current climate.
Fighting for legislation that protects the rights of workers has been a key plank of the Labour Party’s purpose since its beginnings. Labour has led on health and safety, working conditions, equalities and the minimum wage. But in this new era our “older power” method of legislation has failed to keep up with evolving forms of capitalism. From surveillance capitalism and platform capitalism to zero hours contracts, modern companies are finding ways to evade legislation aimed at protecting the rights of workers. So, what gaps in legislation are emerging which require a legislative ‘older power’ response from the state?
The movement away from having “employees” towards contracting out to people who are self-employed has meant that many companies no longer pay for employee benefits such as pensions and sick pay, putting pressure on a creaking state pension and benefits system, in which many more people are slipping through the welfare net. The pandemic has highlighted this situation, as many workers who weren’t entitled to sick pay were reluctant to stay at home even when they were infected, thus endangering others and forcing a reluctant state to step in. In-work benefits and Universal Credit are part of this ongoing shift towards the state taking over responsibilities that were once expected of employers. How do we ensure that new and emerging private enterprises pay their fair share and take on their responsibilities to employees?
From the increasing use of opaque algorithms to more sinister forms of workplace surveillance has led some to invent the term ‘surveillance capitalism’. The media reports that Amazon delivery drivers are coming down with UTIs after urinating in plastic bottles because they are unable to stop for toilet breaks. Monitoring of time spent on tasks has crept into white-collar desk jobs, with consequences for relationships with clients and consumers, and even into the measurement of time spent on caring tasks, where empathetic relationships are crucial to patient and employee well-being. Algorithmic management can obscure power dynamics at play within a workplace, making it less clear how workers are being managed or rewarded. There are serious questions about how performance data is collected and whether workers or unions have any access or rights to it.
At the same time, newer informal sources of power for some workers are growing. Many working in sectors in the “knowledge economy” are working in ways that facilitate collaboration and give them increasing autonomy in their roles. Robert Unger argues that in the knowledge economy in particular, success cannot be achieved through a command and control approach; the work itself requires a fluid, continuously learning team approach, which makes it impossible to have a stark contrast between supervisors and workers.6 These organisations often demonstrate strikingly better results, even in conventionally described terms. They tend to reduce hierarchy, encourage collaborative working, create space to hear from staff, engage them in decision-making and make management decisions more transparent.
“The drivers of productivity also appear to correspond to what people desire in their work, autonomy, influence and discretion over their labour, voice, responsive management, the prevalence of initiative taking, innovation, high-impact suggestion making and high productivity enhancing jobs.”7
The B Corps movement works globally to provide a standard by which to assess the commitment of organisations to work in different ways, measuring a company on a number of metrics: governance, workers, community, environment and consumers. B Corps companies change their legal status to demonstrate a primary duty not to shareholders, but to multiple stakeholders.9
While many organisations using ‘new power’ approaches have conventional capitalist goals, others are changing their sense of purpose. Co-operatives, employee-owned businesses, value and purpose-driven enterprises, voluntary organisations and activist organisations are using self-organising principles to do work differently. Some emerging new organisations are part campaigning and part solution-making, intent on protecting the environment, creating useful products out of recycled materials, or better food, or changing the way we care for each other. Laloux describes these ventures as ‘Teal’ organisations which he sees as the corresponding to the final ‘self-actualisation’ in Maslow’s hierarchy: authentic, integrated, seeing an organisation not as a machine, but as a living system. In his book ‘Reinventing Organisations’, he sets out different forms of organisation, from the most centralised to the most dispersed, giving each stage a colour. By examining pioneers of the Teal approach, he found that they had all independently through trial and error developed strikingly similar structures and practices.10
Robert Unger argues that currently these ‘new power’ work processes tend to be concentrated in the knowledge economy and that they can and should be extended to other parts of the economy.11
While new ways of working offer the promise of some forms of empowerment, there are still problems and in the absence of clear boundaries, workplace “culture” can be used to apply pressure to workers in exploitative ways. One startling case concerns BrewDog, a start-up company which prided itself on a good culture, crowdfunded by 130,000 small shareholders. As the company grew exponentially, the culture soured as the demands of capital weakened their earlier promise of empowerment. In the summer of 2021, 61 former workers circulated an open letter on Twitter accusing the co-founder of the company of fostering a “culture of fear” and bullying, in which workers were “treated like objects”.12
The class dimension to the question of company culture is often neglected. As Jon Cruddas argues, the knowledge economy still only accounts for a small percentage of jobs, while there has been a rapid growth of lower paid service sector jobs. Cruddas sees a wider role for government in setting out the values and legal framework that will protect dignity at work. As he says, dignity is elusive, but ‘implies human worth and acceptable moral standards in terms of rights, freedoms and obligations in the ways people live together”14 . He sets out to recover a politics of work which he believes the Left has lost – addressing meaning, identity and purpose. As Unger suggests, Labour should seek to extend the same empowering practices found in the knowledge economy to more economic sectors and at the same time seek to build a bridge between people across the economy around the need for dignity at work. As Jon Cruddas explains, we could view “the idea of human dignity as something that can transcend our divides, whether urban/rural, old/young, educated/less educated.” 15
Cruddas sees an important role for a future government of the Left in creating a new Good Work Covenant – including the right to good work, fair reward, decent conditions, equality, dignity, autonomy, well-being and support and enshrining participation and learning. Not bad for a start.
He draws our attention to the enabling factors that good government contributes: from a good economy, the education system, adult education and training, legal rights to workplace democracy, consultation rights to dignity at work, mental privacy and freedom from overbearing surveillance. He proposes a new labour market enforcement body, covering labour law, the gig economy, modern slavery, gang masters, statutory union recognition and the minimum wage. He suggests a new agency tasked with work assessment to address the ethical questions posed by new technologies.
Beyond this, we need government to protect us from patterns of work that steal people’s time from their other responsibilities. As Ruth Lister says, we need a fairer distribution of time, which in turn means a “fairer distribution of paid work and unpaid care work as between men and women.”16
We need to recognise the value, both in productivity and in human happiness, of fairer working hours. There are places across the world exploring how to balance work and leisure time. Valencia is already planning to introduce a four-day week17 and the most ambitious global trial has just got underway in the UK. France has passed a law forbidding companies to send and receive work emails outside working hours.18 Finland’s prime minister is calling for a shorter working week.19 Companies that have introduced shorter working hours report higher productivity, greater motivation and an ability to attract greater talent.20 Giving more workers control and choice over their working hours should remain a key goal for improving the nature of work.
Governments have a vital role in convening, regulating and investing, in signalling the direction of travel for an economy, by encouraging some developments and discouraging others and regulating to prevent abuse and dysfunction. Good organisations suffer in competition with bad organisations: they invest heavily in training, coaching, supervision, discussion, all of which is expensive. So, as well as encouraging and supporting the development of Teal organisations, governments can protect them from unfair competition from exploitative companies. One of the most important things a government can do is to change the way they measure value, signalling what is important within the economy. This could include counting the cost of pollution and environmental harm and outlawing the unfair advantages taken by cheating workers out of training or breaks. To create a fairer, more resilient economy, we need businesses that are focused on these longer-term goals. It may also mean an increasing focus on the foundational or everyday economy which provides the goods and services that people actually need. As Jess Prendergast describes in her work on “attachment economics” local businesses which contribute to longer term economic resilience are an important part of creating thriving places and local economies.21 If our vision of the future is one of empowered local places in which businesses, civil society and local government work together to create resilient communities, moving beyond a simplistic model of growth and recognising these broader contributions of business will be important. One step to recognising social purpose and social value would be to extend and support the B Corps assessments and reflect that in public procurement. Governments could make it easier for public bodies to support local businesses and socially valuable enterprises. Similarly, Ed Miliband, in his book ‘Go Big’ describes the campaign to convince governments to change the legal responsibilities of companies to move beyond just simply delivering for shareholders.22
Collective ownership models offer a way to ensure that power over a company’s purpose and work process is in the hands of the workers. This is a very old example of “new power”, which first emerged when the Rochdale Pioneers’ founded the first modern co-operative in 1844. 28 weavers and tradesman banded together to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford.
Many modern co-operatives are emerging, as people seek new ways to create value together. According to Co-operatives UK, the UK currently has 7,237 independent co-ops with a turnover of £39.7bn, 13.9 million members and 250,128 employees. Many of these businesses are more resilient than traditional corporate models with only 1.5% of co-ops dissolved in 2020 compared to 6.5% of businesses generally.23 Similarly, a report from Cooperatives UK in 2019 found that almost three out of four co-op start-ups (72%) continue to flourish after the difficult first five years of existence, compared to only 43% in the case of new companies.24
Co-operative enterprises can also bring together workers and consumers to meet local community needs. For example, there are plans to redevelop the Dewsbury Arcade to become the first ever UK community-owned Shopping Centre. The arcade, which dates back to the Victorian age, was closed in 2016. Now, a joint resident and local business-led group The Arcade Dewsbury intend to launch a community share offer to raise £150,000, for the first year’s lease and operating costs, with a focus on incubating local businesses and keeping wealth in the community.25 Here the co-operative structure gives a framework for place-based empowerment in which business and capital are marshalled for co-operative ends.
Other models include mutuals, employee ownership and worker representation on boards. John Lewis has a long history of employee ownership, a model which has proved to be remarkably resilient since its founding in 1864. A future Labour government could do far more to promote mutuals, co-operatives and employee ownership models, to educate people about how they work and make it far easier to set them up.
Another way Labour has empowered workers traditionally is through fostering trade unions. Trade unions were a constituent part of Labour’s founding coalition, but since the 1980s trade union membership within the UK has significantly declined. Membership is now concentrated in the public sector and 2016 legislation restricted the ability of trade unions to act, fund political parties and fulfil their founding purpose. Unions have also been slow to embrace new forms of technology and more participatory, welcoming ways of organising that might help them to grow and change.
In this gap, workers are finding new ways to organise: from Twitter movements calling out poor workplace practices, through hashtags to platforms such as Glassdoor which provide employees with a way to record and share their experiences at work. Self-employed workers like freelance journalists and online mechanical “turk” workers share information about their rates and payments through editable google doc spreadsheets, which means they are empowered with market information when they negotiate prices and accept job offers. Hashtags and social media platforms can become temporary rallying points for workers to share their stories or grievances, generating wider public attention and applying pressure to a company through brand damage and reputation. The most famous example of this is the #MeToo movement which resulted in widespread cultural change to how sexual harassment was viewed within workplaces.
From Whatsapp groups where Deliveroo riders can organise strikes, to Facebook groups where construction workers exchange information about working conditions, social media is providing spaces for workers to come together and develop relationships, and through that a consciousness of their identity as a group.
New organisations are also emerging, such as the Gameworkers’ Union, now affiliated to the IWGB, and EveryDoctor, a campaign and pressure group for doctors within the NHS. These emerging organisations are fighting for workplace rights but often using methods which lie outside more formalised union structures. This allows them to be more flexible and responsive to their members’ needs, but also means they lack institutional support, structure and established funding. There are also legal limitations to their actions, as they don’t fall within trade union legislation.
The Labour movement will be able to reform the world of work by marrying the new approaches of emerging forms of worker organising with the older power institutions of existing unions. Labour should seek to nurture these emerging forms and to design the legal framework for a reformed and empowered trade union movement.