It was a wet morning in Edinburgh. Much like many others these past few weeks. As I scurried off to work, it was hard to keep curmudgeonliness entirely at bay. And as I started to hear trade union responses to Matthew Taylor’s much anticipated report on Good Work, it felt as if they were determined to chime in.
It is undoubtedly challenging being a trade union leader at the moment. I spent the first 17 years of my working life as an official, first elected and then paid. It could be relentlessly hard work, not least the expectation that somehow you had to both represent your members and please everyone else.
In 1996 I was asked, as trade union side secretary of Thames Water, to speak to an audience of HR managers at Anderson Consulting about Trade Unions in the Brave New World. They had recently taken on part of Thames Water’s outsourced supply chain. Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name provided a fascinating canvas on which to try and map out the path to shared interests. There had to be a way.
I’ve spent the last ten years in managerial positions, sometimes directly on the other side of the table. It provides a different vantage point for sure. But my core values haven’t changed. I have enjoyed the debate that preceded the report and encouraged people in my organisation to reflect on what they think constitutes good work. Regardless of the review’s fortunes, that will help us.
And of course, extrinsic reward is a not insignificant factor. Security is another. But what was striking about the discussion that we had was that it centred almost entirely on the importance of intrinsic motivation. People quite spontaneously offered thoughts about the role of meaningful work in their lives more than anything else.
The conditions in our organisation are a long way from the so-called gig economy but all of us know people in it. We are also heavily focused on the position of disabled people who are furthest away from the labour market and how we can ensure they have the opportunity to share the rights and benefits that we enjoy. Not that we take security for granted in the third sector.
I am still absorbing the detail of the report and the critique of it which is emerging. But what disappointed me about much of the trade union response I heard from the off was its determined disappointedness. Right from the top, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, immediately expressed regret that the report wasn’t the ‘game changer’ it should have been.
I think this is to misunderstand the role of the review. The report is necessarily broad. It seeks to speak to a wide range of audiences including, entirely correctly, trade unions. It advances some important principles, for example about flexibility and enforcement. It provides some useful analysis, for example about the quality of work. And it offers a range of ideas.
Some ideas are quite specific, like a new role for the Low Pay Commission which recognises that good work is about far more than providing a financial safety net. Others are broader, like the role employers can play in promoting health and well-being. The latter is certainly a key issue in our small organisation.
On the big issue of the moment, the status of workers, it argues for greater clarity but stops short of making detailed proposals or naming specific companies. And that seems to be quite right. Surely it shouldn’t provide worked out solutions but rather a frame of reference for others to co-produce them.
There is always a danger that the response mode of the chief protagonists to reports of this sort is to look immediately for what they want. We’ve all done it. But the risk is that when you don’t find it you rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Pessimism triumphs quickly.
It may be that for some, the report doesn’t offer enough for optimism to triumph in its place. But a better place to start is surely to stand back, give it a cautious welcome and then use it to create workable solutions which can make a real difference. That way you get the opportunity to decide what you want rather than be trapped by the idea that the outcome will inevitably be what you fear others want.
There’s no need to be a slave to its recommendations either. If you don’t like them, suggest alternatives. Use the report as a stimulus for more debate and different options. If something is too vague, work at tightening it up. If it’s wrong headed, argue for a better way. It doesn’t have to be a straitjacket.
Trade unions have a multiplicity of roles including negotiating, both on the big stage and in individual companies and workplaces. Good negotiators seize the opportunity presented by data and evidence to open doors rather than close them. And they find a tone which is both principled and practical. The best results are secured by informed and robust dialogue.
I started my working life as a NALGO branch secretary in Shirley Porter’s Westminster. The opportunities we had to make our voice heard, let alone negotiate could be scarce. I was lucky to be part of a small group of romantic pragmatists which seized every opportunity going. We didn’t always win. Sometimes we got quite stroppy. But we never looked a gift horse in the mouth. We complained but we talked things up too.
The political circumstances in which the report has been published are less than ideal. The polite description is fluid. But given the recent propensity of the labour movement to turn defeat into success, it would be ironic if the opportunity to create change presented by it wasn’t seized with both hands.