VitalSpark:Coalition Blog

Posted: 07 April 2010, in Blog

The collective action of stopping work to protect and promote the rights of workers is back in the news. Private enterprises (British Airways) and re-nationalised public services (Network Rail) are the big headline grabbers but what about us?

What is the state of industrial relations or to be more contemporary, human resource management in the Scottish Social economy? When the predicted tsunami of cuts hit, are we prepared for the backlash from our employees, colleagues, directors, customers and beneficiaries? Can our sector and what we profess to be about, withstand a series of strikes? Are our funders and stakeholders assuming that we are like nurses –ill disposed to support strikes? Or are we train drivers?

The late Bill Speirs spoke at a social enterprise conference one day. He said that his personal political preference was for municipal authorities to provide local services. He did not really approve of or ‘get’ social enterprises as they were affecting his member’s jobs although he recognised that the world was changing. He was then asked about trade unions accepting membership dues from social enterprise employees. Was there a de facto Animal Farm style hierarchy of labour going on – were local govt workers ‘good’ and social economy workers ‘less good’? His political instincts kicked in and he quickly moved on. So, are the trade unions willing, interested or able to protect and promote the interests of their members who work for social enterprises? Is their real focus on the public and private sectors?

Are social enterprise managers and directors ready to negotiate with their employees and their representatives if their businesses suffer a dip? Do we as a sector have a practical as well as rhetorical commitment to excellent employment terms and conditions allied to best practice multi–stakeholder partnerships with funders, customers, trustees, beneficiaries, clients, employees, volunteers and trade unions?

Maybe we should re-examine the legal models we employ when establishing social enterprises. If charitable holding companies were the norm and hybrid subsidiary social enterprises operated as worker co-ops, employee owned businesses and/or multi stakeholder CICs; would we perform, participate and benefit like John Lewis staff? Would our employment relationships improve as a result? Are we interested in democracy and empowerment at the workplace or do we continue exploiting the goodwill of our staff, volunteers and directors and hope that this will see us through? Do all of our employees share our social mission concerns?

Anyone willing to bet that a good few of us will be spending time with lawyers and at Employment Tribunals in the near future? If you haven’t discussed this at your board meetings yet, a watchword from the Guides and Scouts is apposite: Be Prepared.