Democracy in the Workplace: an idea whose time has come? In July’s IPA bulletin, the TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, called for a new economic model, in which decent jobs, good wages and better work are explicit goals of public policy. After 35 years of neo-liberal economics, in which the market rules supreme and which has seen a growing divide between the super-rich and the rest, such a situation would be a radical departure for the UK. But if this is our goal, how to bring it about? There is no single change that could recalibrate the UK’s capitalist model, but a great deal could be achieved if workers were given more say in how their companies are run. This concept is popular in countries such as Sweden, France and Germany, as the TUC showed in a recent publication, ‘Democracy in the Workplace’. Our report set out evidence from interviews with managers and trade unionists in companies such as Husqvarna and Saab in Sweden, AXA and Thales in France and Volkswagen and Siemens in Germany. Those countries, like the UK, are covered by the EU’s Information and Consultation Directive, which became law in 2002. Unlike the UK, they have implemented this Directive in a way that makes a meaningful difference. In Sweden, information and consultation is available even if just one employee requests it. In France, works councils are established in law in companies with more than 50 people. In the UK, by contrast, 10 per cent of employees must request information and consultation, the so-called trigger mechanism, before a company is required to act. That hurdle is so high that, in many instances, it makes the notion of information and consultation impossible. In 1980s Britain, the idea of “the right to manage” was often discussed, yet trade unionists in Sweden were surprised at the idea that managers would not wish to engage with their workforce. Why, they argued, would a company not wish to understand what its employees were thinking? In France, agreements reached by unions, even unions with low membership density, have legal force, but so-called ‘social elections’, involving all workers, act as a kind of referendum on agreements negotiated. In both countries, the point of the law is to bring the social partners to the table; once they are there, they are encouraged to develop arrangements that suit their particular workplace. Participants, including employers, believe the system works well. David Tournadre, Senior Executive Vice President for Human Resources at Thales, the French transportation, defence and security company, told us: “What [the unions] want is to have access to the information. They want to be taken seriously ... to make sure that the actual transformation of the organisation is actually done with the people dimension built into it”. David Tournadre is quite right: when it comes to company reorganisation, ensuring that this takes account of the “people dimension” is central to the role of trade unions. So what could the UK do to give such a voice to workers here? Most obviously, the ten per cent trigger mechanism to establish a works council must be scrapped. Workers must have the right to a works council, for information and consultation purposes, if a minimum of five employees request one, irrespective of the size of the company. Employers should be obliged to negotiate and agree information and consultation arrangements if requested to do so by a recognised trade union. Where agreement cannot be reached, standard provisions should apply. In the medium term, it may be appropriate to require all companies to establish a works council once a specified number of workers are employed by the business, without the need for a workforce trigger. As the TUC says in the report: “A new universal requirement to consult could be a powerful lever shifting the UK towards a new democratic workplace culture”. To make the new regulations effective, we may need tougher sanctions on employers who fail to comply. The right to a works council must be widely publicised, including through government advertising campaigns akin to those which inform workers of their right to a pension or their right to be paid the National Minimum Wage. Works council members must also be entitled to paid time off to attend training courses and, especially, courses in how to understand economic and financial information. A basic constitution for a works council, stipulating how often it should meet, the range of issues it should discuss, how companies present their information, how far in advance it should be presented and what rights unions have to respond, should be developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in discussion with the TUC and CBI. This should be the default constitution for all works councils. Deviations from this constitution should only be possible to improve its provisions, as in France, with the agreement of management and works council representatives. Democracy in the workplace is an idea whose time has come. The TUC would be delighted to work with government and positive employers to help bring it about. Tim Page is a Senior Policy Officer at the TUC. The IPA is undertaking a major research project looking back on the impact of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 10 years on. Get in touch if you want to find out more.