We were delighted to have Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP as the speaker at IPA’s Christmas Reception – which was held on the 9th of December. He reflected upon his experiences of Employee Relations as a Union Activist, Union General Secretary, Government Minister and a Secretary of State. A copy his speech has been published for this month’s newsletter. Alan recalled Britain’s brief flirtation with industrial democracy and highlighted the benefits of partnership working for employers and employees.

It’s a pleasure to be here with so many friends and to have yet another opportunity to plug my book, “Please, Mister Postman” – available from all good bookshops at £16.99.

The basic theme of the book is that my route from the slums was set out before me via a steady job from which I was unlikely to be made redundant, a council house, and a Union to protect my interests.

That Union, the UPW, then the UCW, and finally, after we merged with the NCU, the CWU, had a long history of seeking the involvement and participation of its members in the decisions that affected their working lives.  It was founded by Guild Socialists who wrote these ambitions into the Union’s rules.

I describe in the book how all postal workers were entitled to ten days of sick leave a year without having to produce a doctor’s note.  As we were only entitled to two weeks’ paid holiday, many of the younger staff, including me, who had trouble getting up in the morning after a night out, would take their full allowance.

These days off without a certificate were known as “Whitleys”.  After you’d taken five a supervisor with a clipboard would come to your sorting frame to solemnly inform you that it had been noted that you’d taken half the allowance, to which the miscreant would respond with thanks for thoughtfully reminding them that there was still another five to take.

These “Whitleys” did, of course, stem from the system of consultation designed to improve industrial relations recommended by J H Whitley, the MP for Halifax and later a distinguished Speaker of the House of Commons, introduced into the Post Office and other parts of the Civil Service in the 1920s.

‘Whitleyism” may have been bureaucratic and unwieldy, but there was practically no industrial action during the 45 years that it operated in an industry with 250,000 workers.

In an essay for the Industrial Relations Journal twenty years ago, Keith Glint, a Fellow in Organisational Behaviour at Templeton College, Oxford, compared the allegedly unique Japanese system of industrial relations with the British Post Office between the wars, noting the similarities.  Dialogue between management and staff was a regular feature and progression through the ranks was encouraged.

It did, however, reflect the harshness of the age in terms of discipline.  Glint studied the records for 1925 and found that postmen were dismissed for reasons varying between “unclean habits” and “a scandal caused by the conduct of his wife”.  My particular favourite was a postman who was sacked for: “marrying a drunkard without official permission”.

In many countries the issue of industrial democracy became a greater central objective of the trade union movement than it did in Britain.  There is some irony in the fact that after the Second World War, Ernie Bevin, as Foreign Secretary, sent a brilliant young TUC employee called Allan Flanders to Germany to help in the re-constitution of the West German trade union movement.  His influence helped to establish the system that would eventually become co-determination – but none of those fancy foreign ideas were wanted in Britain.

In 1975 Harold Wilson set up a Committee of Enquiry into Industrial Democracy, chaired by Lord Bullock, which concluded that in all  companies of over 2,000 employees there would be a right for workers to be represented on the Board.  Two industries were selected to implement the industrial democracy experiment – the Post Office and British Steel.  As a young Branch official in tank-top and flares, I was involved in something that few trade unionists, let alone managers, supported.  The Union declined to put any of its senior officials on the board and the effective decision-making soon moved from the Board to a sub-set of the Board consisting entirely of the pre-industrial democracy directors who met prior to the full meeting, thus excluding the Union representatives from any meaningful involvement.

Mrs Thatcher gave the experiment a decent burial and we certainly never sought to dig up the skeleton during the Blair/Brown years.

The Labour Government did introduce the Partnership Fund and joined the TUC and CBI in encouraging partnership working.  Indeed, as the Employment Relations Minister at the DTi, I handed a Partnership Fund award to Bob Crowe for his work on London Underground.  A couple of weeks later the London Evening Standard reported that there’d been a huge bust-up between the MD of London Underground and Bob during which Bob had thrown an object at the senior manager.  I hoped it wasn’t the Partnership award.

Labour did, of course, sign up to the Information and Consultation Directive and presided over negotiations between the social partners (TUC and CBI) to determine how it would operate in the UK.

I’ve not heard of any companies signing up to that agreement, and indeed the directive seems to have disappeared without trace.

Throughout this entire period, and since long before my potted history began, the IPA has been working to deliver partnership, consultation and employee engagement in the workplace.

There are many large companies in this country that have quietly implemented genuine partnership working – in essence, industrial democracy.

Most small businesses operate in this way as a matter of course.  The failure of major national initiatives could be due to the macho culture of industrial relations.

I’ve always remembered the words of the Japanese industrialist Konoke Matsushita who, in the 1980s, said in a speech to American businessmen:-

“We are going to win and the industrialised West is going to lose out.  There is nothing you can do about it because the reasons for your failure are within yourselves.  With your bosses doing the thinking while the workers wield the screwdrivers, you are convinced deep down that this is the right way to do business.  For you the essence of management is getting the ideas out of the heads of the bosses and into the hands of labour; for us the core of management is the art of mobilising and putting together the intellectual resources of all employees in the service of the firm.”

At around the time he said that, the British trade union movement was not just opposed to the European social model, it was opposed to Europe per sé.  Our mantra then was:-

  • no state interference with free collective bargaining;
  • legal immunities above individual rights; and
  • civil rights at work come with your union card.

Then, the Labour movement was against the minimum wage and in favour of the closed shop.  Now, thankfully, that position has reversed.  I don’t believe that involvement and participation can be foisted upon industry by a single Act of Parliament.  I do believe that government can be an encourager and an exemplar.  And I think that there’s a major company that can be converted to a company owned and run by its workforce.  It’s called Royal Mail.

Alan Johnson is Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle