The workers at social enterprise transport company HCT are on strike. HCT’s CEO, Dai Powell, is unhappy. He says that “It is becoming abundantly clear that the trade union movement – and Unite in particular – have a real problem with social enterprise.”
Unite probably wouldn’t disagree with this assessment. In general most trade unions think, correctly, that one reason why politicians love social enterprise is that outsourcing public services to social enterprises can be a way for governments to axe the jobs and downgrade the pay and conditions of people providing public services while not taking the blame for doing so. It’s not worse than outsourcing to a profit-making private company but it’s not necessarily any better. Most social enterprise/ trade union relationship begin at this fairly unpromising starting point.
Powell believes that: “This language of adversarial labour relations is from a different era and a different business model. As a social enterprise, our business model is based on the needs of a broad range of stakeholders: our staff, but also our service users, our communities and our broader mission.”
Rightly or wrongly, the adversity clearly is taking place, and the accusation of outdated militancy isn’t especially modern itself.
More interesting, though, is the implication that social enterprise is a different business model. The are clearly philosophical difference between HCT and conventional for-profit transport providers but it isn’t obvious why that the fact that shareholders are not amongst the stakeholders of HCT in itself changes the relationship between company and its employees. Powell’s position seems to be that workers should alter their demands for wages and conditions in the interests of the community (as represented by HCT).
There may be instances – in all sectors of the economy – when it is a good idea for workers to moderate demands for a wider purpose. The danger of Powell’s apparent position is that he could be construed as suggesting that workers should moderate their demands just because their employer is a social enterprise. It’s not surprising that unions find that position unpalatable. It’s no more realistic than saying that workers should moderate their demands because their employer is the government (which, after all, is a much larger not for profit organisation run for the benefit of the community).
For all the pluck exhibited by: “Alternatively, by its abject failure to recognise that social enterprises are different in form, function and purpose to regular companies, the trade union movement will become the vanguard of capitalism in the public sector.” Powell fails to disguise the clear underlying message ‘boss tells workers not to strike’. Most trade unionists are used to bosses telling them not strike. For all its passion (and for all HCT’s undoubted good work) I doubt this article will change many minds within the trade union movement.
The overall position of hostility is a shame because there is scope for partnership between social enterprise and trade unions. In the coming years, there’s a fair chance that social enterprises and trade unions working together to deliver public services could be a much more positive alternative them some of the other options on offer. But there needs to be movement from both sides to make that happen. Social enterprise has to do more than just assert its goodness and expect unions to fall into line.