Tag Archives: Unite

Trade unions and the social enterprise movement – (hopefully) things can only get better

As we prepare ourselves for a pretty nasty couple of months, followed by a challenging couple of years (at least), it’s a good time to examine some of the big challenges the social enterprise movement and social enterprises face in navigating a path through the storms ahead.

When it comes to a potentially increase in the role of social enterprise in delivering public services, there’s a clear need for the social enterprise movement and the trade union movement to develop a more positive working relationship. While some social enterprise employers engage positvely with unions representing their workers, at the level of policy rhetoric the relationship could hardly get much worse.

To take some examples, leading social entrepreneur Craig Dearden-Phillips, of spin-out specialists, Stepping Out, isn’t keen on unions’ general attitude to public service reform. His charge against unions is: “you have, over time, morphed into from your better beginnings – as defenders of preferential terms and conditions for your members, regardless of how unsustainable these are and how much they cost the ordinary taxpayer.”

As a desirable alternative approach from the brothers and sisters, Craig proposes that we: “Look at Germany where the unions sit on boards. That’s what we need. Sharing, diversity and responsibility. A place at the table. A shared interest in the running of businesses. For me this is what social enterprise is about.

Wielding the water-pistol of rhetorical ire most prominently from the other side of the fence is Unite the Union (other unions, such as Unison, have similar starting points but often communicate their positions with slightly more subtlety). Unite’s approach to social enterprise is epitomised by this piece in September’s Social Enterprise magazine from assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, who informs readers that:“The centre piece of this privatisation agenda is ‘social enterprise’ – warm words disguising an open sesame to private companies wishing to grab more lucrative NHS contracts. This will be mirrored across government with local authorities and education also in the frame for this ‘liberation’.

This is followed by the assertion that: “Unite’s experience is that in the NHS a few managers tend to push for social enterprises with only the most cursory consultation – but when staff are consulted there is a massive rejection of the social enterprise concept.” and, after some points about why privatisation is generally a bad thing, we’re hit with the, er, clincher:

“Social enterprises, being one step removed from the NHS, will erode pay and pensions of staff, making it difficult for the NHS to recruit and retain staff.”

We can only assume that the Unite press officer who drafted this article for Ms. Cartmail had for some reason not received the briefing note explaining that Social Enterprise is a magazine primarily read by people who (at least think they) know what social enterprise is and have chosen to work in the social enterprise sector. Call me an evil, scheming Alastair Campbell-clone but I’m not too sure you’ll win many social entrepreneurs over to the cause of workers rights by implying they’re nothing but dupes for a right-wing privatisation agenda.

Unite have a history of run-ins with social enterprises. While I (apparently controversially) don’t accept that they should duck confrontation with employers simply because those employers are a social enterprise, I also wonder if they’ve fully considered some of the possible alternatives to their current unremitting antipathy.

One thing that most trade unions and most social enterprises in the UK share is being fundamentally pragmatic in their approach to social action. Despite a few famous exceptions, most unions in the UK have always been (and are now) committed to getting the best deal and provided the best possible protection for their members in any given set of circumstances. And most social entrepreneurs use whatever resources, skills and support they can muster to bring about as much positive change as they can for the people they’re trying to help (usually including workers).

When it comes to the current debates about public sector spin-outs, the big mistake on the social enterprise side is to avoid considering the possibility that replacing a publicly-delivered service with a social enterprise won’t necessarily be a good thing for the workforce of that service, and to completely ignore the possibility that this may be the case even if the new social enterprise actually provides a better service.  Neither of these points – particularly not the second one – is necessarily a reason for social entrepreneurs to stop trying to create spin outs but they’re vitally important points to be aware of.

People who work for large social enterprises doing normal jobs are signing up to a very different package to people who set up an exciting social enterprise web businesses with their maters. Why should they be expected to accept a worse deal on pay and conditions, or a higher risk of redundancy, than public sector counterparts just because wider society (in theory) gets positive social impacts as a result?

On the union side, the big mistake is to fail to see that genuine social enterprises*, working productively in partnership with unions, might be the best option on the table for their members. Even if their starting point is that publicly-delivered services are the preferred option, the Unite line – which apparently fails to draw a significant distinction between successful social enterprises like HCT and corporate outsourcing specialists like SERCO – is counter-productive because it leave no scope for unions and social enterprises to work together to offer an alternative to full scale privatisations (even in instances where these are the only two likely options).

As we enter this period of public sector upheaval, there’s a major need to move beyond ‘unions are dinosaurs’ and ‘social enterprise is privatisation’ to a position where both sides understand each other’s positions better, and accept that – while there will be many instances where the interests of trade unions members and social entrepreneurs won’t be exactly the same – there will be plenty of times where both sides (and the people they serve) will benefit from working together.


*My liberal views on definitions of social enterprises are well-documented but the use of ‘genuine’ in this instance is a reference to the view held by some current government politicians that the term ‘social enterprise’ can be used to refer to conventional businesses operating in the field of public service delivery but with no aspirations to deliver wider social goals beyond contract stipulations.


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Which side are you on?

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.


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