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An appetite for workers’ power in Wales

Calls for public ownership, an industrial strategy driven by the unions and extending devolution to encompass workers’ rights and protect us from Westminster are growing at this week’s conference, writes DAI MORGAN

THIS week the Welsh trade union movement gathers at Llandudno on the 50th anniversary of the Wales TUC and 25th year of devolution. It’s an appropriate time to consider context, past history and future prospects, as well as to reflect on some fundamental values.

Unison’s motion entitled “A public campaign to remove all profit from social care” kicks us off in the right direction explaining the private sector is the barrier to improved care and billions of pounds of public money are removed from Welsh care by private equity groups and property speculation on care homes. Democratic public ownership is an essential for the care sector and is not a bad place to start looking for a fundamental value for our movement and our nation.
 
Unite’s motion on industrial strategy, arguing that we need to plan for our economic future and that the government here in Wales needs to be held accountable for our development, seems a strong foundation.

Some strong contemporary socialist values come through; the motion recognises public investment as the means to implement change in a democratic society, and that our industrial future must be developed hand in hand with our plans to avoid environmental armageddon.
 
We also see a renewed commitment to some familiar principles that rang around the conference hall that foundation year. Today’s industrial strategy “must focus on investment which grows and improves the economy and is tied to job creation” — because if it is not a strategy for the workers then who is it for?

This appears to be a seam worthy of mining further. The alternative economic strategy that was debated in the Wales TUC’s early years contained some further values that we would do well to resurrect and apply to our contemporary circumstances.

With public investment should come public ownership. We need not only consider the old monopoly model of nationalising whole industries but also the acquisition of public equity stakes in the companies receiving public support. There should be no handouts or bailouts without returns for the public good.

Our industrial strategy needs to develop into one that redistributes capital and the control of industry from the few to the many. This cannot be achieved by subsidies alone but requires an extension of public holdings and binding planning agreements negotiated by trade unions as well as the government.
 
This brings us to another fateful phrase: “social partnership.” Are there worrying echoes of the “social contract” — the agreement, live when the Wales TUC was founded, for unions to hold down wage demands in return for some crumbs from the Westminster table? Or worse still, the no-strike sweetheart deals negotiated in some quarters during the ’80s and ’90s?
 
It is hard to dispel these lingering doubts but the drafters of the Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act seem keen to emphasise that the legislation is no threat to collective bargaining and instead brings the trade unions greater influence on a wider range of policy areas. There is an opportunity here but it is one where trade unions must realise that they are the ones who must drive this agenda lest it be derailed, as in the past.
 
The Unison motion on social partnership goes some way to outline the necessary machinery at the Wales TUC level for a robust interaction with the Social Partnership Council, the national-level body that will have oversight of the approach.

But if the value of extending trade union influence in policy-making and public procurement is to be achieved, then further work is required at the lower end. Trade union action is required in each of the public service organisations in health, education, local government and (hopefully) an increasing number of publicly owned operators in industry.

Also if the power of the public procurement element is to be leveraged, then unprecedented collaboration will be needed between union branches operating in the public services doing the purchasing, and trade union branches operating in the supply chain industries. How else can we expect the public service unions to negotiate the right provisions for procurement systems and major contracts operated by the organisation in which they work?
 
If these mechanisms are to succeed in extending the influence of trade unions then it is clear that the scope has already been overly curtailed.

The NASUWT motion already expresses concerns about the application of the Act in their sector. Outside of the public sector, the legislation is silent. This reflects the weakness of the Senedd and the limitations of its reach.
 
There is a clear appetite for extending the Senedd’s ability to intervene in issues of workers’ rights. An appetite that only grows in the context of backsliding by the Labour Party leadership.
 
The composite agreed by Nautilus and RMT on fire and rehire is a case in point of an area where the trade union movement in Wales is united in its demands but where the competence of the Senedd to implement those demands is uncertain.
 
The question of powers and of devolution more broadly is further addressed in the composite on Further Devolution and Workplace Rights, including Devolution of the Criminal Justice System and the motion on overhauling the Barnett formula.
 
The desire of trade unions in Wales to seek further devolution of workers’ rights continues to have many defensive and reactive qualities — a “strong case for further devolution to bolster the interests of working people and to limit the powers of the Westminster government to impose anti-union legislation, like the current Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, on Wales.” Please grant us the power that we may not suffer from the latest onslaught from Westminster.
 
There is a similar theme in opposition to the Barnett formula. Please grant us the power that we may not suffer from the latest cuts and austerity measures from Westminster.
 
However, in both cases, there is a more positive side. The evidence is there of public and trade union support for a Wales with strong publicly owned public services, with an extension of government influence into economic and industrial planning that protects jobs and the environment, and with protections for Workers and growing influence for trade unions. We just need the organisation and the powers to implement these values.

 David Morgan is secretary of Communist Party in Wales.

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