Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Open Letter to the Brothers

Dear Brothers (and Sisters, of course),

Social Enterprise. You clearly don't like it. You have tried very hard, up and down the land, to turn your members against it on the grounds that it is the same as privatisaiton. This isn't the case. Indeed given the chance to be part of an emerging social business or join, say, Serco, I suspect the differences would be very clear to see.

What puzzles me is why you're so against a way of doing things which is so close to the dreams of many of your founders back in the 19th century. The aspiration back them was for workers to have some control and ownership of the means of production, to have a voice and a say in the running of businesses. Compared to privatisation, social enterprise offers this in far greater amounts than either nationalisation or privatisation. There's little not to like from the trade-union worldview.

However I have overlooked something rather big haven't I? Yes, I have forgotten what 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. In fact, it's got to the point where you would rather have fewer jobs - an more unemployment - than jobs for all but lower wages and possibly shorter time for those in work (which is how the private sector got through its recession from 2008-10).

I used to be in a union. I was a shop-steward, believe it or not, as a 25 year old. I quit one day when I realised that the union didn't care about the service, just about the producer of the service. That didn't sit well with me because it was clear that the business had to change - and the workforce with it.

This isn't an argument against trade unionism (though I know it sounds like this). Unions are the hallmark of all successful societies. It is an argument against a particular type of trade unionism that is confrontational and ends up placing more power in the hands of managers than should be the place. 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.

But instead all we hear is how it should all stay in the state. Poor.

1 comment:

Mike Chitty said...

Not all private businesses are money grubbing, profiteering fat cat owned, means spirited corporations.

I run a for profit business. So I believe do you.

Not all socents provide employees with a haven of control and empowerment. Not all selflessly turn loaves into fishes on a daily basis. The reality of many socents is that they are more like Gradgrind Inc, chasing funding and targets, than powerful organisations for social change. They too have often 'morphed' from 'better beginnings'.

Time to stop stereotyping on the basis of legal and governance structures. Time to start working out where the good work is being done.

The most difficult challenge is to organise and ally with those who share your visions and goals but not your means.