Saturday, April 20, 2013

True Enemies - or Necessary Allies? Unions and Social Enterprise

This week 'Union News' published a story about a flagship social enterprise spin-out called Care Plus which operates health and social care services in NE Lincs.

The story highlighted the possibility that staff recently transferred out the NHS and Council might be made redundant and re-hired by Care Plus on new contracts.

It also spoke of the 'financial chaos' engulfing Care Plus (the organisation has to find big savings) and compared the situation in NE Lincs unfavourably to that in neighbouring North Lincolnshire where services have remained in the NHS.

The article wrapped up with a demand that all of these services be put back under NHS and local authority control.

At the moment, I don't know enough about the particulars of the situation in Care Plus but my understanding is they have tried to change terms and conditions for staff and, in doing so, have sought to deal directly with their own workforce (who are also owners of the company) - rather than deal mainly with the unions.

There is a some logic to the Care Plus position.  The members of the company are also the staff.   It therefore makes sense for the conversation to be one that takes place between owners rather than between 'bosses and workers'.

However, the situation is complicated by the fact that many staff are members of trade unions too.  Furthemore, there are also long-established practices in these services, which have seen unions being involved early, routinely and directly in talks around changes to terms and conditions.

Indeed, the prospect of being defined-out of the equation is, probably, one of trade unions' biggest fears about staff-owned spin outs.

There is a risk, in a world where everyone is an 'owner', of a trade union appearing superfluous.

And, on top of this, if a newly-minted, social enterprise is, in its first two years, changing terms and conditions, the story, from union eyes, looks every bit as bad as any other piece of privatisation.

As someone working in this mix, trying to support new social enterprises come out of the public sector, I feel pretty frustrated by the polarised situation between those seeking to set up co-ops and social businesses and the trade unions.

Particularly when the overall story of what is being achieved by organisations like Care Plus is so good.

The debate, it looks to me, has become like two sets of supporters on the terraces.  One side cries out out how much what they are doing is just the kind of thing trade-unions should be supporting - employee ownership, socially motivated enterprises, co-operative ventures.

The other replies by shouting back - 'Privatisation - you're just as a bad as all the rest'.

Obviously, I come to the debate not as a neutral.  I happen to believe that the public realm in this country can only be protected if we embrace new forms of public service delivery that go beyond traditional public services.

I also admire the leadership and staff at Care Plus for all they have achieved for the people of NE Lincs. They are an imaginative, well-motivated and inspiring set of people.

Care Plus, and those like them show us that the only way to address the national-emergency in social care (for that is what it is becoming)is to deliver benefits in far closer partnership with communities and their own staff.

My fear is that if Councils and the NHS don't do this now, we will lose services and that very large, powerful private sector companies will take an ever-increasing role in public service delivery.

Meanwhile, the position of trade unions, I think, is to see social enterprise as a kind of soft-focus ploy to undermine public services and the security of the people they represent.

It is easy to see where the unions are coming from.  The public sector is, in many ways, the only place left in the UK where terms and conditions of staff are relatively good.

History has taught the unions that once things are moved out of the public sector, things get worst a lot more quickly for the staff.

Can these two tribes be brought together?

In truth, I don't know.  At the moment, there doesn't appear to be much going on in terms of conversation between the social enterprise movement and our biggest unions.

We seem to be avoiding each other (again this may be just a perception) and shouting from the terraces.

My own view is that there is potential to find a shared-cause between emergent social enterprises and the trade unions.  

This is because there is much common ground:

1.  A shared concern for staff empowerment and the well-being of workers

2.  A philosophical agreement about the idea of staff owning and controlling their companies

3.  A genuine social concern as a main motivating force.

4. A belief in the public service ethos.

5. A belief that public services should not be run for corporate profit.

But, there are also big disagreements.

1.  The State. Social enterprises tend to believe that the postwar public services settlement in the UK is now history and new types of organisations, with new offerings, are needed while unions still believe in public sector delivery.

2.  Ts&Cs.   Social enterprises do sometimes need, over time, to realign terms and conditions to reflect performance of the organisation in its market while trade unions, naturally, wish to protect terms and conditions as they are now.

3.  Outsourcing. Social enterprises insist that employee-run is not the same a privately-run while trade unions tend to see anything that is operating outside the public sector as 'outsourced' and 'privatised'.

So what could any agreement between the Two Tribes look like?

In my view, there needs to be 'give' on both sides.

On on hand social enterprises need to guarantee the role of trade unions as a legitimate part of life in the new world.

Although a co-op or social enterprise may be owned by its staff,  it doesn't necessarily follow that conversations need only take place between 'owners' and  the need for union representation of  staff  by unions is no longer really required.

Even in a well-run mutual, the interests of managers and front-line staff may diverge - and we shouldn't deny that.

Furthermore, there need to be assurances to trade unions that all will be done to ensure that they are included fully in the operation of these businesses.  It happens on the continent and there is no reason it should not happen here.

Finally, the social enterprise sector needs to recognise that the unions have a job to do and have taken lesson from experience that should not be lightly set aside.

On the other, trade unions, I believe, need to re-evaluate the social enterprise route in terms of its alternatives as the UK enters its next round of public austerity.

We have to get prepared, together, for the possibility that i very few services will be delivered directly by the state within a decade, particularly if growth does not materialise.

If this happens, the terms of the debate will shift onto what is the best alternative to direct public sector deliver.

Compared to the prospect of mass-privatisation to firms with dubious motives and a bad track-record, social enterprise may well look more attractive, particularly if this can also maintain a wider range of services.

Under such a scenario, one could easily see the unions and social enterprise working together, as sometimes happens now at a very local level, where there is trust and mutual understanding.

But t the moment, it feels like we are a million miles away from an agreement.  I think the Two Tribes need to start talking, at the very top level and see if we can find any common ground before, for both sides, it is too late.

No comments: