Shifting the fundamentals
by Claire McCarthy
The world of work is changing. The work of the Changing Work Centre and the Commission on Workers and Technology demonstrates that. For many that brings a sense of foreboding and leads to news headlines threatening that ‘robots are coming to take all of our jobs’. But I want to argue for optimism – albeit coupled with a commitment to try and harness this technology for the common good.
The truth is that our economy isn’t working for ordinary people and change is sorely needed. Since the financial crisis the share of national income that goes to workers via wages has fallen from 58 per cent to 52 per cent, precarious forms of working are becoming the norm, 25.6 million people in the UK are ‘financially vulnerable’, and ownership in the economy has narrowed as the number of London Stock Exchange shares owned by individuals has halved since the 1980s.
And not only is our economy not delivering fair economic rewards. Too many people feel a corrosive lack of control over their lives as well. In 2015, almost 60 per cent of people polled by YouGov said they have no influence in their workplace, no influence over big businesses and no influence over the economy as a whole. Speaking at the recent Fabian Summer conference Angela Rayner MP put it like this ‘…poverty isn’t just about being penniless. It is also about being powerless.’
So why would we try to cling to the status quo, which has inequality, insecurity, short-termism and iniquity as its hallmarks? As progressives we must surely always be on the side of progress for things to be different – better – tomorrow than they are today.
We must ask what kind of change do we want to see and how can we bring about the necessary conditions for it to be realised?
New research published by the Commission in the last few weeks tells us that 57 per cent of workers affected by technological change at work feel it has had a positive impact, with only a tiny seven per cent feeling a negative impact. This is despite the fact that they report not having been consulted or involved in its roll-out.
So, workers are currently largely positive about technology change but we can’t be complacent.
The Co-operative party believes that shifting the fundamental ownership dynamic in our economy is a prerequisite to achieving an economy and a society that delivers fairer economic rewards as well as one that shares power more equally so that technology is a friend not an enemy of the worker.
Mondragon, the famous network of worker co-ops in the Basque region of Spain judges its success each year not simply by the profit (called surplus in a co-op) it makes but on how many people it employs. Creating and sustaining high-quality employment is intrinsic to its purpose – even as it grapples with changes in the markets, society and world in which it operates. One of the benefits of Mondragon operating as a network of businesses is that if one struggles or fails or needs to reduce its headcount, staff i.e. its members’ owners, can be re-deployed.
This is just one reason why the co-operative movement in the UK wants to grow and play a bigger role in our economy.
One of the other features of Mondragon is their in-house university that ensures that the workforce has the skills they need to succeed and contribute not just today but for the future. Education has been one of the fundamental principles of co-operation since the 1800s when the original Rochdale Pioneers and their successors established reading rooms above their co-operative shops to provide education to their members – ordinary working people.
The Commission has highlighted that the vast majority of the British workforce in the 2030s are already in the labour market – not at school or college. This means that we will need to get serious about adult skills and training otherwise only those that can afford to support their own professional and personal development will be able to navigate the changes ahead and seize the opportunities offered by an economy where human endeavour is focused on value-added activities that robots can’t do.
In short, with a government committed to taking action on ownership and skills as well as one that sees trade unions as part of the solution not part of the problem, we could build an economy that sees technological advancement as a catalyst for positive change not a threat to the promise of decent jobs for all.
Claire McCarthy is general secretary of the Co-operative party.