Saving Capitalism from the capitalists – the future of Trade Unions?

Last night I attened the Vice-Chancellor’s Annual Lecture at City University (invited by virtue of having been, once-upon-a-time, the President of the Students’ Union there). The speaker was another ex-Sabbatical Officer, albeit one from an older generation than me, Brendan Barber – the recently elected General Secretary of the TUC.

His speech was entitled “The Future of Trade Unions”. He began by giving a roundup of the current state of the Trade Union movement here in the UK, outlining some of the recent trends membership numbers and profile, spread across various sectors, stuff like that. He briefly touched upon the movement’s relationship with the current Government and disparaged that element of recent media commentary which labeled some of the recently elected Union officials as the “Awkward Squad”.

His discussion on the future direction of the Trade Union movement touched on several areas, including skill development and provision and the continuing importance of collective bargaining, but what I found most interesting was his brief discussion of the potential role of unions as shareholders – “saving capitalism from the capitalists”, if I remember his phrase correctly.

Using the currently relevant issues of pension security and fat-cat pay as hooks, he set out an argument for the increasing participation of Trade Unions in Business at the shareholder level. After all, Union members are essentially investors in many large companies in their roles as pension scheme contributors, and Barber argued that Unions could do well following the example of those groups who sought to influence the policy of large corporations by buying shares in order to get voting rights at company AGMs and the like.

He cited the recent stories of fat-cat pay deals being voted down as examples of the potential power of well-organised shareholders over boards and executives, and suggested that by getting into business at this level, Unions could not only oversee the interests of their members in these uncertain times but also possibly impose some sort of moral or ethical framework over the corporations.

Whatever your reaction to ideas like this (to be honest, I’m not really sure how new it all is), it’s certainly interesting. It brought to mind the old concept of the “shareholder democracy” which never really took off as intended. Perhaps what Mr. Barber is thinking of is a new form of (stake|share)holder democracy, but one where the Unions, and possibly other groups, act as our proxies?

All interesting stuff, I only wish I had been a little less tired and that I’d remembered to take a pen and paper to make notes with. (What? Real time wireless moblogging? You wanna buy me the kit, I’ll do it 😉 Please read this last statement as a slight disclaimer – I am reporting only my impressions and memories, and it’s altogether possible that I’m misrepresenting Mr. Barber’s arguments, although I’d hope not. It’d be interesting to hear any views on this stuff, so if anyone actually reads this post, please consider leaving a comment!

(NB: After I wrote this summary, I discovered this article at the Times online, covering the speech.)