The productivity crisis and the role of trade unions: partnership, productivity and skills in the UK

Bert Clough CERIC

Bert Clough, Visiting Professor, CERIC

As the Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, has stated “productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it is almost everything”. A nation’s ability to improve its standard of living depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its hourly output per worker. That is why increasing productivity should be as important for trade unions as securing the fairer distribution of economic returns of GDP. But productivity has virtually flatlined since the financial crisis in 2008/9. Even more concerning is that the UK has the widest productivity gap with the G7 countries average since the mid-1990s. The General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, has warned that the “productivity headache is a self-inflicted wound” resulting from years of cuts and low public investment. The TUC believes that enhanced productivity can only be achieved in investment and embedded in a culture of positive labour relations; with the workforce and their employers becoming “productivity partners”. This requires unions to adopt strategies based on integrative, not just distributive, bargaining.

Can such rhetoric about such social partnership arrangements over productivity be made reality? In 2000, as part of his Productivity Initiative, Gordon Brown asked the TUC and CBI to join forces to identify key priorities and joint recommendations to the Treasury on how to enhance productivity.  One key driver that was identified was that of skills. In a recent research paper, I have sought to assess the effectiveness of the skills strand of the initiative. As part of the Chancellor’s strategy to close the wide productivity gap with UK major competitors by 2010, the aim was for young people and adults to have knowledge and skills that matched the best in the world.

A fragile social partnership over skills had existed during the era of neo-corporatism in the 1970s. But this was ended by the Thatcher government, which abolished tripartite institutions such as the Manpower Services Commission and most of the industry training boards. New Labour was not however about devolving decisions over skills formation to social partners and restoring neo-corporate institutions. Nor was the “Third Way” about reintroducing training levies or establishing statutory collective bargaining over training. The Productivity Initiative was thus constrained by what has been described as a “social-democratic variant of labour market neo-liberalism”. Another constraint was the divergent approaches of the social partners to workforce development. Whereas the TUC has traditionally had a more expansive, employment-focussed approach that supported state intervention, the CBI has had a restrictive employer-focussed approach that cleaved to voluntarism. As a result, the remit of the skills working group under the Productivity Initiative (which was chaired by the then TUC General Secretary – John Monks) was narrow. The remit confined itself to four priorities which conveniently reflected the Government’s vocational education and training (VET) strategy:

  1. increasing the proportion of the adult workforce qualified to Level 2;
  2. tackling the basic skills problems of individuals;
  3. increasing the take-up of Investors in People by small organisations;
  4. improving VET delivery.

The major deficiencies in the exercise was that it was that it confined itself to the supply side as opposed to the demand side. It did not address the key skills components that help drive productivity – their utilisation and higher levels of training such as management and apprentice training which give high economic returns. These were policy areas that the CBI regarded as being subject to employer prerogative and therefore off a social partnership agenda.

The CBI wanted carrots but no sticks. The TUC wanted sticks but realised that it could only realistically press for individual entitlements to training. The working group did recommend carrots for employers to train. This took the form of employer tax credits to incentivise companies to train up to level 2 and basic skills and for small companies to commit to the Investors in People (IiP) standard. The Treasury however favoured a more targeted approach; introducing state subsidies to employers training workers to recognised qualifications through the Employer Training Pilots (ETP) (later universalised as Train to Gain). Direct subsidies were also given to small companies to prepare for IiP accreditation, through the Small Firms Initiative.

Trade unions (with the enhanced capacity provided by the Union Learning Fund and trained union learning reps) helped ETP to target workers with low or no qualifications. The union view was that helping their members to obtain basic skills and Level 2 qualifications could minimise social exclusion and lead to possible progression to higher levels, with ultimately higher returns.  Although the primary objective of ETP and its successor Train to Gain was to increase employer demand for workforce training, the incidence of deadweight and substitution indicated that such an objective had not been substantially met and provided the Coalition Government with the excuse to end the scheme.

New Labour had adopted a social-democratic variant of a neo-liberalist approach to interventions in the labour market. The weakness of this approach was that it left the vast bulk of skills policy and practice outside the industrial relations system. This approach together with the absence of robust social partnership institutions to oversee VET from the 1980s to the present day has enabled successive governments to adopt a top- down approach. It has resulted in the churning of supply-side policy initiatives, chasing national qualification targets, which have had little effect on stimulating employer demand or engaging with the long tail of SME “productivity laggards”.

A key factor in enhancing productivity is the utilisation of skills, but that was virtually ignored by the Labour Government and subsequent governments.  A recent government Foresight report “The Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning” has found however that the UK is the second lowest nation in the EU in utilising skills. Moving towards the levels of skills utilisation seen in Germany and France could boost productivity by as much as £5.5 bn.

The daunting challenge facing unions is how to build their capacity to engage with employers on measures to increase productivity through high involvement work practices and to reap the ensuing benefits through collective bargaining over skills. The lessons learnt from New Labour’s Productivity Initiative was that peak-level social partnership within a voluntary system is unable to deliver such objectives. This has been further limited by a significant decline in union learning capacity, as a result of government austerity measures and the economic downturn since 2010.

So, what is required are robust social partnership institutions with devolved regulatory powers. Their objective should be to raise productivity through assisting employers to adopt high performance and high involvement work practices. This would include promoting high utilisation of skills and ensuring a more equal distribution of training opportunities throughout the workforce. This fundamental change will not come about through yet another central government “quick-fix” initiative from above. It needs to come from below and be owned by both employers and unions.

Developing such a progressive culture could best begin in unionised workplaces. This, however, requires a step change for unions:  moving from conflict to cooperation as their main new source of influence. It does require, however, a rebalancing of power between unions and employers. Ensuring that union reps are full partners requires two measures. Firstly, collective bargaining over training and work organisation must become an integral part of union recognition.  Secondly, there needs to be capacity -building initiatives (at possibly sector or Local Enterprise Partnership level) to provide unions as well as employers with the tools to drive this productivity partnership agenda forward. The long-term objective would be more high- performance and high -involvement workplaces, with employees as well as employers sharing the benefits from the increased productivity.

But does the present government’s industrial strategy address this fundamental challenge? It certainly sets out new initiatives such as a National Retraining Scheme and government /industry partnerships to increase productivity in key sectors. In his November Budget, the Chancellor even confirmed that the government would enter into a formal skills partnership with the TUC and CBI, to develop the scheme. The aim of the partnership is to help set the strategic priorities for the scheme and oversee its implementation, working with new Skills Advisory Panels to ensure that local economies’ needs are reflected. But it must not be just a top-down approach.

The litmus test will be how effective the partnership is in persuading the long tail of productivity laggards to increase the utilisation of the skills of their workforce. This requires recognition of the potential of trade unions at sectoral and company level to form productivity partnerships with employers.  This is the key to develop high-performance and high-involvement workplaces, where employees are rewarded for their increased productivity. The short-comings of the 2001 Productivity Initiative must be avoided. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.

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