Mutualism and Trade-Unionism - Forever Apart?

by Craig Dearden-Phillips 17/11/2014

Since 2010 I have been involved in the establishment of about 30 public service mutuals.


Nearly all of these have been opposed by public service unions, notably Unison but also Unite.


The reasons given, normally, are that this is some kind of privatisation and that the new mutual may eventually be taken over by a private sector predator.


As an alternative, the unions normally call for reform of the in-house offer or a publicly owned company.


Faced with the economics of those kinds of alternatives (often reduced services and jobs) and the fact that most staff are enthusiastic about mutuals (ballots testify this), the unions tend to remain unsupportive and use any political weight they have within the Council to kill these initiatives.


While I naturally find this disappointing, I also find it surprising for three reasons:


The first is that mutualism was a founding principle of the political tradition to which most trade unions are openly affiliated.  The idea of workers owning the means of production is one which many trade unionists naturally warm towards.  Yet when it is offered, it is ignored.   These same staff, according to unions, should work for the government, not operate their own businesses.   This is statism and runs counter to mutualism.   Statism is also, in the 21st century, for the birds, as developed economies adjust to a world that has changed forever both inside and outside the public sector.   When will the unions stop trying to order back the tide?


The second reason I am surprised at the unions is that mutuals have, by and large, been excellent employers.  Most are committed to the living wage.  Many have improved terms and conditions.   Many are growing businesses (average growth 10%) therefore making jobs more secure. Mutuals are not the people trade unions spend their time worrying about.   Britain is the low-wage capital of Europe.   Millions work in insecure employment, often in illegal conditions.   


Why therefore do Unions devote huge resources sending their top people into Councils to try to persuade Members to block employee-owned businesses?


The third reason I am surprised at the unions is that their opposition to mutuals is a huge lost opportunity for them.   There are now half a million fewer people working in the public sector than in 2010.   This number will fall again, probably by more to 2020.   People are leaving the public sector and not joining unions elsewhere.   Every mutual that leaves the public sector in the teeth of union opposition is another new membership opportunity that has left the building.    


Instead, by supporting mutuals, unions could enhance their membership and be part of progressive, community-based, non-profit public services rather than hanging on to a lost past by clinging to the eroding cliffs of present-day public services.   


The mutuals, I know would love to see the unions in the room with us, making the case.  We share important beliefs about work, staff and the nature of public services.


Why are we on opposite sides of the room?

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