Futures for social democracy: economic citizenship and the new capitalism.

AuthorO'Grady, Frances
PositionFeatures - Essay

If social democratic parties are to successfully address the big challenges at the turn of the 21st century--from growing global inequality to climate change--the workplace and collective organisation cannot be ignored. Work isn't just a destination to be reached from welfare, something to be juggled with family commitments or a necessary staging post on the way to the shopping centre. For most people work is important in its own right--as a source of purpose, companionship, individual expression and collective identity as well as, of course, income. While the government deserves credit for progress made towards full employment and recognition of the need to balance work with 'life', improving life while at work must become an aspiration worth striving for.

It may seem self-evident that progressive governments should prioritise making work a better place. But as globalisation makes government more complex and business more powerful, so strengthening a neo-liberal consensus that brooks little dissent, political appetite to shape the market or corporate behaviour in line with egalitarian values has receded. Yet work is important to people's lives and governments that have little to say about it risk fuelling the sense of disengagement too many voters already feel.

As the countdown to the next general election begins, there is an opportunity to assert, refresh and re-think how social democratic values should apply to the world of work, by putting the aspirations and anxieties of working people at its heart. That vision should include a new agenda for economic citizenship that would give people more say over work, create better jobs and stronger workplace communities--and make the economy more productive into the bargain.

Workers and unions in the new capitalism

Today's workforce looks very different to that of a generation ago--more young mothers working full-time, increasingly international, an ageing profile--which, in turn, gives rise to new needs and challenges. The so-called Ipod generation's tendency to have fewer babies, later, may be seen as a bid for greater personal freedom but also reflects the harsh reality of high cost housing, childcare and paying off student debt. The typical British employee is now as likely to be a Starbucks 'barista' as a car production worker but they share aspirations for better pay and opportunities, more job satisfaction and control over their working lives.

The modern trade union movement has changed too with, for the first time in its history, a membership of fifty-fifty, men and women. While membership stands at around 6.5 million, the launch of new organising campaigns and new bargaining agendas, including progression through learning and skills, shows promise. And trade unionism is still by far the biggest democratic movement in Britain, with the number of its elected workplace representatives alone outstripping the entire membership claimed by any political party.

At a time when the political class has struggled to find solutions to disengagement from democratic politics, the potential of trade union organisation is too often overlooked. Trade unions' significance in Britain's democratic life stretches beyond the Labour Party constitutional link or its track record in beating back the BNP in local communities, vital though that is. Crucially, unions are a force for a degree of democratisation within work-places, and acting as a vehicle for independent voice, representation and change with consent. Fundamentally trade unionism helps to humanise work, creating a fairer balance of power between the employer and individual employees. With the right policy framework, unions have the potential to develop a new economic citizenship that can empower working people and strengthen social democracy.

Through membership of global unions, the ETUC, the newly launched International Trade Union Confederation, and now the prospect of union mergers across borders, British trade unionists are well placed to develop direct links with workers around the world; and to match their organisation with that of multinational corporations, international financial institutions and governmental organisations. By forging alliances with a range of community campaigns, faith groups and social movements, from the World Trade Justice Movement to the National Union of Students, the trade union movement is increasingly at the heart of progressive movements seeking a social dimension to globalisation.

This task has become more urgent as the pace of globalisation accelerates. While politicians of all parties extol the virtues of open versus managed markets, workers in both developed and developing countries remain to be convinced. The scale of change is indisputable. The Treasury is fond of pointing out that today China produces half the world's computers, half the world's clothes, and more than half the world's digital electronics, and India is home to three quarters of the world's outsourced services. However, we hear less about the consequences of human supply chains--including the Filipino women who leave their children to take minimum wage jobs caring for the UK's elderly, or the young Chinese women flocking from the countryside to new enterprise zones where independent unions are banned and exploitation rife.

The benefits of globalisation are not shared equally between countries or within...

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