I thought gloomily about Solon when I read the list of concessions which persuaded Hoover to transfer 400 jobs from Dijon to Cambuslang. It was not a sellout: the right to strike remains. But the Glasgow workers had to give up many other rights once considered part of working-class heritage.
They had no option. The company told the union that the Cambuslang plant would shut down if there was no agreement. Not surprisingly, the engineers' union the AEEU is putting a brave face on it. Jimmy Airlie, the union's Scottish leader and one of the legendary heroes of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in 20 years ago, says: 'We have nothing to be ashamed of.' When I asked another union representative what the workers had got out of the deal, he replied: 'Only a bloody journalist could ask a question like that. What did they get? They kept their jobs, in the 1990s]'
The Dijon-Cambuslang affair released a deluge of idiocies about the Social Chapter. The French scream accusingly, the Major government crows triumphantly, that these jobs only went to Glasgow because Britain opted out of the Social Chapter of Maastricht. This is complete rubbish ('Not rubbish,' corrected the AEEU man, 'bollocks]'). For a start, the Chapter's vague hopes to improve and harmonise working conditions within the Community remain just hopes - there is nothing like a European minimum wage yet. British governments were locked into their suicidal policy of keeping this country a low-wage economy many years before the Chapter or its 1989 predecessor, the Social Charter, were even thought of. British governments were dismantling Wages Councils and using mass unemployment to fix the labour market long before Maastricht.
And yet the Chapter and Charter do say something about the Hoover affair. The 1989 Social Charter is the document which matters and spells things out; the Social Chapter at Maastricht was not much more than a precis of it. Britain, it will be remembered, also refused to sign the Charter, which was accepted by the other 11 heads of government at the Strasbourg summit.
Two bits of the Charter stuck in Margaret Thatcher's craw. The first was the declaration that workers should be paid enough for a decent standard of living, and that living and working standards in the Community should 'approximate' (converge). The other was Paragraph 17: 'Information, consultation and participation for workers must be developed . . . this shall apply especially in companies or groups of companies having establishments or companies in two or more Member States of the European Community.'
Participation] I have never understood the frenzy which seizes British Tories at that word. Like rabies, it must be kept beyond the Channel at all costs. Alone in Europe, Britain can still offer guaranteed participation-free workers. They may be bloody-minded or under-qualified, but they do not demand seats on the board.
The Charter was not, of course, talking about 1968-style participation, the vision of a republic of workers' councils which once drove the young of Europe into the streets. It was talking about something infinitely less glamorous: involving employees in the day-to-day management of enterprises in a mixed economy. All Community countries except Britain and Ireland have done this for years. German Mitbestimmung (co-determination) is a statutory system of works councils with representatives sitting on Boards. It is stable and dullish, a source of efficiency and good labour relations. It is democratic, but in no way revolutionary.
British resistance to this pattern is fanatical and, like all the worst aspects of reaction in Britain, shared by left and right. Curiously enough, a form of Mitbestimmung once existed here, during the Second World War, when 4,000 Joint Production Committees were set up in the engineering industry. These committees, dominated by shop stewards, cut right across the traditional demarcations of craft unions. After the war, the trades union bosses united with the employers to get rid of them.
For Conservatives and employers, participation in management seems a crime against the natural order. It offends that British mania for hierarchy and secrecy which poisons the economy as well as the state. But the hostility in the Labour movement is almost as formidable. For some, the works council movement means collaboration with capitalism. More important is the belief of big trades unions that works councils diminish union influence on working conditions and the shop floor. When the Bullock Commission in the 1970s recommended a mild form of worker representation on the boards of bigger companies, it was scuppered at least as much by union leaders as by employers.
But it is time to think again. Not on the right, which is unteachable on this, but on the left. First of all because the unions are so weak that they are losing control of national wage bargaining. Shop-floor influence through works councils staffed largely by union members is now their best chance of finding a new role and of holding back the spread of non-union enterprises.
Second, stories like Dijon/Cambuslang show that ways must be found to control the way in which multinationals such as Hoover play off workforces in different countries against each other. Pan-European trades unions are not enough. As the Social Charter proposes, the 'European Works Council' is beginning to appear.
One embryo example is Gillette, the American razor firm. The Gillette plant in Berlin accepted six-day working because they were told, untruthfully, that Gillette in Seville had done so. The London factory was then pressured into seven-day working, while the factory at Annecy in France was threatened with closure because of the increase in production in Germany and Britain. In response, the 3,000 workers have set up a joint committee to exchange information, which will probably harden into a 'Gillette European Works Council'.
There can be no 'level playing-field' between a multinational corporation and separate national workforces. But solidarity among employees can flatten the slope a bit. Maastricht allows the Community to establish European Works Councils 'for consultation and information' by 'qualified majority' vote. Councils with full co-determination rights require unanimity among all 12 EC members but they would be powerful, established features of the European industrial scene.
And, in the end, this is not a playing-field. It is a battlefield between two ideologies. The battle is between the 'social' or Christian Democrat vision of society which both Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl share, and the ruthless free-market scenario for the survival of the fittest which belongs to John Major as it belonged to Reagan and Thatcher. In that war, the British trades unions ought to know which side they are on.Reuse content