So what is wrong with Works Councils?

Posted: July 18, 2011 in Ethical decision-making
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In Friday’s post I described an epic four-year battle to have a union recognised in place of an employer sponsored works council. It wouldn’t hurt to ask, why is that so bad?

A workers council in this context means a representative body of workers formed for consultation over workplace practices and changes. It does not have to supplant the function of a union. In Europe they frequently exist alongside unions. In Australia a specific form, the Occupational Health & Safety Committee, is semi-required by legislation.

The difference is that they stand squarely underneath the umbrella of managerial prerogative. If management decides to disband them, or alter their manner of election, or cease attending their meetings, there is little workers can do about it.

A union on the other hand has a personality independent of the company. It is owned by the workers. It may not be able to negotiate everything the workers want, but at least it can keep asking by various means. Above all its continued existence is protected by international convention and, usually, local laws also.

A union has a further advantage over a Works Council: the big picture. Union representatives have a knowledge of past negotiations and disputes, and of similar disputes in factories elsewhere. They know how far an issue can be pushed, and what tools can be used to push it. They can bring in information from outside about improved work practices which may never have occurred to the workers in a particular factory. A works council has access to none of this.

A works council might be appropriate as a consultative mechanism in a situation where the outcome is not likely to be divisive (“What colour should our new logo be?”) but on issues where management and employees remain sharply at odds, the deck is stacked in favour of management.

This is why the Unilever workers in Assam are upset. Their union has been supplanted by a management-sponsored committee with no teeth.

Further reading

Two takes on French works councils, from highly divergent perspectives:

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  2. […] So what is wrong with works councils? 18 July 2011 […]

  3. […] work health and safety councils in the various factories who sign up to it. Such councils are not the same as independent unions but at least, it is hoped, they don’t displace […]

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