Philip Whiteley's Blog

September 26, 2011

Anti-business unions, and anti-worker business

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:49 am

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was relatively common for industrialists such as Joseph Rowntree, Andrew Carnegie, and Sir Titus Salt to involve themselves very much in society. It was also customary for groups of working folk to set up businesses on cooperative principles – the Co-op, mutual societies, and so on.

Somewhere along the line (historians please advise me on why and how), the trade union movement gave up on building mutual organisations, while business ditched society in favour of ‘maximising shareholder value’. Trade unions became anti-business, and business became anti-worker. This has been disastrous; each polarised, extreme opinion fuelling the other, while organisation-building and community-building have been abandoned as political ambitions.

The sole ambitions of the left, nowadays, are to spend public money and pass workplace regulations. During the boom years, they could get away with this and still look more or less ‘progressive’, in spite of much waste, but now the money has run out and there is precious little to offer. There will be plenty of anti-government invective at this week’s British Labour Party conference, but I’ve given up hoping for a credible alternative.

The most immediate cause of the current crisis is deregulated capital and the myopic cult of ‘maximising shareholder value’. But the equally abject failure of the left and trade union movement to offer an alternative demands greater scrutiny.

The one glimmer of hope comes from an unexpected source: campaigning NGOs working with major corporations to create sustainable supply chains. In these ingenious arrangements, everyone wins. The latest Radical Shift blog notes:

“The achievements … are multiple: better pay for workers, better yields for farmers, better protection of wildlife, more reliable supplies, high quality goods for supermarkets, reduced carbon output from smarter use of transport – leading also to reduced costs, reduced waste through re-use of by-products. The ‘old normal’, in which it was assumed that commercial success had to come with human or environmental victims, is exposed as a cynical and damaging belief.”

McDonalds now uses Rainforest Alliance Certified farms for its coffee. When the biggest and baddest fast-food behemoth starts to look more progressive than left-wing institutions, some serious questions need to be asked.

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