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Home/ Public Services & Democracy | Unleashing the creativity of labour
Jukka Peltokoski

Public Services & Democracy | Unleashing the creativity of labour - 1 views

  • Something interesting is going on in the city of Stuttgart, one of the regional success stories of the German system of Mitbestimmung, or ‘co-determination’, where workers have a role in the management of companies. The dominant trend in Germany is of co‐determination becoming ‘crisis corporatism’, in which the unions concede low wages and increases in hours, ostensibly to save jobs. But in Germany’s southern manufacturing centre, in contrast, trade unionists are holding out for workers having real control over the conditions and hours of work – and over the purpose of their labour too.
  • In Stuttgart’s public services, the union Verdi has combined a strong fight over wages and conditions with an effective and popular campaign to improve and defend public services. In response, the city government – a coalition of the SPD, Green, Die Linke and local party Stuttgart Ökologisch Sozial – is re‐municipalising several services that the previous CDU city government sold off.
  • Meanwhile, among the 20,000 workers at the Daimler Mercedes factories, a radical grouping in the IG Metall union is also looking beyond bargaining over the price of labour, instead holding out for shorter working hours and an alternative view of the future of the car industry. ‘We have a huge amount of intelligence in this factory,’ says works council member Tom Adler, also an active member of Stuttgart Ökologisch Sozial. ‘It’s not beyond the capacity of our designers and engineers to think beyond the motor car.’
  • The reaction of Stuttgart workers to the destruction of public services and the perversion of co-determination indicates that austerity measures are coming slap-bang up against the legacy of two periods of democratic and egalitarian reform. The first is post-war reconstruction, including the welfare state. The second is the system of co-determination, which was strengthened in response to rebellions in the 60s and 70s. However, the resistance now, in Stuttgart as elsewhere in Europe, is not simply over the erosion of the institutions created in these periods of reform – after all, that erosion has been taking place for at least a decade. It is a profound and uncertain clash of cultures, expectations and increasingly activities, shaped by these periods of reform and rebellion, across generations. People’s expectations, or at least sense of legitimate claims, are for cultural equality as well as moves toward economic equality, and for meaningful and dignified work to match the decades of expansion of higher education.
  • There are also the spreading networks of autonomous hackers and geeks creating open, non-proprietorial, software and therefore effectively creating a key part of the infrastructure of today’s society as a digital commons
  • They all involve forms of labour which cannot be understood in the same terms as the conventional wage contract
  • nd the list also includes trade unionists who are taking on the role of organising for the common good in defence, or for the improvement of public services, or to push their company towards climate jobs.
  • All kinds of co-ops, cultural and social centres have emerged or been strengthened by these combinations of refusal and creation.
  • What this variety of activity has in common is that it is based on collaborative forms of creativity
  • and more recently ‘The coming of the commons’
  • can the public sector be transformed in a democratic, open and egalitarian direction against the forces of marketisation? If so, it can be a major economic player, especially in urban centres, with considerable bargaining power as contractor, as employer, and as trend-setter and creator of new communicative infrastructure.
  • The spread of information, knowledge and communication technologies not only enables theoretical expertise and practical knowledge to be shared on a previously unimaginable scale, but also creates tools for co-operation and self-managed co‐ordination of the most complex, multi-actor, transnational processes.
  • All these developments also illustrate the significance of democracy – transparency, participatory decision- making, the recognition of and means of sharing plural sources of knowledge – as a source of productivity, a base for a new economics.
  • What would it mean to think about industrial policies not so much in terms of the goal of nudging the private sector to invest, but more in terms of how to release, develop and extend the creativity of labour in its broadest sense?
  • How to expand and strengthen ‘productive democracy’? How to enhance the capacities of those whose ‘only’ means of production is their creative potential – and the social co-operation through which they can develop and realise this potential?
  • First, it’s come from the kinds of challenges that the trade union movement is facing in defending jobs in manufacturing as well as public services.
  • The second sphere for the rethinking of labour has been through the renewal of the co-operative movement. And a third development is the powerful and ambiguous trend opened up by the new technology towards new kinds of collaboration is the peer to peer, distributed productions and the digital commons, as referred to earlier. This ‘sphere’ is not separate: it could expand both the transformative power of workers already rethinking labour in conventional employment, and the scale and reach of co-operatives.
  • One increasingly significant context of convergence is over ‘climate jobs’. We’ve noted already the growth of co‐operatives creating and distributing renewable energy. The ravages of climate change are leading some trade unionists to demand that workers, whether currently unemployed or employed in high-carbon industries, be allowed to deploy their know-how to manufacture wind turbines, solar water heaters and other parts of the infrastructure of a low-carbon economy.
  • Another potential focal point for the mutual reinforcement of different forms of productive democracy is cities.
  • They illustrate ways in which labour could be self-organised, on the basis of social values underlying its purpose, use or context.
  • The implication of my argument here is that policymakers now need to work on how to support the economic creativity of millions of people, whether in existing workplaces or working precariously outside the formal labour market. At present these capacities are being wasted.
  • They need specific forms of support, some of it from the state, and some of it from organisations that share or could be persuaded to share their goals. These could include the trade unions, the co-operative movement, some parts of the church, foundations, and the growing experiments in crowdfunding, democratically controlled loan funds and so on.
  • As far as existing workplaces are concerned, we need states to not only restore and extend rights that protect trade unions in their struggles over wages and conditions, but also to give workers rights to control the purpose of their labour: for example, a legal prohibition on closures or redundancies without alternatives being publicly explored, and in the case of large companies, public inquiries at which alternatives would be presented. Labour is a commons – it should not be wasted. We need a new kind of ‘industrial strategy’ – one designed to support the creation of value that is not only monetary and requires autonomy from the pressures of the labour market. These should include a basic ‘citizen’s income’ (see page 34). Shorter working hours would be another measure that would serve a similar end.
  • We also need a regional policy that gives real support to cities as hubs of economic development, through direct public employment, and through support for co-ops involving regional banks. These could learn from the operations of the Mondragon bank and become a source of support and co‐ordination to networks of co-ops and other collaborative means of nurturing and realising the creativity of labour, rather than operating as banks of the traditional kind.
  • These are mere illustrations of industrial policies which recognise the capacities of generations shaped by expectations of cultural as well as political and economic equality. To realise these capacities as a resource for a new model of economic development requires rebuilding the distributional gains of the welfare state – but it also requires going further than that. We need to create not simply full employment, but the conditions by which people can creatively collaborate to meet the needs of a changing society and a precarious planet.

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