By Nisreen Mansour, Policy Officer for the Wales TUC. | 4 min
Earlier this year, the Senedd passed the Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act. It creates a statutory social partnership council to advise ministers, puts a social partnership duty on most devolved public sector employers and sets out a framework for socially responsible procurement. It gives workers – via their unions – unprecedented say over policymaking and could serve as a blueprint for the UK government too.
What is the ‘Welsh way’ of social partnership?
Social partners fit into three categories: workers (represented by their trade unions); employers (usually represented by employer organisations) and government. It’s all about mandate, and stands apart from advisory bodies hand-picked by politicians.
Wales’s model of social partnership manages to be a mildly intimidating mix of enigmatic and bureaucratic. It’s structured, formal and ties partners into shared work programmes and policy ambitions. It is very different to traditional industrial relations in many ways, focussing on incremental change and consensus building.
But it is also radically different to how unions engage with the UK government. It extends the ambition to balance employers’ power to the policymaking level. Workers’ have as much of a right to be heard as their bosses, and the state must recognise the inherent power imbalance that exists within the workplace will be mirrored here if this isn’t addressed.
And having a union-friendly government doesn’t negate the need for this. Even if politicians are on first name terms with union colleagues, this doesn’t necessarily mean that their officials will operate in this way without explicit direction. This is what a policy commitment to social partnership achieves, and what a statutory social partnership duty is rolling out across the public sector.
So why are there still strikes in Wales’s public sector?
Some critics of modern Welsh social partnership suggest that unions have given away their industrial power to gain a seat at the partnership table. The last year has illustrated otherwise, with workers winning strike mandates in the NHS, schools and devolved civil service.
The problem with the critique is that it assumes it’s zero sum – that gaining power in relation to policy making means that unions will have to relinquish at least part of their industrial power. But this evidently isn’t the case, and misses that Welsh social partnership working is primarily about influencing the context within which industrial relations occur, not the relations themselves. Negotiations around pay, terms and conditions are typically separate from social partnership arrangements.
Where can unions get the most value?
There is a real risk that unions can get drawn into an endless schedule of meetings and consultation with the government which we simply don’t have the capacity to do. To deliver for members, we need to take a lean approach that focuses on where we can add the most value. Issues which cut across sectors and ministerial responsibility work well – we have prioritised work on equalities issues and just transition, for example, as we need an agreed set of principles to underpin work across the board on issues like this.
We have also focused on sector interventions which recognise the greater risk facing groups of workers. For example, fair work forums for social care and retail have led to joint agendas being established between social partners, recognising that the devolved state does have some leverage here (even if it can’t legislate on employment rights).
And the new law extends unions’ influence at the local level. With almost all Welsh public sector organisations covered, it requires them to reach consensus or compromise on their economic, social and environmental well-being goals. This should be a game changer for unions’ influence across all levels of government.
Social partnership isn’t without risk. It’s possible for unions to be too close to government and too close to employers. It’s possible for unions to be rushed into decisions which don’t deliver. And it’s possible for partnership working to end up with a lowest-common denominator approach as default. Neither the Wales TUC or any individual union should ever be too dogmatic about partnership working.
But we need to be pragmatic about how we wield power. Workers’ interests aren’t just served by industrial action, it’s crucial that their unions engage with policymakers, employers and civil society too. Social partnership means that we do this with the recognition of the unique role which unions hold in society, and - while it may be imperfect - it’s a lot more effective than being outside the tent.