Worker directors – we’ve been here before

At the UK’s Conservative Party conference, in early October 2016, the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, raised some significant corporate governance issues:

‘So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats the tax laws as an optional extra…a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension scheme is about to go bust, I’m putting you on warning…’

Each of these issues has been discussed in recent blogs. But she also suggested that workers should be appointed to boards of directors. As could be predicted, this suggestion was welcomed by the Trades Union Council but raised alarm in some British boardrooms.

But we have been here before. Extracts from Corporate Governance: Principles, Policies, and Practices (3rd ed., 2015, pages 12 and 85) explain why:

 ‘In the 1970s, the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union, issued a series of draft directives on the harmonization of company law throughout the member states. The Draft Fifth Directive (1972) proposed that all large companies in the EEC should adopt the two-tier board form of governance, with both executive and supervisory boards. In other words, the two-tier board form of governance practised in Germany and Holland, would replace the British model of the unitary board, in which both executive and outside directors oversee management and are responsible for seeing that the business is being well run and run in the right direction.

In the two-tier form of governance, companies have two distinct boards, with no common membership. The upper, supervisory board monitors and oversees the work of the executive or management board, which runs the business. The supervisory board has the power to hire and fire the members of the executive board.

Moreover, in addition to the separation of powers, the draft directive included employee representatives on the supervisory board. In the German supervisory board, one half of the members represent the shareholders. The other half are chosen under the co-determination laws through the employees’ trades’ union processes. This reflects the German belief in co-determination, in which companies are seen as social partnerships between capital and labour.

The UK’s response was a Committee chaired by Sir Alan Bullock (later Lord Bullock), the renowned historian and Master of Saint Catherine’s College, Oxford. His report – Industrial Democracy (1977) – and its research papers (1976) were the first serious corporate governance study in Britain, although the phrase ‘corporate governance’ was not then in use. The Committee proposed that the British unitary board be maintained, but that some employee directors be added to the board to represent worker interests.

The Bullock proposals were not well received in Britain’s boardrooms. The unitary board was seen, at least by directors, as a viable system of corporate governance. Workers had no place in the boardroom, they felt. A gradual move towards industrial democracy through participation below board level was preferable.

Neither the EEC’s proposal for supervisory boards nor worker directors became law in the UK. Since then, the company law harmonization process in the EU has been overtaken by social legislation, including the requirement that all major firms should have a works council through which employees can participate in significant strategic developments and changes in corporate policy.’

Proponents of industrial democracy still argue that governing a major company requires an informal partnership between labour and capital, so employees should participate in corporate governance. Maybe an extension of the Shareholder Senate idea, suggested in a recent blog, called a Stakeholder Senate could provide another forum to inform, liaise with, and influence the board.

Bob Tricker October 2016

 

 

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