Fox Glacier. (c) 2005 Robert Young (robertpaulyoung). Via Flicr (CC BY 2.0)

How Unionization Benefits the Firm (Wilfred Brown, retired CEO of Glacier Metal Company, speaks out)

E. Forrest Christian Wilfred Brown Leave a Comment

Lord Wilfred Brown, Managing Director of Glacier Metal Company and Minister at the Board of TradeWilfred Brown

People are always surprised that Wilfred Brown — Elliott Jaques’s collaborator, and the guy who hired him in the first place — ended his life in favor of unions and workplace democratic principles. Jaques, who could be so exacting in other areas, left ensuring that voices down the chain be heard to the goodness of the managers’ hearts. Brown understood power, as Alistair Mant says, and this showed in his understanding of representation in issues values, what he called “policy”.

In 1978 and 1979, Brown has a series of discussions with Wolfgang Hirsch-Weber, Professor of Political Science at the University of Mannheim (Germany). These were facilitated and recorded by Alistair Mant, the management writer. I’ll cover more on Mant later, partly in a shameless exercise of attempting to suck up and thereby convince him to write a biography of Brown but mostly because he’s wickedly interesting. (See for example his 2003 screed, “Muddying the waters between guardians and traders” or his interview on ABC [Aus] where he says “you need to be really bright for these very, very complex jobs, [to] know what not to be thinking about.”)

Mant thinks extremely highly of Brown, by the way.

Brown and Hirsch-Weber’s conversation was later published by the Anglo-German Foundation (1983) under the ungainly titleBismarck to Bullock: Conversations about institutions in politics and industry in Britain and Germany between Wilfred Brown and Wolfgang Hirsch-Weber, whence this excerpt comes. “WB” is Wilfred Brown and “WH-W” is Wolfgang Hirsch-Weber.

Here’s how Brown described the only strike that Glacier Metals had during his twenty-five-year tenure as Managing Director (CEO):

WB = In Glacier Metals, we only once had a strike in my twenty-five years as Director. It was in a factory in Scotland – I was very concerned and immediately went up there. All the senior managers said to me that I must protect them against the slanderous criticisms of the shop stewards. I said, “I can’t protect you, — why don’t you protect yourselves?” They said “How?” and I said, “Well, form a union – it’s only a matter of getting a lawyer in, this afternoon.” So twenty-five managers formed a union, and when the union officials came next day, I introduced the manager as the ’shop steward of the senior managers’ union of this factory’. It was a stupid strike, and we settled it quickly, but the manager then said, “Wait a minute, I have a statement here I want the union officials to sign, absolving managers from all the blame and all the criticism that’s been made.” The Engineering Union official became very angry and said, “Rubbish”. The manager said, “Well, then we won’t be working here tomorrow”. The union man said to me, “That doesn’t matter, we can do without them”. But the manager said, “This is an inter-union dispute, let’s not involve the Managing Director. If we managers don’t turn up to work, your members will be doing our jobs, so they will be blacklegging us.” We broke off the meeting, and eventually one of the more senior union officials (who saw the humour of it?) gave the managers the assurance that the unions held them blameless.

The point of this story is that if every stratum in the enterprise is represented in official union form, it balances the power position. In the end, the employer can’t protect people who get bullied — but they are quite capable of defending themselves if they have properly elected representatives.

WH-W = I think so too, and I think that in Germany the higher levels of employees will have to organise more than they do now, and the unions will have to do a lot of re-thinking. Union membership is, of course, much higher among blue collar workers — about 60% compared with about 25% among ordinary white collar workers. But it is interesting that about 75% of the Beamten are unionised. I think this is because the relationship to their seniors is highly formalised, while senior employees in private industry like to think they have a more personal relationship, a position of trust, so that it isn’t very nice to join a union. But they will be more inclined to do it now that the salaries of the people in the DGB unions are catching up with theirs. And the DGB unions will have to decide whether they should give the senior employees special representation, or leave them to their own union outside.

WB = Separate representation of the higher strata is also important to ensure fairness with regard to promotion. In Glacier Metals, the senior staff committees laid great emphasis on writing up and agreeing a complete promotion policy, so that every applicant was properly interviewed by the personnel office and his qualifications were fairly presented. There is always a danger that promotion is based on a personal relationship with the boss, and that it depends too much on how people present themselves rather than on what they can do.

WH-W = Certainly, the works council system makes promotion more objective, or at least more formalised. For the lower grades of Beamten we have staff representation which is quite similar to the works council, and job vacancies have to be advertised internally. But, of course, the top ranks are not touched by this.

WB = The British civil service has had formal systems for years, for taking people into the service, and for promoting them through the grades. Compared with the chaotic situation in much of private industry, it is relatively efficient.

[pp. 72-3]

Image Credit: Fox Glacier. © Robert Young. (CC BY 2.0)

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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