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Dai Powell's Blog Part 5 - Who is the bus service for: Everyone

The recent dispute between Unite and LibertyBus raises issues which are greater than the actual dispute. How should we run services? What is the role of unions in the new environment? And how do we ensure fairness for staff as well as fairness for passengers in a business like LibertyBus?

Within the dispute in Jersey, and from a letter delivered to staff by one of the union’s shop stewards, there seems a distinct lack of clarity around the dispute - and an even greater lack of clarity about the role of the union.

Historically, unions have been a force for good in society. Not only have they been a check on unscrupulous employers, they have actively contributed to a safer and fairer workplace. But even more than that, at their best they have been a voice for the marginalised, a voice for the unheard and a voice of reason. How does that historical role play out in the present environment?

Unions need revenues to survive: they need to pay good salaries to their officials (which I have no problem with, you have to pay good salaries to get good people), and they need funds for campaigns. The way unions receive revenues is from their members’ subscriptions and therefore they need to both attract more members and to retain the members they have. This is not unlike any business.

Where it gets difficult is when unions need to uphold the good that they do and act like a business at the same time.

So what are the ills of society that the unions should be highlighting and, more importantly, what should they be actively campaigning for?

How about the living wage, not the minimum wage, which would make one of the biggest differences to workers across the world and would create a fairer society?

How about actively supporting and training unemployed people to get back into the job market? Unemployment is a curse for working people; people want to work and contribute to society. This is something worth fighting for, and I feel this is an area where the union should be strong.

Or how about equality, in all its forms? This is another agenda where the union in Jersey seems very quiet.

The difficulty for the union seems to be that there are no member revenues in fighting these fights. I hope this is not the case, as the force for good which I mentioned earlier is a force for a fairer and more just society. If the union acted on these principles then we would all be better off.

Instead, we at LibertyBus have a union who want us to employ less people, as this means more overtime for members. How does this create a fairer society? If we are not careful we will get further into the position where we pitch union workers against other workers and union workers against the unemployed. This must not be allowed to happen.

If the union should become a force for good, what is our role? Let's move on to the present environment and how we deliver services to the public. LibertyBus is a Social Enterprise, part of the HCT Group. What does that mean and how do we differ from conventional business?

A Social Enterprise is a business that trades for a social purpose. Our primary objective is a fairer and more equal society. That is the mission of the organisation. Conventional business is primarily about making money, with how that money is made a secondary concern. I have no problem with this approach. However, our approach is different: how we make money comes first.

So how does this work in practice? First, we do not have shareholders to reward from the business - and therefore shareholder value is of no importance to us. Second, we are a charity, and we are governed by Charity Law.

Third, how we operate. We aim to run commercial contracts, usually won in competitive tender against the private sector. We aim to deliver these as well as we can and in the interest of the customers. We aim to make a profit on these contracts and use some of that profit for social good. The rest of the profit stays within the company to run the business. As I said, we do not have shareholders.

What do we define as social good? We are clear on this, we do not grant our profits to other organisations as that is not our business. What we do is provide transport for elderly and disabled people, community organisations and other vulnerable groups and on top of this we provide training for long term unemployed and people from marginalised communities. That's it, that is what we aim to do in Jersey and what we already do in the UK.

How does the union engage with Social Enterprise and add value to our mission? This is difficult. In the old way, bosses versus workers, it was easy to see the union’s justification and their message: company very successful, fat cats get fatter, workers want their share. The relationship was essentially binary. It was classic us and them.

But for LibertyBus it does not apply, it is not a binary relationship. We are a multi stakeholder business in every sense.

We have the States as a Stakeholder. We have a profit share arrangement with the States - why you may ask? Well, the States - and TTS specifically - are key to the success of the bus service. It is their role to make the travelling environment better - with more bus shelters for example. As they (via tax payers’ money) invest in more bus shelters, or better access for wheelchair users, more people use the bus service as a consequence, we at LibertyBus get more revenue. Therefore it is only fair that some reward for their intervention is in place. Hopefully, they will then invest more in public transport and we start a virtuous circle.

The community are stakeholders in LibertyBus. We are in discussions on how we could set up and run a Community Transport operation in Jersey, supported by the States, by LibertyBus and by the community. This will be part of the activities that a successful and profitable bus service will provide.

Therefore we have States as stakeholders, the community in its widest form, and then we have customers! These are key for the success of the organisation, they are the reason we provide a bus service and they are vital to the economy of Jersey.

In this multi stakeholder organisation, how do we engage with staff as they are plainly a stakeholder in the organisation too? This surely is the same way we work with all stakeholders - by aligning the needs and interests of the staff with that of all stakeholders. For me, and this is just a personal opinion, we should look at a staff bonus, but a bonus that is based on the success for all other stakeholders.

For this to be effective we would need to base the bonus on the profit of LibertyBus. The reason for this is that profit is driven by an increase in passengers, which in turn is driven by the quality of the service – creating a benefit for all stakeholders.

We feel that this should be the way forward, and for this to be possible there would need to be an agreement not to strike, as it would not be in the interest of any of the stakeholders. Within this model there would need to be dispute resolution procedures but this is not beyond our collective wisdom to devise.

The idea that we move from confrontation to true partnership should appeal to all stakeholders. Does this appeal to the union? I await a response.


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