A COUPLE of weeks back I was privileged to chair a debate between Nicola Sturgeon and Anas Sarwar held as part of the trade union Prospect's conference at the SECC in Glasgow.
The occasion was well attended - about 400 delegates remained in the hall at a stage in the afternoon when the bar can start to exert a magnetic pull on some union conference-goers.
Representatives from a range of professions were able to ask the Deputy First Minister and deputy leader of Scottish Labour a long list of searching and specific questions, which made me think how narrow much of the debate has become, channelled into increasingly technical disputes about the prospects for a currency union, for example, or the possible terms of an independent Scotland's EU membership. Naturally, I did my best to make a hash of things from my uncomfortably lofty perch on the podium but despite my most hapless efforts the debate was judged a success.
Ms Sturgeon and Mr Sarwar were, as usual, eloquent and persuasive. To my great relief, as the (supposed) red card-wielding referee, they were also courteous and respectful opponents, bringing none of the rancour of their now infamous STV Scotland Tonight showdown to the stage.
All this is by the by, apart from to congratulate Prospect on organising an event which proved stimulating both for members based in Scotland and those attending from the rest of the UK too. Based on nothing more than my first impressions it seemed typical of the union's thoughtful approach to representing its members' interests.
Prospect draws its membership from highly specialised professions in fields ranging from engineering and defence to heritage, agriculture and air traffic control. It takes pride in its the nickname "the union for people with interesting jobs". Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that it should be at the forefront of a wider effort within the trade union movement not just to win better pay and longer tea breaks but to make work more interesting, challenging and satisfying.
The issue was discussed at length during the Glasgow conference. Asked for ideas to improve the quality of working life, delegates called, among other things, for staff to be given a bigger voice in how their organisations were run, greater trust in the workplace, better job security and clear, open pay structures.
Guest speaker David Coats, a former Work Foundation policy expert who now runs the Work Matters consultancy, said workers in Britain were among the least likely in Europe to be consulted by their employers on big decisions.
A briefing produced by Prospect earlier this year made the point that improvements would not only be good for staff, they would be good for the economy, strengthening organisations and improving productivity. It also argued that tough economic times were no excuse not to act.
"Our workplace agenda is not just for the bad times," it said. "Work that is enjoyable, stretching and fulfilling is good for both individuals and employers." It will be interesting to see whether the union's work develops into a fully-fledged campaign and, if so, how employers and policy makers respond.