Wanda Pasz, the author of the article featured below, is a 30 year veteran of North America’s labour-management system. She has worked as both a union and management representative and a labour relations mediator – and is currently a writer and researcher on workplace issues. What she says will be dismissed by those who believe unions can do no wrong. Fair enough… she’d dismiss them as well. However I recommend this article to everybody else. You may feel, as I do, that Ms Pasz overstates her case. For instance, there are many unionists who support the workplace democracy agenda  – in fact the New Unionism Network is made up of them. But as you read this article think about her real target: ‘business unionism’. Are we just here to build up a base of customers who want higher wages and better working conditions? Studies have shown again and again that members want more(1). I’m sure many of us will share her view of what unions should be(2), irrespective of whether or not we agree with her assessment of what they are. More to the point, how many working people feel the same way? Business unionism has been in decline for decades, but new unionism, which emphasizes organizing for workplace democracy, is still a work in progress. At this point, it might pay to listen up.

Business unionism vs workplace democracy

by Wanda Pasz, 2010

There is a general assumption that workplace democracy is achievable through unionization. But this isn’t so. Unionization, in North America at least, doesn’t even create representative democracy in the workplace, much less real participatory democracy. Indeed, in North America, the objective of the legal framework that governs union-management relations is to control workers and ensure that they accept their subordinate status in the workplace. Yes, the law does give workers certain rights, but there’s a big trade off – freedom, equality, democracy. I think it’s important for people to understand that this misconception of the unionized workplace as a workplace democracy, is a major impediment to people getting their heads around what workplace democracy really is.

In a sense, this misconception is similar to the one about those employee participation programs where people assume that because management is now asking workers what they think or involving them in decision-making, that’s what workplace democracy is about. Of course we know that this isn’t the case, as management is still “in charge” in a hierarchical structure. This is particularly so in North America where unionization of the workplace had nothing to do with workplace democracy. Our labour laws were, in fact, implemented to prevent such a thing from ever happening. I think this is somewhat different from the situation in Europe where unions actually have some “representative” status on corporate boards and are somewhat more involved in joint decision-making but of course, this is not workplace democracy either, although it is a little bit more participatory than the North American model.

In getting this picture in its right perspective we can take a short look on the history of union-management relations in North America.

Most people are at least dimly aware that the situation of working people in the century following the industrial revolution was not a particularly pleasant one. Workers lived and worked in dreadful conditions, exploited by ruthless factory owners who saw themselves as part of a superior class (not just in terms of money but morally superior as well). Opposition, in the form of collective action, to the “factory system” began early in the 1800’s. Workers protested not only their pitiful wages, long hours and unsafe working conditions but also the hierarchical system of management which required them to submit to the authority of overseers or foremen.

Apart from their often brutal supervisory methods, a major issue for workers during the 1800’s was the idea of having to subordinate oneself to others. This seemed incongruous with the democratic ideals of the newly-founded American republic. Many compared their situation to that of the African slaves which were still in use in the American south during this time. The term “wage slavery” was widely used to describe the new workplace paradigm that had established itself in the industrial era.

More and more workers formed unions to press for better conditions but divisions quickly developed about what the focus of these unions should be. Some advocated a broad socio-economic agenda that included worker control of the workplace, but others stopped short of this, taking the view that unions should limit their efforts to pressing for improved wages, shorter hours and more equitable work rules. This position was staunchly advocated by the tradesmen’s or “craft” unions which were more powerful and better organized than other unions of this era (because of their skills, the tradesmen were somewhat better off than unskilled workers, had marginally more autonomy in the workplace, were more accepting of capitalism and were beginning to see themselves as having more in common with the entrepreneurs than the unskilled workers). By the latter part of the 19th century this “business unionist” philosophy became dominant within the North American labour movement and its leading institution, the American Federation of Labor.

Many voices continued to call for worker control of industry and democratization of the workplace but increasingly, they were vilified and brutally repressed by business, government agencies and the business-oriented unions. At the same time, the “scientific” management methods of Frederick Taylor and his acolytes reinforced hierarchical relations in the workplace, set up bigger, more complex hierarchies and introduced more effective methods of domination.

Opposition to these developments continued, but increasingly the focus of “organized labour” became wages, hours and safety. The hierarchical workplace structure became a given. It actually became something of an imperative – something that would help businesses to thrive and prosper (because of the increases in productivity that Taylor’s methods enabled) and was also in line with the corporatist value system which was fast becoming the dominant ideology in the US. The interests of business came first and if those interests were best served by maintaining strict order and discipline in the workplace, then so it should be. The business unionists bought into this belief system, and so did the large portion of workers who were not unionized.

The depression of the 1930’s spawned a wave of workplace activism, strikes and union organizing by unions that were not completely onside with the business unionist philosophy. The intensity of labor unrest and renewed interest in socialism during this period prompted US President Franklin Roosevelt to introduce the labor laws which became the foundation of our current system of labour-management relations. These reforms, called the Wagner Act, gave workers and unions certain rights and imposed certain obligations on their employers. For instance, employers now had to negotiate with a union once a majority of workers joined one (in the past, workers could join unions but employers were under no obligation to negotiate contracts with them). Unions and employers were required to engage in collective bargaining and to negotiate in “good faith” to make a collective agreement. The right to strike was protected by law (but during a very narrow period at the end of a collective agreement) and disputes over the interpretation of collective agreement clauses or unfair treatment of workers were to be taken to binding arbitration (a quasi-judicial procedure that was expected to be faster and more equitable than going through the courts). Similar legislation was passed in Canada in 1948.

It’s important to note that none of these labor law reforms included any provision for workplace democracy. In fact, an important aspect of these reforms was the recognition in law that management retained the right to manage its enterprise as it saw fit subject only to what it might concede in collective bargaining. As far as I know, no union has ever proposed in collective bargaining the implementation of a democratic structure within the workplace or challenged the hierarchical structure of workplace relations. To this day, every Canadian collective agreement contains a standard clause – “reservation of management rights” – which gives the employer the right to manage the workforce as it sees fit.

The reason that there was nothing about workplace democracy in the Wagner Act or its Canadian equivalent, is that workplace democracy was what North American business and political leaders feared the most. It sounded a lot like communism and, as the post war era dawned and the cold war between the west and the Soviet bloc heated up, nothing was more hated and feared in North America than communism. Fear of creeping socialism compelled FDR to pass the Wagner Act. The Canadian parliament passed its own similar legislation a decade later because of near obsessive fears by leading politicians that a socialist revolution was just around the corner (a huge wave of strikes swept through Canadian industries in 1947-48). Keeping order on the shop floor also became critically important in the post war era to support American (and Canadian) industrial policy which aimed to flood the world with consumer goods (and flood corporate treasuries with profits) – productivity and efficiency were essential in this endeavour. Strikes and other disruptions in the workplace had to be discouraged and blind obedience on the part of workers to workplace authority figures were encouraged in a number of ways.

The new legislation prohibited any form of workplace protest other than strikes that could occur during a narrow window after their collective agreement expired and negotiations reached impasse. Once signed off, workers were expected to be content with what was in their agreement. Agitating for more or for things they didn’t win at the bargaining table was forbidden. Wildcat strikes, sit downs and other work refusals were dealt with harshly (workers could be fired, union leaders could be fined and jailed). Insubordination (refusal to carry out an order or instruction) was a capital offence punishable by immediate dismissal. Although the legislation didn’t spell it out explicitly, the hierarchical structure was now firmly in place and even sanctioned by law.

Government agencies, Ministers of Labour and other influential public officials promoted the subservience of unionized workers by preaching about labourmanagement partnership. It was quite an unequal partnership but one from which all parties would benefit if everyone knew their place. Business leaders and their managers knew best how to run the business. They would do the thinking and planning and manage the business. Workers would carry out their managers’ instructions, work quickly and productively. The business would prosper and everyone would win.

This was basically the bargain that was put to working people and their union leaders: Do a good job, obey the boss, don’t trouble yourselves with politics and deep thoughts and you will receive decent pay, health benefits and pensions and secure employment. As an added bonus, it would also bring peace (the thinking being that as we spread American ideology and consumer goods around the globe, all of the world’s problems – including war – would be solved).

A great deal of effort was expended by government on co-opting union leaders into this partnership. Union leaders who cooperated were rewarded with appointments to prestigious commissions and panels and were hailed by government leaders as forward-thinking and patriotic. Most got on board willingly. Those who weren’t so easily led were vilified, accused of being communists or communist sympathizers – the mere accusation was enough to ruin reputations and careers that had taken a lifetime to establish. Through this kind of coercion, government officials were able to ensure that only union leaders who saw things their way rose to positions of power within the purported labour movement (which really ceased being a movement at about this time).

Once in place, government leaders wanted to ensure that “right thinking” union leaders stayed in place. Since unions were, by definition, democratic associations of workers it was necessary to ensure that they did not actually fall into the hands of workers. God only knew what might happen then. Although unionized workers adjusted to this new partnership model quite readily, there were still holdouts (especially in Canada where resentment of American unions and their business-oriented philosophy ran hot right through to the 1970’s). If these commies and radicals ever got elected and took control of a major union, well there was no telling where things might end up. So government leaders encouraged and rewarded “strong” leadership among union officials. A good union leader was one who kept the members under control and commanded respect or fear or both. Although union members had the legal right to vote on things like whether to accept a collective agreements or take certain grievances to arbitration, it was expected that their leaders would tell them what was best and they’d go along. Union leaders could be as persuasive as they needed to be. If that meant the use of threats and violence, so be it. American and Canadian law enforcement officials were remarkably tolerant of strong arm tactics by union officials and, for a very long time, showed a surprising lack of concern about the links between organized crime and many major unions.

In many unions, a president who knew how to be a “strong leader” could expect to rule for life or as long as he wanted to and to ensure that a hand-picked successor was elected to take his place if he chose to step down. Election rules and governance practices were modified to ensure that no one stood a realistic chance of unseating the ruler or his circle of vice presidents and other executives. Unions became bureaucratized as thousands of advisors, lawyers, business agents and other staffers were hired to administer collective agreements, attend at arbitration hearings and so on. These people were loyal to the ruling leaders and worked actively to make the leaders look good and ensure that troublemakers were gotten rid of. Union corruption became rampant. Union offices were plagued with practices like nepotism and wasteful spending. Union presidents jetted around in private aircraft and held lavish conventions in exotic resorts. Some became mixed up with the organized criminals who looted union benefit and pension funds. Laws that required union democracy were poorly enforced (in Canada, these laws don’t even exist). Workers who were fired or beaten up because they advocated taboo subjects like union or workplace democracy had no recourse or protection. Gradually, the subject just sort of disappeared completely.

Ideologically, this new (post WW2) breed of union leaders and their followers were in step with business leaders and managers. They were firm believers in “management’s right to manage”. Interestingly, even in the great social upheaval of the 1960’s, there was no real talk of workplace democracy or union democracy. The union leaders of that era were staunch conservatives, opposed to the black civil rights movement and the women’s equality movement.

Today, most North American unions pay lip service to union democracy. They all claim to be democratic but, with only a handful of exceptions, they aren’t. With the evolution of the Internet, union democracy groups have sprung up in many large unions but all have met with a wall of opposition from union leaders, government agencies and the so-called labour movement (really more of a “labour establishment”). Most see the kinds of reforms that the union democrats advocate as unrealistic and naive. After a decade of very intense online and offline activism, union democrats have had no real success and have found themselves stymied at every turn. Union leaders have taken further steps to insulate themselves from democracy-seeking members some of whom have not been deterred by firings, threats, violence and other forms of persuasion.

How likely is it that union leaders who have this most undemocratic mindset are going to advocate for workplace democracy? Not bloody likely. In fact, I can’t think of a single union leader on this continent who has ever done so or who ever will. Union leaders who themselves sit at the top of a hierarchy, are not about to advocate for the elimination of hierarchy in the workplace. Such a thing would be unimaginable and anyone bold enough to suggest it would be laughed off the podium – not just by managers and businessmen but by union leaders.

The hierarchical structure is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that it’s hard for people to think of the workplace without it. Even as we become more and more aware of the downside of hierarchical relations, we just can’t shake the monkey off our backs. We continue to try hard to wedge democratic practices into the autocratic system and hope that some good will come of this – participative management, employee centred management, open door policies and other human resources management innovations are all half-baked attempts at democratizing the cell block and making the prisoners feel a little bit free.

Union leaders similarly can’t even grasp the subject. I’m not sure if they’re conscious of it, but I think they also fear workplace democracy because in a truly democratic workplace, there will be no need for union leaders with large salaries, big cars, fancy offices and legions of loyal apparatchiks. If there’s democracy in the workplace, the workers will determine what’s fair. Indeed, there will no longer be “workers” in the conventional sense since the role of people in a democratic workplace will change from obedient servant to empowered contributor. A lot of fat cats are going to be looking for other things to do if that happens.

So union leaders and their fans have their own definition of workplace democracy. For them, workplace democracy is something that happens when workers are allowed to vote for a union. This is what the Employee Free Choice Act is about – it’s a law that makes it somewhat easier for workers to unionize and that’s all that it’s about.

While voting for a union (or anything for that matter) is a democratic act, it’s not exactly workplace democracy. It doesn’t give workers any more say in how their workplace is run and certainly doesn’t do away with the hierarchy of authority or the obligation to be subservient. In fact, once in a union the workers may find themselves subject to a boat load of undemocratic practices both at work and in the union hall. Most other pro-union people operate under the mistaken assumption that joining a union furthers workplace democracy because there is this belief that unions are democratic. Once in a union, the members can press for whatever they want. If enough of them are in a union, the greater their leverage, the more likely they are to achieve whatever they want to achieve. So presumably if they want a non-hierarchical workplace, they can achieve it. This view ignores a lot of unpleasant realities however – like the fact that no union leader on this side of the globe would ever permit members to press for real workplace democracy, or that most employers can ignore workers’ demands with threats of business closures or other activities.

Most academics have little understanding of how union-management relations actually operate “on the ground” and have fanciful notions about unions and their relationship with their members. It’s not surprising that workplace democracy isn’t high on any of their agendas and most, if they were honest, would tell you that such things couldn’t possibly happen in our world. There would be chaos. It would be a big fiasco – the entire economy would grind to a halt.

The irony of this is that the entire economy is grinding to a halt already and the only thing that might save us from economic ruin is…workplace democracy. With the capitalist/corporatist (they’re actually two quite different things but most people use them interchangeably) ideological myth-book in tatters and the air thick with talk about sustainability and the need for a more humane and balanced economic order, the time has never been better to promote this “DemoCratic Workplace”* concept.

If we want sustainability, we must abandon the corporatist notions of maximum profitability, limitless consumption, ever increasing production of all kinds of stuff. If these old priorities are abandoned then there is no further need or use for Mr. Taylor’s scientific management, or the hierarchies of authority or management methods designed to keep reluctant workers tethered to their machines. If enterprises are expected to be mindful of their impact on people and communities, then people and communities must play a part in deciding how those enterprises operate, what they do, how they do it… and all of this means that we will need ways of working together that no longer involve imposed decisions. The situation seems to cry out for workplace democracy – the real kind.”


Thanks to Rune Kvist Olsen. This commentary is excerpted from his paper: “The DemoCratic Workplace. Empowering People (demos) to Rule (cratos) their own workplace. Organizing Individual and Group Decision Processes through Personal Competence-based Authority” byRune Kvist Olsen 2009. See: http://workplacedemocracyblog.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/the-democratic-workplace.pdf

(1) See especially the work of Richard B. Freeman, including his seminal work with Joel Rogers published under the title “What Workers Want“, ILR Cornwell University Press, 1999. I have brought together other research together in various pieces, including:   What Makes a Good Job? (Public services International: http://www.world-psi.org/Template.cfm?Section=Home&CONTENTID=10816&TEMPLATE=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm) and Union Organizing: Beyond Fear and Anger (http://www.newunionism.net/library/organizing/Hall-Jones%20-%20Beyond%20Fear%20and%20Anger%20-%202008.htm)

(2) Before reproducing this piece I contacted Ms Pasz and asked her how she felt about unions, in general. Here’s her response: Wanda Pasz…”Unionism” at its most fundamental is about people coming together to pursue shared interests. Unions are communities of interest. Those interests may involve issues inside or outside the workplace or a combination of both. They may be broad (as in a vision of a different kind of social order) or confined to a very specific issue. Whenever you get two or more people coming together around an issue that somehow or other involves people – how they work, live and relate to each other – you have union. Unionism is a means to an end. It is fluid, dynamic and flexible. You can unite with any other group of humans who share your interests. Membership in mulitple “unions” forms links among people and groups which give unionism a networked character. Unionism is about community –  having found our common ground, reaching consensus on what to build there, contributing our abilities and talents to making it happen and living there peacefully and despite whatever differences we may have on other issues. Unionism is democratic. It respects the right of people to make choices and to pursue their interests, whether individually and collectively. Unionism does not keep you from pursuing your interests because of where you live, where you work or what you do for a living. Unionism means all are equal and all can participate equally in decision-making. To me, that’s what unionism is about – or at least what it can be or should be.I realize that this bears little resemblance to the institutionalized unionism that is practiced in North America with its numerous boundaries and top-down governance structures. I’m not completely dismissive of this conventional model. It seemed like (and in many ways was) a good idea at the time – 60 years or so ago – when the state brokered a partnership of sorts between government, labour and corporatist interests. That partnership gave many millions of working people a measure of economic security and social stability but the corporatists bailed out of the partnership a long time ago and so a rethink of the concept is in order. I think going back to the fundamentals is worth considering.