wdMembers of this network have been arguing that the union movement needs to become more involved in organizing for workplace democracy. Study after study, survey after survey, have shown that workers in post-industrial nations want more direct voice and influence in the workplace. However, by and large their aspirations are represented by a movement whose bargaining agenda has remained the same for decades.

Union organizers will be familiar with the tensions that result from this. What do you do when the members’ main concern seems to be about the boss making stupid decisions? Or the KPIs being out-of-synch with reality? Or a culture of nepotism generating widespread depression? Or a flash new I.T. system screwing up everybody’s workflow? How does all this fit into a program of achievable gains? Few workers will mention the word “democracy” during such conversations, but what they are wanting is to be heard. And they do not want to be sub-divided or co-opted in the process. This is clearly a role for unions, whether they decide to accept it or not. It is also a huge opportunity for recruitment. Think about all those employees who don’t join because they have it in their head that unionism is just about pay and conditions.

Broadening the bargaining agenda may seem too difficult at first. After all, there are resource implications. And there are all sorts of issues that unionists might not feel confident with. eg What should the union’s role be (if any) in a consultative committee? Is worker participation a double-edged sword? What about self-management vs self-directed teams? Not only that, but some members will react in horror if they sense labor-management co-operation in the wind. What about Euro-style social dialogue? To complicate things, some members may be wary of asserting themselves (“we’re just a minority group” or “we don’t have the right skills”), whereas some employers may seem suspiciously receptive. Is this a warning sign?

The key thing to bear in mind in considering all this is that there is a very real difference between worker participation and worker control. Each has a different level of support and a different cohort of supporters and this has been measured. The purpose of this post is to introduce you to an authoritative piece of work on this subject by network member Ed Collom, Chair and Professor of Sociology at the California State University. If you can take the time to read Ed’s thesis (link below) and understand the concepts and distinctions he examines, you’ll be well prepared to take this agenda out into the real world of meetings and into negotiations. You won’t be confused by counter-proposals; you won’t fall for ideological arguments; you’ll be armed against bogus metrics; and you won’t be caught off guard by occasional pockets of resistance. Rather, you’ll be able to work with members to make concrete and achievable plans for change. And, if Ed is right, you’ll almost certainly see higher levels of membership satisfaction and recruitment.

Social Inequality and the Politics of Production: Americans’ Attitudes toward Workplace Democracy can be downloaded here.


Note: The idea of reading a PhD thesis might sound daunting to most folks! For this reason I’ve included some extracts below. However, reading these will only give you a surface overview. To understand the whole workplace democracy project properly, we need to grapple with it in depth and then (more importantly) talk it through between ourselves. For this reason I suggest you read the real thing AND bring it to the attention of your union leadership and other organizers. As you will see from the extracts below, Ed (pictured left) is a clear communicator. But the main thing you will miss if you don’t check out the original document is that this work is evidence-based. These aren’t just opinions from the armchair; they’re conclusions that he has drawn, with his justifications explained, from a much wider pool of ideas. Tried and tested.  In other words, hey, it’s scientifically proven!    🙂



From the ABSTRACT:

Workplace democracy, the idea that workers should have a voice at their jobs, has
been advocated in the U.S. by both labor and management. An ongoing debate exists
about whether it is an appropriate strategy to empower workers and the labor movement or whether it is a managerial tool used to weaken labor. Yet there has been no empirical attempt to investigate this cross-class support. Furthermore, workplace democracy is rarely discussed vis-à-vis race and gender…
…In the conclusion it is suggested that unions should push for democratization of
the workplace while being critical of the limited managerial efforts… In addition to oppositional struggles, labor should support and experiment with community-based alternatives.

Further excerpts:

Workplace democracy, the idea that workers should have a voice at their jobs, has been an important component of the Left’s vision for over 150 years. In the past 30 years, elements of this vision have been co-opted by U.S. capital for its own class interests…
Chapter 1, Introduction, ix

An important distinction between genuine workplace democracy and these management initiatives is that the former is often perceived as a means to greater social change while the latter is an end in itself.
Page 18

Workplace democracy is a collective vision that requires interaction among workers… It is not surprising therefore, that individualized participation emerges only from the corporate initiatives.
Page 25

…the following types of workers were significantly more likely to be pro-worker control: women, younger workers, blue-collar workers, union members, those with strike experience, public-service workers, those dissatisfied with their jobs, those distrustful of their bosses, those with faith in workers’ industriousness, and those who feel that workers know more than what they are given credit for.
Page 37

The collective bargaining arrangement assumes that labor and management have conflicting interests and can be seen as engaged in a struggle over the distribution of authority. Such experience increases workers’ consciousness and should lead them to be more supportive of workplace democracy.
Pages 48-9

…about 65% of the respondents “agree completely” or “agree somewhat” to worker participation in electing managers. Only 16% are totally opposed to this idea. This high degree of support corresponds with much of the previous findings concerning worker participation. …about 63% of the respondents feel that this form of worker participation will make the firm “somewhat more” or “much more” efficient. Only 14% feel that it is a bad idea and will make the firm “much less” efficient.
Pages 53-4

…workplace democracy is best understood as worker participation in decision making and worker control. The former is rather widely supported while the latter has much more limited support. …Overall, Americans are most supportive of worker participation in electing managers, followed by worker control over production decisions, and lastly, worker control over personnel decisions.
Page 59

Given the separation of ownership and control, most workers are no longer directly subjected to an exploiting capitalist. Workers experience class on a daily basis through their relationship with managers and supervisors. Hence, it is argued that the critical basis of class has shifted from exploitation to power. Authority is the most appropriate dimension of class relations. (emphasis added)
Page 65

With respect to worker control over personnel decisions, professionals, the petty
bourgeoisie, and the workers are the most supportive and do not differ significantly from one another.
Page 83

Supervisors are certainly not usually involved in these types of decisions and the findings demonstrate that they would like to be. Here, the key is that the supervisors are not interpreting participation as threatening to their own positions. As expected, capitalists and managers are the least supportive of worker participation in electing managers. …managers do not want to be elected by their subordinates as they are likely to shirk from the accountability that would accompany such a situation.
Page 84

…in regard to age, older managers are less supportive of worker participation.
These managers probably came of age during the height of scientific management… and continue to be opposed to the quite opposite notion of worker participation. …women of all classes except capitalists and workers are more supportive than their male counterparts of some form of workplace democracy. …Minority managers, supervisors, professionals, and workers are all more
supportive of some form of workplace democracy than their white counterparts. This
reflects the underdog principle, the fact that the most subordinated benefit the most from workplace democracy. (emphasis added)
Pages 89 – 90

Younger capitalists and managers; female petty bourgeoisie and managers; managers, supervisors, and workers of color; workers who are dissatisfied with their jobs; and liberal professionals are the most supportive of worker participation within their respective classes. …Female supervisors; white capitalists; professionals of color; and
managers and workers who support worker participation are more supportive of
production control. …A major premise of this project is that both capital and labor have supported workplace democracy. Evidence of such cross-class support is found in these analyses. While workers are expected to be favorable toward workplace democracy, the puzzle is to figure out why other classes are also supportive. These findings indicate that the advocacy of workplace democracy from outside of the working class derives primarily from those who are subordinated within their own classes. Most significantly, gender and race are the most important bases of the “middle class” support (petty bourgeoisie, managers, supervisors, and professionals). Pages 92-94

…the more radical unionized workers (strikers) support the more radical form of workplace democracy. …The more current worker influence over production decisions, the more satisfied workers are with their jobs.
Page 120

It is unlikely that purely corporate-backed forms of participation will satisfy the unionized or the dissatisfied workers. Despite some arguments about the “win-win” potential of workplace democracy… the results here suggest that there are several underlying contradictions which are bound to result in class conflict—not the “cooperation” which management has sought.
Page 124

Chapter 5 …indicated that there are few race and gender gaps within the working class in attitudes toward worker participation. Overall, worker participation in decision making appeals to many.
Page 201

Union members with strike experience are more supportive of personnel control, while union members who have not ever struck are more supportive of all three forms of workplace democracy. Since the most class conscious workers are the most supportive, union members are apparently not interpreting workplace democracy as a management tool.
Page 212

The results of this study also have important implications for unions. …the labor community is divided on the issue. …A clear majority of workers supports worker participation in electing managers and a notable minority supports worker control. The most class-conscious workers—union members, workers of color, and the dissatisfied—are the most supportive.  Moreover, where workers currently experience some influence over decision making, they want more. …These circumstances suggest that unions should push for the democratization of the workplace while being critical of the limited managerial efforts. …Union-backed worker participation can empower unions and has the potential “to expedite the labor movement’s transition from a service model of unionism to an organizing model”…  “Articulating a distinct union role in workplace change could be a powerful tool in outreach”… and may enhance the attractiveness of unions to the unorganized. … [T]he key to unions’ survival and growth in the twenty-first century is to redefine what they are after and strategically to shift their resources, energy, and activities in new directions. Although organizing new members is a vital component of a new unionism…it is equally important that unions obtain a role for workers in the fundamental decisions that affect their employment security, their workplace, and how they perform their jobs… Moreover, unionized workers who have participation experience are more satisfied with their unions than those members who lack such voice.
Pages 218-220

Many of these programs are presented by management as being incompatible with unions and are used to reduce worker solidarity and inhibit labor organizing… Freeman and Rogers… find that experience with nonunion participation programs decreases workers’ desire to become unionized. …However, the empirical results do show unambiguously that the union role is critical. The management sponsored and union-sponsored programs tend to have quite opposite outcomes.
Page 221

…worker participation may also help diminish the reign of financial capital… U.S. managers have tended to be myopic and concerned primarily with short-term profits to placate their shareholders, the rentier class. With the voice of workers, the advantages of long-term strategies are more likely to be heard. …Managers and capitalists are likely to be initially hostile toward the idea of union backed
workplace democracy. However, this form of work reorganization is also likely to be highly productive. Workers’ valuable input would be utilized and morale and
commitment would rise.
Page 226

This study suggests that substantive workplace democracy is most attainable in
unionized settings. Thus, it seems clear that labor organizing is critical. The widespread support for worker participation in decision making should facilitate this task. …People can become empowered through a movement which is simultaneously oppositional and alternative. As the gap between making history and making life is closed, democracy prevails.
Page 228

Note: IMO, that last sentence is worth the price of admission alone!