“We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organized workers’ associations… We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade…”
So declared the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1848 election manifesto. Prior to this, demands for workplace democracy had been largely the preserve of liberal democrats such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey. Then, soon afterwards, this became a key platform for many socialists. Then syndicalists and trade unionists chimed in, supported by various left intellectuals. Endless variations were developed upon the basic theme, until: “Taken together, the socialist tradition of workers’ democracy was one of the driving forces of political developments in the nineteenth and twentieth century.” This is the view of network member Markus Pausch, a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology based in Austria, in his recent paper “Workplace Democracy: From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back” (2014).
Then something kind of weird happened. As Pausch describes it: “In the 1990s, the idea was co-opted by organizational development and management studies and underwent a change: Workplace democracy, then mostly operationalized as limited participation, became a managerial tool that should help to increase employees’ motivation and efficiency and thereby contribute to entrepreneurial success”.
To put it crudely, employers saw that giving their staff a bit more voice was good for the bottom line. We should have seen this coming, of course. A dozen management trends and buzzwords come to mind, in advance of this shift: management-by-objectives, employee stock ownership plans, “management by wandering around”, empowered teams, quality circles, total quality management, empowerment circles, lean implementation teams, the stakeholder society, delayering, 360-degree feedback, Theory Z… To put it mildly, these are not regimes that workers would have freely elected.
Luckily, the 21st century has seen the agenda being reclaimed: “…with the start of the new millennium, initiatives were intensified and especially in the last seven to eight years, a new unionism of the twentieth-century was proclaimed”.
The New Unionism Network gets an honourable mention at this point, with Pausch quoting one of our founding members Conor Cradden:
“What we mean by workplace democracy is treating enterprises as if they were political communities with citizens, just like countries or cities. We are talking about a situation in which everyone has the same right to participate in decision making—not just whoever owns the company—and to have management held accountable for their actions. That certainly includes the right to say ‘no’, but it also includes the right to insist that certain things need to be done, or to be done in a particular way. It’s a completely different way of thinking about how a company should be run”.
Pausch continues his paper by explaining that the new unionism of the twenty-first century aims at changing the economic system, starting with businesses and companies: “Their aim is explicitly political and their final goal is similar to classical liberal ideas and libertarian socialism. Not the wealth of the company but equality and individual freedom is at the centre”.
This is not an overly long paper (at 16 pages) but it covers a huge terrain… far more than we have mentioned here. It’s definitely recommended reading, even if you’re usually a little intimidated by academic texts.
You can download Workplace Democracy: From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back here.
Markus Pausch is Senior Researcher at the University of Applied Sciences. He is doing research on democratic theory, quality of democracy, participation and the future of the European Union. His website (currently in German only) is accessible here: http://www.markuspausch.eu/