workplace-democracy


signs“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”. (more…)

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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. (more…)

Why do we defer from 9 to 5? The “master-servant relationship” is a feudal phantom that still haunts today’s workplaces, thanks to English common law. Peter Hall-Jones argues that it’s time to exorcise the old ghoul. The workplace democracy movement aims to do just that, but where do unions fit in? The way they respond to this agenda might well determine their relevance in the workplace of the future.

O2Great_Chain_of_BeingNCE upon a time there was a great chain of being. Up the top was God; down at the bottom were all the inanimate objects[1]. Actually, somewhere beneath all this, below the rocks and lost socks and broken toasters in a kind of hidden underground lair, were the Devil and his minions. As for you and I, we were stationed at different points along the way depending upon our status. Kings were below angels; vassals below lords; apprentices below craftsmen; and wives below husbands. And there wasn’t much point in grizzling about it; all this was divinely ordained so we just had to lump it.

What we now call ‘English common law’ developed out of this medieval compost. Over the centuries, hallowed principles were codified into exacting social rules. Detailed treatises and regulations were drawn up to determine how people on different levels should relate to each other. Some of the central planks that emerged from this work of ages were the parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the guardian-ward relationship, and (our subject here) the master-servant relationship.

All of this ought to be the stuff of historical footnotes. However, English common law still underpins the legal systems in a large number of countries. The list includes the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Brunei, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. To make matters worse, through the process we now call colonialism, several of these feudal relationships leached across cultures and have become a kind of ‘default setting’. In particular, the master-servant relationship sets the general tenor for industrial relations worldwide. Trade arrangements reinforce it further, and it has been quietly hard-wired into international labour law. Perhaps we no longer hold cherubim below seraphim, beetles below ladybirds, or yew trees below olive trees, but our life at work is still very much configured around this medieval template. (more…)

guild2

This is the final in our series on how global unions might be built. In it, the author argues for a rejuvenated form of solidarity built around occupation. Industrial unions began to replace guilds and friendly societies during the first wave of new unionism – starting towards the end of the 19th century. The labour movement may have lost something critical along the way. Look at the way we talk about work — people do jobs; but people are occupations. The author argues: “…we need to start from the principle that what we do and seek to do is more important than who we do it for.” As we have seen elsewhere in this series (see here, for instance) a revived focus on occupation could be constructed as an added dimension to existing union activity and structures — it need not require any major reconfiguration. The benefits to working people are obvious, as we have seen with professional associations and support networks. But a new approach based on occupational citizenship might also help us address some of the most pressing problems we face:

  • How do we organize and bargain across borders in an age of globalization?
  • How do we organize “the precariat” – that rapidly growing class of workers who come and go before unions can reach them?
  • How do we rebuilt solidarity and influence in an age where many unions are struggling just to sustain themselves?

(more…)

FWUMThis article proposes the creation of a new international sustainability standard certifying that wages and working conditions are set through ongoing processes of good faith collective bargaining. Businesses and unions that comply with the standard will be entitled to apply the ‘Fair Work: Union Made’ label to their products and services. The authors argue that while such a voluntary standard cannot substitute for robust collective and individual labour law, it is likely to be an effective means of promoting collective industrial relations.

If you are interested in being part of a small team to take this idea further, please contact communications@newunionism.net. (more…)


DAWPerhaps the left is not as divided as the right would have us believe.

Back in 2011 we looked at four alternatives to capitalism that had been proposed since 2000 (see http://goo.gl/GB7Qs). All of the models had one thing in common: they all called for the democratization of work. In 2008 this became one of New Unionism’s four key principles (more). Of course, the Bolivarians have been saying this for years (recently here). And Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky have since joined the chorus (here and here). Now there’s a major new voice provides a thumping bass: Richard Wolff’s “Workplace Democracy: A Cure for Capitalism” (Haymarket 2013).

In many ways, Wolff’s book is the one to start with. You might then go on to read about socialist markets, participatory economics or occupational citizenship (a la Schweickart, Albert and Standing respectively), but at least you’d have done the big-picture thinking first.

Let me try to provide an overview in one paragraph, for those who can’t afford $15 +p&p (order here).  Apologies to Prof Wolff for what follows — one must murder in order to dissect. Eighteenth century revolutions in France and the USA delivered people from monarchy and ushered in a new age of democracy. Or so the dominant narrative would have us believe. In reality, democracy was never extended into the field of economics. Rather, the revolutions delivered control of production and distribution into the hands of the emerging capitalist class. Something similar happened with the Russian revolution, although it was the State and the Party that ended up with control of economics. Wolff argues that the people who produce the goods (or services) should be the same folks who decide on what to do with the value they create. He explains his rationale quite logically (there is no trace of table-thumping in this book), and puts up a pretty convincing case for the view that this would change dynamics right at the base of society. Workplace democracy may not be a solution to the cycle of crises in itelf, but at long last it allows for solutions to emerge. Hell, we might even survive as a species. (more…)

structureThis classic article by Jo Freeman (republished with her permission) was first brought to our attention by the venerable member Dave Spooner from the Global Labour Institute (Manchester). Dave’s right – this is a great reference point in our discussion about organisational forms for global unionism. Some believe we can (or should) avoid formal structures altogether. Dave, along with Jo Freeman, argues that this simply empowers those who can manipulate informal structures. The fact that this article comes to us all the way from the 1970s* in no way diminishes its relevance, as you will see. On the contrary – this is essential reading for a new networked generation, and for any activist interested in making democracy real.

(more…)

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