A Movement for Workplace Democracy?

Last week we learned about another hit to democracy. This time, however, it wasn’t Bush coercing some government to join his war-drive against the will of that country’s people. Instead, it was another drop in the U.S. unionization rate.

According to the N.Y. Times, the number of unionized American jobs dropped by 280,000 to 16.1 million last year (Feb 26). Since the mid 1950s when the U.S. unionization rate hit a high of 53% it has steadily dropped to its current level of around 13%. A central function of unions is to increase workplace democracy. Through collective bargaining, unions offer workers some way to fight for a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Similarly, unions provide workers with some space and protection from arbitrary employer action. In fact, collective worker action is the most effective device at adding some democracy to the modern un-democratic corporation. Corporations, especially non-unionized ones, are highly authoritarian structures where workers have little democratic control. The business community is open about this. In the Financial Times (FT), England’s most influential business paper, John Hunt states, “work organisations remain the most undemocratic of modern institutions.” Michael Skapinker also writing in the FT says; “corporate life is inherently undemocratic.” Instead of workers having democratic control over their workplaces, a centralized top-down authoritarian structure prevails. Workers have little to no say; they are simply told what to do.

In place of democracy, the corporate structure is based upon the one dollar = one vote system. Shareholders have voting rights depending upon how many shares they own. Aside from the power of unions, workers’ concerns are more or less left out of the equation (in some non-unionized workplaces workers have some rights depending upon laws and specific individual attributes etc…).

For those who face inhuman working relations but believe in people’s inherent ability to manage their own lives, this system can be hard to accept. Spakinker’s honesty on how business ideologues try to overcome this contradiction between the desire of workers and reality, is insightful;

“What the human relations school has attempted to do is persuade ‘freedom loving Americans’ that they can be as free at work as they are outside. … Through notions such as ‘empowerment’ management gurus try to persuade employees that they have real power. (March 5)” Leaving aside Spakinker’s somewhat naïve understanding of the freedom most Americans have outside work, he touches on an important point.

Namely, American workers have a strong sense of freedom and democracy, which they want to realize at work. For those on the left, this contradiction between people’s work reality and the ideal they hold is an essential organizing tool. Most people trust their own faculties and thus believe democracy is a worthwhile ideal.

Nevertheless, in American popular consciousness the ideas of workers’ councils and workplace democracy have been marginalized. With the demise of organized labour, many of the ideas that drove people to organize in the first place have been lost. Similarly, some people have come to accept that democracy in the political realm is the only kind of democracy, even though “all democratic societies live with the same paradox. We elect our political leaders…but we do not elect the people who run our workplaces (FT March 5).” Why if we pride ourselves on living in a democratic society are workplaces undemocratic? Most people spend 40 hours a week at work; this is close to 25% of their waking hours in an undemocratic structure. Why? More importantly, what are the larger societal ramifications of the undemocratic corporate structure of one dollar = one vote?

Besides disproportionate power over “their” workers’ lives, large shareholders, through their control over wealth, have an excessive amount of power within the political system. Through their ownership of shares, these people buy political parties, own the media, fund think tanks, organize themselves in business lobby groups, amongst other things. In short, they try to mould societies’ political, cultural and economic structure to their benefit. Central to countering this force are unions. It should thus come as no surprise that countries with higher unionization rates tend to have more vibrant political democracies and socially progressive governments. The spectrum of unionization strength varies from place to place, however.

Sweden and Canada provide examples of industrialized nations. Sweden has one of the most advanced welfare states and a unionization rate of around 80%. In addition, in Sweden as well as other Scandinavian countries and Germany that have generally progressive social policies, workers have some shop-floor decision-making. Workers have a direct role in shaping company policy.

In Canada, a country where unions have an indirect role in shaping company policy as in the U.S., the higher unionization rate is a progressive and democratizing force. Unionized workers make up about a third of all workers and the connection between unions and socially progressive policies is clear. Recently, the Canadian Auto Workers, the largest private sector union in the country, forced General Motors to publicly state their commitment to Canada’s socialized Medicare system. (GM car manufacturing in Canada is cheaper than the American manufacturing due to Canada’s socialized medicine.

Nevertheless, companies rarely extol the benefits of public services considering today’s mainstream business ideology is to privatize everything.) Canadian unions are at the forefront of the struggle to maintain Canada’s Medicare system. Though the declining unionization rate in the USA is a disappointment, public perception of unions is a positive development. The N.Y. Times reported that 66% of Americans approved of unions while 22% disapproved. This is the highest approval rating in the past 35 years. An improved image of unions combined with people’s yearning for workplace democracy should be fertile ground for those looking to fundamentally transform society. As democracy re-emerges on the street with the anti-war movement and within the anti-capitalist globalization movement, it is important that movements towards workplace democracy also re-emerge.

yves engler is VP communications with the Concordia Student Union Montreal he can be contacted at [email protected]

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