Monday, 1 June 2015

Democracy at the Workplace

For centuries, progressives and reactionaries argued about the need to democratise the governance of society. Repression countered revolutions. Rhetoric battled with reason.

By the middle of the 20th century, with the comprehensive defeat of fascism in the Second World War, the dispute was settled. Even the most conservative-minded conceded that it was untenable to deny members of a society the right to shape how it was run. Opponents of democracy were henceforth on the defensive - but only at the societal level.

At the level of individual organisations, despite the mounting evidence from worker cooperatives, participatory partnerships (e.g. John Lewis Partnership), and employee-owned firms, that businesses which empower their workers to exercise control over them perform better on all key indicators, the case for democratisation has been very much kept to the margins.

One explanation for this is the authoritarian predilection amongst many owners and top executives who, like the petty princelings and egocentric emperors of old, hate the thought of having to share power with anyone else. But an equally important factor lies with a lack of understanding of what would constitute the effective democratisation of the workplace. Too many attempts have fallen down for being too superficial, poorly planned, or inadequately sustained.

Before a call goes out to develop a major research project to address this issue, it is worth checking back with the findings we already have. In this context, we all owe a great debt to Paul Bernstein who, in his book, Workplace Democratization, drew together what extensive research had found and distilled them into six key components:

[1] Meaningful participation opportunities for all in decision-making, either directly or by elected representatives. Profit-sharing without participation in decision-making is insufficient as when or how much is shared would still be decided by those with no accountability to the recipients.

[2] Frequent feedback of economic results to all workers, including the sharing out of surplus to be decided on terms agreed by everyone. Democratic decision-making cannot be stopped short at considering how the revenue generated by all is to be shared by all.

[3] Full sharing of management information with workers so there is a real shared understanding of what is going on. Workers need to know what is going well or not so well, and what changes are necessary if they are to develop informed views about what actions and decisions they are to propose and/or support.

[4] Guaranteed individual rights (akin to basic political rights) to speak out, organise, meet in groups, and question decisions. Without such rights being protected, workers may not participate for fear of being disciplined, demoted or even dismissed.

[5] An independent board of appeal in case of disputes (composed of peers as far as possible). Any kind of owners or management only set-up would breed distrust and deepen alienation.

[6] A sustained cultivation of democratic attitudes and values. This requires on-going, proactive activities to keep interest afloat in reviewing how the business in question is doing. Without imaginative engagement, workers’ attention may drift away and there is a risk of democratic atrophy setting in (just as it can happen in national politics).

For anyone interested in promoting workplace democratisation, focus on how to put these six components in place.

[For a detailed exposition of these principles, see: Bernstein, P., Workplace Democratization (1980), New Brunswick: Transaction Books]

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