Anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-pollution, anti-corporate trade, anti-conservative. These days it seems like the entire philosophy of the Left is based on the idea of taking a stand against everything without explaining what we are in favour of. An independent observer might wonder if we actually stand for anything at all.
With traditional social democratic policies such as progressive taxation and government regulation being somewhat nullified by capital flight, so-called “free trade” agreements, and corporate globalization, more ambitious alternative economic models are being developed. One of them, workplace democracy, is growing in popularity among workers, trade unionists, young people and social activists as a way to help combat the inequality, poverty and alienation that exist in today’s economy.
It is said that those who enjoy their work, regardless of what it pays them, are truly the richest people in the world. Yet under capitalism, most people find their work unsatisfying simply because they have little or no control over their labour and instead suffer from alienating and exploitative conditions at their workplaces. Most workers function not as human beings using their intellectual and creative capacities, but solely as mere instruments of the labour process. People either own the means of production (as business owners), or are the means of production.
On the other hand, creative work, when under the control of the individual in a cooperative workplace, where workers decide democratically what to produce, how to produce it, and for how long, can be a pleasurable activity that leads to human well-being and self-fulfillment. Psychologists have concluded that this is a fundamental need for human beings, much like food, clothing, shelter, love, sex and friendship. To find alternatives to alienating capitalist work structures, it is important to understand the true meaning of workplace democracy – a term that historically has been referred to in a number of ways, including industrial democracy, self-management, work humanization and workers’ control. Genuine workplace democracy is nothing less than full control of the labour process by workers, with democratically elected or shared management subject to recall.
It also incorporates democratic ownership of the enterprise, where the assets of the company would be owned by workers or the public as a whole. Profits would be shared equally between the workers. At a time when hundreds of thousands of decent-paying manufacturing jobs are being exported to underdeveloped countries with lower wages and weaker labour standards, this kind of community or social ownership would become vital in preventing further capital flight.
In addition, workers’ control would entail an “open book” accounting system, where information on company finances is shared with all workers, acting as a barrier against the accounting scandals that have recently plagued Corporate America. Worker-cooperatives would also include balanced job complexes – where different responsibilities, work roles and tasks of the business are generally shared equally among the employees.
As decades of labour research have shown, businesses that are self-managed by their workers are, under static conditions, more efficient and cost-effective than companies that possess a traditional, top-down, bureaucratic form of organization. More importantly, they also create better working conditions for employees. American labour researchers have revealed that those working in democratic workplaces tend to live longer and healthier, enjoy more satisfying personal and family lives, and are more likely to engage in social activities such as volunteering, community service and political participation.
In an attempt to uncover any negative effects of workers’ control, sociologist Paul Blumberg, after surveying twenty-five years of research, found that “there is hardly a study in the entire literature which fails to demonstrate that satisfaction in work is enhanced or that other generally acknowledged beneficial consequences accrue from a genuine increase in workers’ decision-making power.”
Of course, we’re not supposed to know any of this. People are trained to believe that workers are uninformed, careless, lack the capability to manage their own businesses and therefore need an army of managers to control their activities at work. This nonsense is consistently rammed into people’s heads by the corporate media, the entertainment industry, business writers, economists and other sources of traditional wisdom.
One would think that the issue of workplace democracy would be front and centre for political organizations such as the labour-based New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada, but there has been no evidence of provincial NDP governments promoting real workers’ control in either the private or public sectors. If the NDP were to include the idea of workplace democracy as a major federal election issue, it would help illustrate the party’s support for poor and working families against the interests of big business and shareholders. There would be startling consequences: for the first time in history, a majority of working-class Canadians – instead of supporting right-wing parties who pray on their fears – might actually vote NDP. It should be clear to even an independent observer that campaigning on increases to the minimum wage and greater spending on health care and education are simply not enough to garner the level of working-class support needed to form a government.
In the meantime, current provincial NDP governments, in partnership with their allies in the labour movement, could start the process of building greater workplace democracy within their jurisdictions, especially in the public sector. Workplace democracy doesn’t only have to be a feature of the private sector. Governments can start by reforming their own top-down, out-of-date bureaucracies. Entire social programs and public services could be democratized, providing front-line civil servants, as well as citizens, with more direct control over policy-making and program implementation.
As Bertrand Russell so eloquently stated, there are two kinds of work: moving matter around the earth’s surface and telling others what to do. In a free and democratic society, of course, the latter would no longer exist.