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Democracy and democracy at work

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Democracy and democracy at work

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Agora #92

Even if work were to disappear, as (generally) did slavery, we will still need a democratic way of making collective decisions in our societies

Democracy and democracy at work: two sides of the same coin

Some reflections about democracy at work

This article shares some thoughts on the link between democracy and democracy at work. Division of labour and functional complexity are bound to create hierarchy and social stratification. At the same time, individuals cannot sustainably be bound together if they are not being taken care of and left without a say. That is why social contracts are needed also at the level of companies in order to restore balance and fairness in employment relations. Democracy and democracy at work are two sides of the same coin.

Democracy is probably the most important and valued feature of our Western and European societies; however, it stops operating at the place where we spent most of our lives: work. Why should it be so?

Democracy and hierarchy

The value of democracy

The absence of democracy in the workplace could be quite surprising in our democracies. Indeed, if democracy is seen as valuable, it must be because it brings something positive to society and the individuals who compose it. Surely, what is valid for society at large should be also applicable to its individual components, including sub-segments of societies like companies which are themselves organised. For instance, collective deliberations help foster better decision-making because the buy-in of the players involved is more easily secured. Similarly, the information of everyone is better factored in when individuals are allowed to have a say. This is the fundamental argument used by Condorcet to explain the rationale for having parliaments: everyone has an angle on what the truth is, if we aggregate all our information together, the law of large numbers applies, individual mistakes cancel out and we have a less biased estimate of where the truth is.

Translating these arguments to the workplace, it does make sense to let workers have a say because they might know better than their manager the specific functioning of their line of business, how production works, where are the bottlenecks and how those could be better overcome. In a world where rationality is limited, the top management cannot be expected to know every detail about what is going on in their companies. Micro-managing tasks would lead the top management to confuse the trees with the forest and divert their attention away from the big picture and the strategic orientation of the company, which should be their essential tasks. That is why it might be better to let workers have a say on how production should be organised.

Need for coordination and hierarchy

At the same time, what makes the value of democracy also constitutes a source of weakness. Debates can take ages and delay necessary decision-making. Some voters might be given a say on topics for which they have little expertise or do not understand so well. Not everybody is equally equipped in terms of knowledge or intellectual capacities. Sometimes we have to accept that decisions are better made by the person who knows best. The one person-one vote does not necessarily bring the best decision in all cases. Also, decisions need to be implemented for them to produce their effects, without having people questioning them all the time. In an organisation where every individual has to play its part, some level of collective discipline needs to be accepted as well. It is not possible to let everyone do everything they want. Decisions cannot be constantly reverted if our collective organisation wants to have some form of direction. Besides, an organisation made of a large number of individuals is not spontaneously working in a coordinated manner. Teams need to be formed, depending on the nature of the job to be performed, the amount of needed involved. A division of labour might be necessary, with some workers specialising in some tasks and some in others. Each team should be given a clear direction to ensure that its works match the work done by other. A hierarchy is to some extent necessary to coordinate all parts. Division of labour and the need to have some social hierarchy or at least stratification somehow puts a limit to the capacity of workers to be completely free of their activity. They also need to accept to be commanded by someone else and to receive instructions.

Trade Unions and the fundamental imbalance of the labour contract

Labour law and consented subordination

It does therefore make sense that workers renounce to their capacity to decide autonomously of what they will do when they offer their workforce to an employer. One could argue that this is actually what the working contract is all about: the worker offers his/her productive capacity to an employer for a given period of time (his/her working hours), against a corresponding remuneration (the wage). There is therefore a subordination link which is – as strangely as the concept looks like – consented by the worker. On the hiring end, the employer is the one paying. They should be free to decide of how they will dispose of their money, and of the working time they could buy from the workers. After all, if the money invested does not bring any return, it is their money which will be lost – the worker would have been paid nevertheless. This is, in a nutshell, the basic for the existence of a labour contract, and at the same time the basic of existence for labour law. It is about consented subordination, to produce some work during a specific period of time, in exchange of a payment that will help the worker to meet his own personal needs (having a roof for his family, bringing food home, financing some costly leisure activities, etc).

Workers are also citizens enjoying fundamental rights

There are however limits to the power that can be granted to the employer. By consenting to their own temporary subordination, the workers are not renouncing to their fundamental rights as individuals. They should only be instructed to perform tasks or activities which match the contract agreed. The contract itself cannot be about performing unlawful activities. Some boundaries must also be set regarding what can be requested. Workers should not be expected to put the integrity of their bodies at risk, for they have a fundamental right to preserve it. How can we be sure that the employer will not abuse of the subordination state of their employees?

Trade unions as a tool to rebalance the contractual relation

This is a fair question to ask, as the contractual relation between the employer and the employee is typically not a balanced one. Indeed, capital holders are so to say already incorporated into a collective entity when they enter the labour market to find employees: shareholders have already joined their efforts, and a multiplicity of them can be represented by one person. Labour, on the other hand, is not. Individual workers seeking employment individually apply for jobs. Therefore, the contractual relationship is almost by construction at risk of becoming inequitable. The employee needs the job to feed his family. If he/she refuses the conditions imposed by one employer, he/she might not be able to find better ones with another employer, because there are much more individuals looking for jobs than there are employers looking for employees. Therefore, the contractual conditions are not really negotiable, or only at the margin, and can easily turn to be unfair or at the disadvantage of the employee.

Furthermore, within the workplace, the employer can abuse its dominant situation to request the performance of duties which are not part of the contract, for instance unpaid overtime or working practices which can endanger the health of the workers. Sometimes, the abuses can go up to exposing the employees to inappropriate behaviours or sexual harassment. The more vulnerable the worker (for instance a single mother responsible for a young child), the more difficult it is to resist abusive demands made by the employer because the consequence of losing one’s job might be too difficult to bear. We saw this mechanism even happening for wealthy celebrities which everyone would think were protected from imbalances in employment relations (#meetoo). In that context, the reality of economic domination undermines the mere values on which our democracies are based, such as respect for the individual, equality in rights, or simply freedom, to quote a few.

The voice of workers inside and outside the workplace

Overcoming this imbalance of power is the reason d’être of trade unions. By creating solidarity between all the workers and ensuring that they can act and speak with one voice, trade unions restore the balance of power and have the capacity to bring more fairness in the labour and contractual relations, protect workers from abuses in the workplace, and make sure that their vulnerability is not taken advantage of to ask them to accept behaviours or demands that should not be accepted. Therefore, the key function of enabling workers to have a voice is contributing to bringing to life the humanitarian principles that underpin the democratic nature of our societies. Trade unions help prevent some become more equal than others.

This equalisation role played by trade unions not only works within the workplace but also outside the workplace. There is ample and consistent research showing a strong link between the strength of trade unions and the size of social inequalities (see also next section). It is also shown that the level of engagement within a trade union correlates positively with the level of political engagement within our societies.[1] To some extent, the decline of trade union power and the decline of adhesion to democratic standards unfortunately observed by political scientists over the last decades correlate very well. In other words, the strength of democracy in the workplace is also a good indicator of the strength of democracy at all, for the two phenomena are two faces of the same coin.

It is worthwhile stressing that the link between democracy and democracy at work was captured from the very beginning of the labour movement. As mentioned by Grumbrell-McCormick and Hyman (2019), Sydney and Beatrice Webb gave the title of Industrial Democracy to their 1897 book on British trade unionism, because they viewed trade unions as essential elements of democracy whose conception had to be widened “so as to include economic as well as political relations”. [2]

 

[1] See for instance D’Art, Daryl & Turner, Thomas. (2007). Trade Unions and Political Participation in the European Union: Still Providing a Democratic Dividend?. British Journal of Industrial Relations. 45. 103-126. 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2007.00604.x.

[2] Gumbrell-McCormick, R., & Hyman, R. (2019). Democracy in trade unions, democracy through trade unions? Economic and Industrial Democracy, 40(1), 91-110. https://doi.org/10.1177/0143831X18780327

How far should democracy in the workplace go?

Cooperative owned by employees

Once we agree about the value of democracy in the workplace, it remains to be determined what should be the exact modalities. How do we place the right cursor between the value of autonomy and the need for some coordination? How far should democracy go? It might not be possible to vote every time that a task needs to be performed. However, the organisation of the company itself does not need to abide to the standards of profit-making organisations.

Some workers have attempted the cooperative structure. The Mondragon Corporation, a voluntary association of 95 cooperative structures intervening in finance, industry, retail, education and training, with 70 000 workers and more than 11-billion-euro turnover, is being often presented as a successful example able to provide an alternative to capitalist organisations. [1]

Not all cooperative structures have met similar success, however. In a world where the companies’ survival depends on their capacity to face competition at the global level, from countries where workers do not necessarily enjoy strong rights, sometimes because low-cost production countries are not even democratic at all, the conditions of employments of workers are unfortunately an adjustment parameter.

Negotiation rights and Board level representation

For that reason, it matters that we can also rely on a legal system setting fair rules for the games, be it globally or nationally. At the national level, minimum participation standards such as the right of workers to elect representatives at the companies’ supervisory board, and to form trade unions and works councils, are objectives that should be part of a democracy at work agenda. At the international level, Free Trade agreements would be well advised to include labour provisions to ensure that unfair treatment of workers is not used as a competition variable.

The new agreement between the US and Mexico (USMCA) which came into force in July 2020 as a replacement for NAFTA is a very good example of how democracy in the workplace can be protected or even exported thanks to well-managed free-trade agreements. In the case at hand, American trade-unions managed to impose enforceable measures against abuse of labour rights in the treaty, in particular the so-called Rapid Response Labour Mechanism (RRLM) allowing time effective complaints against individual companies. Thanks to this Treaty, many workers in Mexico could get access to more favourable collective agreements and get freed from the government-controlled (and corrupted) trade unions that were representing them before. [2]

In Europe, board-level representation of workers is a widespread practice and a key component of the European social model. [3] This level of representation, or even weaker forms of participation such as legal obligations to negotiate on wages or other aspects of working conditions, do not typically happen because of spontaneous good will but because they are forced by the society via specific laws.

The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder

When law is not sufficient to provide for a suitable workers representation, it is also possible to use the mechanisms of the market economy to arrive to similar results. There is no need to work in a cooperative for workers to be able to own company shares, be it their companies or companies hiring other workers. One major channel of influence is taking place through the role of pension funds, such as California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers). These new players proved to be very powerful in using capitalism own instruments to push for better consideration of the workers’ interests – for instance when they voted against the appointment of corrupt Board members in Walmart.[4] In Europe, the reluctance of trade unions to engage into funded pension schemes might limit the room for leveraging this type of power, however.

 

[1]Nick Romeo, August 27, 2022,  New Yortker, How Mondragon Became the World’s Largest Co-Op, https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/how-mondragon-became-the-worlds-largest-co-op

[2] See for instance Martin Myant. (2022, March 17). Making labour provisions in free trade agreements work. In ETUI, The European Trade Union Institute. Retrieved 21:56, May 26, 2024, from https://www.etui.org/publications/making-labour-provisions-free-trade-agreements-work

[3] See for instance Jeremy Waddington, Aline Conchon. (2020, November 05). Board Level Employee Representation in Europe. In ETUI, The European Trade Union Institute. Retrieved 13:55, May 26, 2024, from https://www.etui.org/publications/books/board-level-employee-representation-in-europe

[4][4] See David H. Webber, “The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder: Labor’s Last Best Weapon”– April 2, 2018

The value of democracy at work for society at large

Restriction of property rights and societal interests

To some extent, laws imposing workers’ participation will impose some limitations to the property rights of shareholders, in the sense that they give a say to workers on how to dispose of the company’s assets whereas these assets are not the properties of the workers but only that of the company. The consequences that decisions taken at the company level can have on the lives of the companies’ workers are such that they are deemed to justify a restriction of the fundamental right of property.

This interesting feature does not only arise for the protection of workers. The law also serves to put a frame to the usage of individual freedom to associate with other individuals (and form a corporation), considering the need to protect the most vulnerable and secure a good balance of power. That is why, even among capital holders themselves, the law saw the necessity to protect minority shareholders, via the so-called loyalty obligations in Germany for instance (which foresee that a majority shareholder has to give priority to the interests of the company over their own interests). This represents, to some extent, the benefit of living in a democratic society able to impose rules on the strong to ensure that the weak remain protected.

In the same vein, Board level representation of employees and all the legal measures which force employers to give a say to their workers acknowledges the impact that these companies can have on their lives.

Democracy at work as a barrier against managerial capture

However, workers’ representatives are also performing an important function as counter-power within the companies, which can even serve to preserve the shareholders’ interests. Indeed, as formalised by the so-called principal-agent model, the management of the companies are not necessarily the owners of the companies but are themselves employees expected to serve the companies’ interests. They are however placed in a situation where they can make use of their own position to further their own interests at the expense of the shareholders’ interests (leveraging what Crozier used to call their area of strategic uncertainty). It will be very difficult for shareholders, however, to identify that they are being abused by the management they appointed because they will not by default have direct access to the internal information. The top management of the company is in a position to misrepresent or even hide crucial information to the shareholders, as regular CEO corruption cases show. This is where having a counter-power within the companies itself can be useful to prevent managerial capture.

Big Tech and the lack of internal checks and balances

When such a counterpower mechanism does not exist, the consequences could be possibly very detrimental for society at large. Specifically, the development of technology triggered the apparition of Tech giants which, even if they belong to private individuals rather than to the state, do de facto have an important public function in our democracies because they have an influence on the circulation of opinions (social networks), ongoing elections, or simply are at the heart of building the society of tomorrow (artificial intelligence). However, experience shows that one cannot rely on such companies and in particular their Human Resources department to self-regulate their own abuses of power internally. For instance, when they were affected by cases of sexual harassment, the same typical reaction of not helping the victims but sacking them to contain the damages was observed. That is where regulation is necessary to make sure an adequate system of checks and balance is implemented from within these companies. Exactly as for the movie industry, in the absence of trade unions able to serve as counterpower in the workplace, the abusers will strive. When the said companies play a key role in our democratic life and the formation of public opinion, the internal capacity to resist to undue pressure – which can also arise from foreign forces – is crucial to preserve the well-functioning of our democracies.

Democracy at work as the cure to capitalism

Overcoming the dilemma between capitalism and communism

Somehow the extent to which democracy in the workplace will impose itself is a precondition for the survival of our democracies as we know them. Currently, the political left is still trying to find a new ideological model, between the Charybdis of Capitalism and the Scylla of Communism. The fall of the Soviet Union led some of the progressist forces to place their hopes in the free market and economic liberalism – for there was no apparent alternative in sight – only to realise later on that such choices contributed to the explosion of social inequalities that we observed since the 1990s. It is telling, in that regard, that most of the solutions looked at by prominent economists and institutions to try to rebalance the rise of social inequalities are not looking at the strengthening of the trade union power, and the increase in workers’ participation, whereas research and empirical evidence is unanimous in pointing to their fundamental role in that regard. Some economists, however, are pointing to the value that trade unions can play in building more equality and also a better society. Such is the case of Richard B. Freeman from the so-called Harvard School of Labour Relations, who initiated already back in the 1980s a stream of research showing the usefulness of trade-union for the economy, when the previous mainstream view was to only see them as a source of ineffectiveness in the labour market.[1] Richard D Wolff, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, founded the non-profit organisation “Democracy at Work” in 2012 to advocate economic democracy as a way to provide a genuine basis for democracy[2].  Along with this tradition, Thomas Piketty recently called for increasing workers’ representation in companies boards for big companies as a way to reduce social inequalities.[3]

Democracy at work: going beyond the sole distribution of wealth

From that angle, it is important to understand that democracy in the workplace is not only about sharing the cake, ie enforcing a better redistribution of the return on production and wealth. Ensuring that workers could get a fair wage has of course always been a crucial objective of the labour movement. Thereafter, differences of views arose as regards whether workers should have an interest in the organisation of production. Some trade unions are very keen to make a difference between the employer and the unions and see workers’ participation as a factor of collusion which could corrupt the union from the inside.[4] Some did even accept to recognise the so-called “management rights clause”[5], as long as workers would reap the benefits of such collective contracts and profits. However, increasingly, attention was also paid to the conditions of production themselves, and the fact that they were also impacting the health and safety of the workers, the integrity of their bodies, their right to dignity as a person. Therefore, unions increasingly came to recognise the weakness of the “Fordian” social pact, illustrated by Walter Reuther and the collective agreements negotiated under his leadership of United Automotive Workers Union with General Motors, and thereafter Ford and Chrysler (who stayed in history as the so-called “Treaty of Detroit”).[6] The need arose to avoid workers’ alienation by the production process, and to have them recognised as human beings who deserve to have a say. This is somehow a key aspect of the project behind democracy at work. It is not only about changing the distribution of wealth. It is also about changing how wealth is produced and how the power is shared within the organisations producing wealth or public goods and services.  [7]

The specific case of international organisations

The situation of international organisations is a very good illustration of the reach of the concept of democracy at work.  In international organisations, the employer is also a legislator. This further creates imbalances and also makes the issue of democracy at work more palatable. There is a manifest democratic deficit, because the legislator is not elected and can decide on domains which are normally within the remit of the elected parliament, including restrictions on fundamental rights, without having electoral accountability. Therefore, negotiation and participation aiming at securing the consent of the workers who will be bound by these “laws” (as the contract contains legislative provisions which can be unilaterally changed by the employer without the workers consent) are essential elements to restore the social contract. By construction, this type of democratic deficit happens in organisations which are placed outside of the democratic order because, in our current global order, democracy belongs to the national level. There is no global democracy for the time being and the prospect of having one is very remote. However, the purpose of the international institutions is precisely to foster peace, prosperity, and at (least tacitly) democracy in the world. This is the reason d´être of the United Nations System but also of all international institutions of a financial nature, like the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction or the European Central Bank (the latter being also a political project, beyond its economic aspects). In order to ensure that these institutions properly perform their mission, internal mechanisms should be in place to prevent them from being open to abuse and managerial capture. If the legislative power and – for many of them – also the judiciary power are in the hands of management, it is to be feared that the same cause will produce the same effects: concentration of power will lead to abuses, as Montesquieu said.[8]

Furthermore, international organisations are also made of experts with – on average – a high education level. Their expertise is even, in many cases, the reason why the organisation was created in the first place and given some independence vis-à-vis the political world (that is certainly the case of the European Central Bank). Therefore, it is very striking that, on the one hand, when it is about performing their own work, the workers are recognized a high level of competence and autonomy, whereas, on the other hand, they would not be recognized any autonomy at all when it would be about deciding how the same work should be organised collectively (which includes allocation of tasks hiring, promotions, definition of wages, setting of resources needs, etc). There is therefore, in the case of international organisations, a very substantial gap between the legitimate aspiration of the employees, and the reality of the autonomy and – we would dare say – dignity that they are granted and recognised as employees. This discrepancy is once more at the root of the high burnout rate observed in the organisation.[9]

 

[1] See a retrospective overview in Richard B. Freeman “WHAT DO UNIONS DO? THE 2004 M-BRANE STRINGTWISTER EDITION Working Paper 11410 http://www.nber.org/papers/w11410

[2] https://www.democracyatwork.info/. Also see Richard D. Wolff “Democracy at Work: a Cure for Capitalism”, Haymarket Books, 2012

[3] https://politicalinequality.org/2023/05/06/piketty-policy-institutions-and-a-brief-history-of-equality/

[4] This in fact also explained the reluctance of German trade unions to the emergence of Works Council in the 1920s. See Emil Frankel, The German Works Councils, Journal of Political Economy , Oct., 1923, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Oct., 1923), pp. 708-736

[5] This is the American capitalist version of the unilateral decision-making power of used by public sector employers in Europe to justify that they can unilaterally amend employment contracts, that is: the right to self-organisation of the employer.

[6] Reuther is an important and controversial trade union leader who is credited for having obtained impressive results in terms of benefits for the workers he represented but at the same time signed a form of “Faustian pact” with General Motors by accepting to let them organise production as they see fit, which would ultimately also damage workers wellbeing.

[7] See also Danièle Linhart « La Comédie humaine du travail, de la déshumanisation taylorienne à la sur-humanisation managériale », Toulouse, Erès, 2015, 158 p.

[8] For more details, please see Carlos Bowles, speaking notes for ECON Hearing, 26 October 2016, https://www.ipso.de/documents/2016-10-26(CBtoECON)EPhearing-CBspeakingnotes.pdf

[9] See Carlos Bowles, Agora #90, “BURNOUT RISKS AT THE ECB: A SHORT HISTORY”, October 2023

Two enemies from within: the lack of union democracy and workers’ engagement 

Even when workers manage to achieve some elements of democracy at work, it is important to recognize that they are not only facing hurdles from the employers but that they are also facing hurdles from themselves. Sometimes our worst enemies lie among our friends. Two different aspects are at stake. One can be characterized as the Orwellian “animal farm” scenario. The other one deals with the phenomenon of voluntary servitude as described by La Boétie.

The Orwellian farm

Once workers’ representatives manage to gain access to power, they might start to adopt similar behaviours to the abusive employer they were previously fighting. This phenomenon is well documented, and there are plenty of examples of corruption to find in the trade union movements. Some elected members of Works council using the credit card of their company to finance private leisure activities. Some elected representatives having a say in promotions can use this power to place friends instead of well-deserving workers. Elected representatives could steal money from the Works Council budget. Elected representatives could be willing to sign less advantageous collective agreements in exchange for some hidden retribution from the employer like promotions. We need to be very honest about this. As trade unionist, we should not deny this reality but to the contrary face it as an intrinsic and fundamental component of our fight for more democracy. It is de facto often used against trade union to argue that they would not be representative or only there to fight for their own interests. We won’t be able to overcome it if we do not recognise it as a constitutive difficulty of our “line of business”.

To some extent, it is the nature of power that it is leading to corruption when it is left without control. That is what we learned from the founding fathers of modern democracy. Does this mean that our efforts to bring more democracy and checks and balance in the workplace is by definition bound to fail? Absolutely not! Indeed, the main difference between an employer appointed by shareholders and a workers representative elected by workers, is that workers can sack the later, whereas they cannot sack the former. Between a corrupted manager and a corrupted trade unionist, we are still better off with a corrupted trade unionist because we have at least the possibility to outvote him/her in the next election! Hence, the key and crucial aspect of accountability, namely electoral accountability, remains as an incentives and mechanism to keep control of our representatives and ensure they do not take a different path than the one they should.

Union democracy

This weakness is somehow connected to the second hurdles that we will consider in the next section. There is no democracy without the engagement of each and every individual in it. If the rank-and- file do not care, if they do not vote, if they make no effort to try to stay informed and engaged with their union, if they are not ready to challenge within internal elections the trade union leadership who might have failed them, then the democratic nature of the union is at risk of vanishing.

In the United States, this tradition is called “Union Democracy”. It is represented among other by the so-called “Labour Notes” movement, which is a core component of the American labor movement organised around a journal advocating for so called “troublemaker unions”.[1] The narrative goes as follows: once trade unions become powerful, they tend to be dominated by powerful bosses who might have a tendency to forget about the interests of the rank-and-file they represent, and capture the trade union organisation to serve their own personal interest or, at minima, a comfortable lifestyle. They would systematically eliminate the oppositions from inside and progressively put in place a system where workers are losing control of the organisation which is supposed to defend them. Only “loyalists” could emerge from within the ranks and, that way, the union leadership could stay unchallenged. The typical success story would be one of a group of rank-and-file activists who decided to challenge the status quo and form a team to regain control of their local union. Once successful, they would then set up hard strikes able to bring successful collective agreements which would then raise again the desire of workers to join the union and support their effort to regain control of the whole union federation. Democracy would reborn from the engagement of the rank-and-file.

Voluntary servitude

However, the lack of individual engagement of workers can also result from some form of voluntary servitude, as La Boétie would call it. Indeed, the interests of the employers are very often internalised by the workers themselves.

The psychological mechanisms are very complex. To take the extreme example of a dictatorship like North Korea, where every little sign of dissent can generate disastrous consequences for your own family and children, it might just be psychologically easier to merely accept the lies of the regime as truth than to live in a situation of constant schizophrenia. Lying to oneself or simply making the conscious or unconscious choice of ignoring visible pieces of information for the sake of enjoying some form of peace of mind can become an understandable strategy when facing extreme levels of oppression. This mechanism can also be at play with less extreme forms of oppression when a vulnerable worker is highly dependent on his/her employer to provide for his/her family. Collaborating with a powerful abuser sometimes become an easier choice than fighting him/her and face disastrous personal consequences.

Sometimes, the employee might even identify himself/herself with the employers, and for good reasons. This is typically the case of workers of organisations serving the common good: policemen, nurses, firefighters, and international organisation employees. To some extent, when the professional identity is very closely matched with the personal identity because workers derive some pride in contributing to a larger cause that their employer is supposed to serve, it is very difficult for workers to put themselves in a situation where they would challenge the doings of their employer. They care about preserving their employer’s reputation as it is a component of their reputation. In such cases, employees engaged with their employer might even turn against the elected representatives who are fighting for them, because they have internalized the employers’ preferences.

In fact, employee engagement strategies are part of the modern human resources toolkit.[2] Employers themselves are very active in fostering and developing employer-organised networks, sometimes under the disguise of fostering diversity. The internalisation of the employer’s preferences often goes with the denial of the existence that a difference of interests exists. We would all be part of the same team. The objective would be shared (we would only have a difference of assessment regarding the means to employ to get them). The class struggle would belong to different times and no longer exist, because society would not anymore be made of industrial workers risking their lives in coal mines, etc.[3] This narrative serves as a powerful vector, not only disengaging workers from the labour movement, but – even worse- for engaging them against their elected representatives. Employers like to play on this divide-and-conquer game. Unions and workers themselves however also bear a responsibility.

Indeed, union members themselves forget that they ARE the union. Thanks to the benefits secured in the past, some workers have been led to adopt a form of consumerist attitude, believing that it is enough to pay their union fees or to vote in works council elections, in order to expect from a very restricted set of union volunteers that they would do all the work (and take all the heat) for them. This situation is a standard challenge faced by all unions and illustrate that democracy is a living concept. It does not exist without the involvement of rank-and-file, be in democracy at large or democracy in the workplace. The moment when the workers or the electorate are inclined to think that they can opt out of participating to democracy is the moment where democracy stops to exist. When that happens, we can all start to fear the worst.[4]

 

[1] https://labornotes.org/

[2] See for instance “Deloitte Becoming irresistible: A new model for employee engagement” Deloitte Review Issue 16,  https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-16/employee-engagement-strategies.html

[3] Incidentally, this denial of the difference of interests often results in a high level of burnout, when workers engaged in their work came to realise that their employer is not as keen as they are to have it performed as well as it should, for instance by refusing to dedicate the necessary resources. Therefore, the professions with the highest professional engagement and who have the highest tendency to opt for a model of professional workers representation (as opposed to joining a trade union representing different sector of activities) are also those experiencing the highest risk of burnouts: teachers, nurses, policemen, etc.

[4] The high level of support nowadays reached by the far right in the electorate is a testimonial to that situation. The far right is not a supporter of the trade union movement, but many workers who feel left behind and lost faith in trade unions or the political left turned their hopes to these non-democratic forces. See Sophie Binet, interview with Mediapart, 17 May 2024: « Face à l´extrême-droite, il est minuit moins le quart » “https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/politique/170524/sophie-binet-face-l-extreme-droite-il-est-minuit-moins-le-quart”

Conclusion: democracy at work and the future of work

This article could only briefly touch upon very fundamental questions which should be considered with more depth. Our democracies are at risk. Democracy at work is not only a necessary component of a democratic society but also a political path that could help restore social progress and find an alternative societal and political project after the collapse of the communist dreams.

At the same time, these optimistic prospects are very much threatened by the emergence of a new society where existing workers might have difficulty finding their place, because they are threatened by globalisation, the lack of a visible political project for workers, but also the changes induced by technological progress (platform economy but also the development of artificial intelligence). An important part of the legitimacy of workers’ claims to have both a share in the profits and a say in the organisation was grounded in the fact that they were the ones who were producing the wealth, thanks to their work. If most existing workers – including high skilled workers – are not anymore needed because their work can be automated by robots, it will be more difficult for them to argue that they should have a share in the profit and a say in the conditions of production. That is why a reflection is needed to further underpin conceptually the future of democracy at work.

One direction for a future-proof legitimation of democracy at work in a situation where robots could be performing most of the work previously allocated to workers might be to put forward the ownership of personal data on which all big technological companies are relying upon to train their algorithms. This data remains, after all, the property of all of us and we are entitled to also benefit from the profits derived from their usage. We should also be entitled to have a say on how they are used and what for.  Another direction could simply be to reaffirm the infinite value of every human being, combined with the fact that no innovation can remain forever the property of its inventors (as patent law provides). Even when robots will have taken over workers’ tasks, we might still have a claim to benefit from the better life they can offer, in terms of increased leisure or better quality of life, most notably health. The companies that will have power over such crucial public goods should not be able to exert their power without being flanked by some form of checks and balance mechanisms.

Overall, even if work were to disappear, as (generally) did slavery, we will still need a democratic way of making collective decisions in our societies, if we want them to prosper and flourish to the benefit of everyone on earth.

Carlos BOWLES

About The Author

Carlos Bowles joined the ECB as a macro-economic forecaster in 2003. He earned his PhD in Economics at the European University Institute. He is currently chairing the ECB Staff Committee and also serves as IPSO´s Vice-President. This article is written in his trade-union capacity