Democracy at work: the prize or the price to pay


Democracy at work: the prize or the price to pay

Agora #92

The trade union collectivises workers' concerns, partly rebalancing the unequal power relations and thus enabling real participation and democracy at work.

Democracy at work is a necessary condition for genuine political democracy. You cannot expect workers to be active citizens and subordinate workers at the same time. Research and history have taught us this, and it’s time we acted on this lesson.

“I come before you finally as one who believes that the greatest issue confronting the country today is the preservation of political democracy”. While this might well apply to today’s situation, it was in 1939 that Robert Wagner spoke these words to the US Senate. He was defending a series of amendments to the famous Wagner Act, which established the right to strike and collective bargaining in the US.

According to Senator Wagner, “The price of political democracy in the modern world must be industrial freedom. (…) The struggle for a voice in the industry through the processes of collective bargaining is at the heart of the struggle for the preservation of political as well as economic democracy in America. Let men become servile paws of their masters in the factories of the land and there will be destroyed the bone and sinew of resistance to political dictatorship”.

These words are even truer today than when they were written! In this article, I argue that political democracy does indeed need democracy at work. We know this from research and historical experience, but on this day when democracy faces existential challenges, we seem to have forgotten this lesson.

No democracy without democracy at work

Let’s jump from 1939 to 2020. In that year, two researchers in the US and China conducted an experiment. They recruited a number of factory workers in China and university staff in the US for an experiment regarding work organization. In both contexts, workers were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group was asked to continue working as they’d always done. The second group had a slight change to their traditional work process: they now had one 20-minute meeting a week to discuss work goals, ideas and problems. The line managers had to sit there, listen and keep quiet for six weeks.

The researchers monitored how the workers in both settings felt about democracy and authority in general, and the results were pretty clear: after just six weeks of a ‘democratic infusion’, the workers had a slightly lower belief in the value of authority and obedience, a higher belief in a positive world, and, importantly, more participation in society outside work. For example, they reported being more involved in political news but also in family decisions. What is more, these changes in attitudes were evident not only a week after the end of the experiment, but also a month later!

The results of this relatively small-scale experiment are supported by a wealth of research based on large international surveys. In 2018, researchers from the UK looked at data from over 14,000 workers from 27 countries (the European Social Survey) to examine the relationship between democracy at work and political participation in society. Basically, they compared workers who have very little influence and say in the way their work is organised with those who have much more autonomy. Their analysis clearly showed that workers who have more say in their jobs are better democratic citizens. They are more likely to vote, sign petitions, attend demonstrations and generally take an interest in politics.

Democracy at work, in other words, goes hand in hand with political democracy

But why is this the case? For an explanation, we need to go back to research from the 1970s. In her book “Participation and Democratic Theory”, Carole Pateman, a British feminist and political scientist, explored the same question. According to her, there are three main reasons for the observed ‘spill-over’ from work to democratic participation. First, it’s about self-identification. People are what they often do.

If your job situation forces you to drive to work, you’ll start to identify as a car commuter. If, for reasons beyond your immediate will, your job gives you more and more management tasks, you’ll start to identify as such. The same applies to democracy. If you’re always expected to obey authority, you’ll generally identify as a subordinate. If, on the other hand, you’re expected to speak up, express opinions, debate and compromise, you’ll identify as an active, critical citizen. Centuries earlier, Adam Smith understood this when he wrote that “the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments“.

Secondly, it’s about skills. Democracy is not easy. Forming an opinion, defending it while respecting others, reaching a compromise and keeping your word doesn’t come naturally. It’s no wonder that we, as a society, force children to spend years in education, where, among other things, they are expected, to learn these competencies. But learning doesn’t stop there, and if these skills are not trained and developed after school, they will be forgotten. Democracy at work, participation in the organisation, is the main ‘school of democracy’ where workers learn to be active democrats.

But even identification and skills may not be enough. According to Pateman, the third important ingredient is belief in one’s ability to make a difference. And that belief comes with experience. You can have all the skills you want, but if you don’t believe that what you do will make a difference somewhere, you’re unlikely to get involved. Democracy at work is the area where citizens learn that their actions, ideas, opinions and exchanges can actually influence the situation and improve the working context.

No democracy at work, without a collective voice

So do we need to run to employers to convince them of the benefits of participative meetings, suggestion boxes and quality circles? Do we need a general ‘my door is open’ campaign to motivate workers to speak up?

This could certainly help, but it will be largely inefficient and ineffective. All these ideas ignore a very important feature of workplace reality: that power is unbalanced.

Indeed, the difference between an employee and an employer is not just in name and title, it is a real difference in power. The employer has the legal right to give orders, to sanction, to correct and, ultimately, to dismiss employees. And while the employee relies on the job for a large part of his or her income, the employer does not.

This power asymmetry means that an ‘open door’ may work for an idea to change the tea sets in the kitchen, but not for complaints about supervisors, problems with overtime policies or unequal pay in the organisation.

For real voice and open participation, for democracy at work, individual voice is not enough. We need a collective voice. Participation that is individual, but also collective, through representatives who can speak for the group, are protected from dismissal and are less likely to face retaliation.

A trade union, in other words

The trade union collectivises workers’ concerns, partly rebalancing the unequal power relations and thus enabling real participation and democracy at work. And indeed, research shows that employees who are union members generally experience more democracy at work, are more likely to be interested in politics and have a more positive view of democracy in general. A German study looked at data from 2001 to 2019 and found that workers in companies with a works council (a form of collective voice) were more likely to be interested in politics than workers in companies without a collective voice.

Democracy at work = democracy in the country

What is true at the individual level also seems to be true at the national level. My colleague Sigurt Vitols has developed a cross-country index called the European Participation Index. It basically measures the degree of democracy in the workplace at the country level. As such, it combines measures such as union density, collective bargaining coverage, employee representation in companies and employee representation on company boards.

Research using this index reveals at least two interesting observations. First, there is a very strong correlation between this measure and the so-called “democracy index” developed by the economist. This second index doesn’t look at the workplace at all, but focuses on political democracy and tries to measure things like electoral freedom and pluralism, civil liberties, the good functioning of government, political participation and culture.

The correlation shows that countries with strong workplace democracies also seem to have robust political democracies, with fair and free elections and high voter turnout.

However, the second observation of the European Participation Index is less positive. Over the years, workplace democracy in Europe has been under constant pressure. Relatively fewer workers are members of trade unions, fewer people are covered by collective agreements and more companies are trying to keep the union or works council out of the door.

A grim development, not only for workers, but for our democratic societies as a whole!

Turning EU tides?

But perhaps the tide is turning? Isn’t the European Union changing course with directives like the one on adequate minimum wages, platform work, due diligence and the plans for European Works Councils?

Indeed, after decades of deliberate undoing of democracy at work, it would seem so. For the first time in history (as far as I know), civil servants and social partners in most EU countries will have to consider action plans to promote collective bargaining. An unprecedented opportunity to restore democracy at work.

But there are two caveats. The first is procedural and political. The minimum wage directive is a commitment to effort, not to results. Countries are obliged to promote collective bargaining, but if their plans are not effective, there is little or no leverage.

The second relates to the theme of this article, the value of democracy at work for our democratic societies. In its recitals, the Directive provides a rationale for its interventions as such, referring to the value of collective bargaining for workers and employers, to create a level playing field, to reduce in-work poverty, etc.

What’s missing is an argument for democracy at work (and collective bargaining) for democracy’s sake. The idea that it’s not only useful, but also simply fair and logical, for workers to participate in the governance of companies, sectors and economies is largely absent.

“The price of political democracy is, after all, industrial freedom. The prize for workers, on the other hand, is democracy at work.”

Lessons from history

And this absence stands in stark contrast to some of the earlier foundational institutions of our democracies. For a long time, democracy at work was seen not only as an economic instrument, but above all for its intrinsic value and contribution to peace and democracy.

After the Second World War, the world came together and signed the Philadelphia Declaration, which stated unequivocally that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice“. The same text underlined the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining, as well as the need for worker participation in companies.

Similarly, in post-war Germany, the Allies considered how to democratise German society in a sustainable way. One of their key measures was the introduction of co-determination, which gave employees, trade unions and works councils far-reaching rights to influence corporate decision-making. The idea was that trade unions would be a major stabilising factor and would prevent some companies, certainly the steel industry, from taking anti-democratic steps in the future.

Later, in the late 1960s, participatory democracy (and democracy at work) were key demands of the May ’68 movement. In Belgium, at least, this led to a major social debate about the role of the company, authority and the promises (and dangers) of workers’ organisations. The argument wasn’t instrumental at all, but clearly ideological.

And until the early 1990s, the European Values Survey had a particularly interesting question measuring how citizens thought companies should be governed. It appeared that only a minority thought the current model of shareholders appointing management was a good idea. Most preferred a system where workers and shareholders appointed management, while some others gave the state a greater role or even thought that employees alone should own companies and appoint management.

This kind of thinking has all but disappeared.

But it may be high time to blow the dust off some of these ideas. In a context where populism and anti-democratic attitudes are on the rise, and where voters are turning their backs on the democratic process, it seems high time to think outside the box and go beyond traditional pro-democracy education.

The price of political democracy is, after all, industrial freedom. The prize for workers, on the other hand, is democracy at work.

Stan De Spiegelaere


Stan De Spiegelaere is a guest professor at the University of Ghent and Director of Policy and Research at UNI Europa. He writes this contribution in his own name