A Vote for Workplace Democracy


Workplace Democracy and Social Change, edited by Frank Lindenfeld and Joyce Rothschild-Whitt, Boston: Porter Sargent, 412 pp., $20.00/$12.00

Worker Participation and Ownership: Cooperative Strategies for Strengthening Local Economies, by William Foote-Whyte et al., Ithaca, N.Y.: Institute for Labor Relations Press, 142 pp., $10.00 paper

"The man of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys," wrote the 18th-century poet Percy Shelley. "Power like a desolating pestilence pollutes whate'er it touches, and obedience, bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame, a mechanized automaton."

Such might well appear as the introductory motto of Workplace Democracy and Social Change, edited by Frank Lindenfeld and Joyce Rothschild-Whitt. The volume presents a rich and varied collection of 21 chapters, ranging from the clinically academic to the journalistic to the politically polemic, devoted to the subject of worker control over the conditions of production. This is a timely volume. For over the past decade, long-silent voices are once again starting to be heard, calling for the liberation of the human spirit through a radical reconstruction of the conditions of work.

The basic question addressed by the workplace-democracy movement is no less fundamental for having been suppressed by the establishment for the past 40 years. That question is, simply, who shall "control the conditions of work, the kind and variety of work done, the pace of work, and the product of work—in short, control over the whole labor process"? Shall work be organized hierarchically, where persons in authority give unchallengeable orders to subordinates? Or shall work be organized democratically, where all participate in the making of decisions and the performing of essential tasks? And if work is to be organized democratically, can production efficiency be improved upon, or at least maintained at the level of traditional economic organization?

The ultimate goal of the workplace-democracy movement is not merely to humanize the workplace or improve the quality of working life, to use phrases currently popular with well-read managers. It is "nothing less than the establishment and spread of a democratic economic sector…(accompanied by) a nonsectarian political movement dedicated to breaking up economic concentration and vesting a greater degree of control over productive facilities and service organizations in communities, municipalities, workers, and consumers."

This movement is anticapitalistic in the sense that it rejects what passes for the system of modern capitalism now in existence. "Neither the workers' councils, nor the factory or shop committees, nor the workers' power they stand for can prevail," declares revolutionary anarchist Andre Gorz, "unless the political power of capitalism is broken, unless the capitalist state itself is overthrown and the capitalist relations of production and division of labor are abolished. The struggle for workers' control must either develop an all-out attack against all forms of hierarchy, against all forms of monopolization of power and of knowledge, against all forms of domination and bureaucracy, including the so-called socialist state bureaucracy, or else whatever power the workers have won in action within the factories will be broken and rendered meaningless in a very short time."

And yet with the possible exception of Paula Giese's caustic description of the bourgeoisification of the old-line cooperative movement, Workplace Democracy and Social Change is not a Marxist tract. There are no demands for expropriating the expropriators, no paeans to the vanguard of the proletariat, not even a demand for government mandating of workplace democracy. In the tradition of 19th-century anarchists Pierre Proudhon and Petr Kropotkin more than Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin, the contributors, despite Gorz's outburst, seem to wish to create a peaceful economic revolution that will undermine the idea of authority in the workplace itself.

Such a revolution will not be easy—indeed, Giese says darkly that it will not be quiet or peaceful, either. One obvious reason for the difficulty is the hostility, whether knowing or inadvertent, of government. The book is replete with examples of hopeful worker collectives dragged down either by the deliberate prejudicial application of state power or by the total inadequacy of statutory law to deal with novel forms of economic organization.

Another major enemy—and here is where workplace democrats differ from much of the Old Left—is the union movement. Labor, as represented by union leaders, long ago made an implicit pact with Capital. It is the business of Capital to provide investment, organize production, tell the workers what to do, and generate profits. It is the business of Labor to discipline and control the workers, preventing such disruptive events as wildcat strikes, plant occupations, and—horror of horrors—challenges to management's authority to impose "scientific management"—notably, line organization and the minute division of labor. The price of this cooperation, of course, is a recurring and formalized conflict over division of the spoils. It is a price that corporations have generally been quite willing to pay, it being easier to deal with a handful of money-wise union bureaucrats than with a bunch of hotheads who have their own ideas about how the place should be run.

But perhaps the greatest threat to workplace democracy comes from workers themselves. It is no small matter for a worker—particularly one with 10 or 20 years on the job—to change his or her attitudes in order to adapt to a radically different form of organization. Drawing on experiences in an astonishing range of experiments, the contributors are brutally realistic about these problems.

One of the advantages of orthodox workplace organization is a sharp definition of roles and little or no creative interaction with the supervisors who decide matters. An unstructured participatory workplace can cause problems of severe emotional intensity. Jane Mansbridge reports the prevalence of rage, tears, splitting headaches, and other real stress afflictions when workers or citizens are suddenly cast into an unstructured decisionmaking forum. The appearance of one or more tyrants, bent on dominating the group, also seems almost inevitable. Implementing workplace democracy is hard enough when everyone involved comes from a common cultural, ethnic, racial, or political background. Where the membership is heterogeneous, success can be close to impossible.

Then there is the seemingly inescapable problem of cooptation into the traditional system. For all the idealism of workplace democrats, workers, like people in general, seem to have a need to dominate some people and submit to others. The ideal workplace democracy requires a sort of permanent horizontal equilibrium where everyone is approximately equal, a condition unlikely to continue over a long period of time without some massive reorientation of consciousness or a quasi-religious sense of mutual commitment.

And yet there are examples that give hope. The plywood cooperatives of the Pacific Northwest are perhaps the best known in the United States. There, over 60 years, Katrina Berman reports that "they have shown that persons in their capacity as producers can establish industrial self-governance and democracy, maximize participation, humanize work on a factory production line, improve income equality, and release the forces of productive energy, craftsmanship and pride in achievement." Similarly, San Francisco's cooperative refuse companies have survived for 40 years and have given that city the best sanitation service of any city of that size in the country. And in the Basque provinces of Spain, an incredible, self-financed, multifaceted industrial and social empire known collectively as Mondragon, carefully described by Ana Gutierrez Johnson, has astounded industrial engineers, social psychologists, and economists alike for the past 30 years.

Will the workplace-democracy movement steadily overthrow hierarchical capitalism? The easy answer is no, if for no other reason than the fact that it has never proven possible to make workplace democracy work respectably in organizations with large numbers of workers (several hundred seems to be the upper limit). And yet it is obvious that there is some movement away from the traditional scientific-management economy, with its emphasis on hierarchy and specialization. Much of this movement is guided, not by political theory or industrial sociology dissertations or radical wall posters, but by a realization that some element of self-determination and participation makes happier and more satisfied workers, and such workers are more productive than serfs and drudges ordered about by bellowing foremen.

The recent proliferation of worker-owned plants, many as the result of abandonment by a distant conglomerate, may well create the testing ground for many of the theories of workplace democracy. Worker Participation and Ownership, a product of an excellent research group assembled by William Foote-Whyte at Cornell, is a practical, nonideological treasure chest of incisive observation of the actual process of converting factories to worker ownership and of changing the roles of workers within those factories.

Where Workplace Democracy and Social Change aspires to the anarchist ideals of a world without domination and authority, the Foote-Whyte book eschews such inspirations to relate what really happens in conversions to worker ownership, why it happens, and what can be done to steer the safest path through this haunted forest. The various authors carefully set forth the who, what, when, where and, most importantly, why of the diverse approaches to worker control. For this reason the book should be high on the reading list of local plant managers, union stewards, chamber of commerce executives, and city officials, especially those facing the possibility of a plant shutdown.

What should the role of public policy be toward workplace democracy and employee ownership? At the very least, government ought to refrain from imposing obstacles, whether legal or institutional, to those wishing to experiment with new forms of workplace organization. This suggests revising incorporation, tax, labor, and security laws to give even novel types of cooperative efforts a fair chance at success. Government should also keep its police powers on a short leash, for when they are seized upon to tilt the scales in disputes among citizens of different interests and views, the era of tyranny has in principle begun. The laws should be shaped to encourage the widest distribution of genuine private property ownership, if for no other reason than that such ownership is in the last analysis essential to prevent a free republic from turning into an orgy of government redistribution and confiscation.

Finally, demands for some form of mandated industrial organization should be stoutly resisted, especially by those eager to expand the practice of workplace democracy. For it is precisely in such a regime, operated by bureaucrats at best and their pro-hierarchical antagonists at worst, that the innovators and creators of all kinds have the least to hope for.

John McClaughry served as a senior policy advisor in the Reagan White House. He is now president of the Institute for Liberty and Community in Concord, Vermont.