Workplace democracy is the application of democracy in all its forms
(including voting systems, debates, democratic structuring, due
process, adversarial process, systems of appeal) to the workplace.
1.1 Associated with ideologies
1.2 Studies by management science
1.3 Early theory
1.4 Relation to political theory
2 Current approaches
2.1 Limits of management
2.3 Influenced matrix management
2.4 Semler and Semco
3 Comparison to Taylorism
4 See also
6 External links
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Associated with ideologies
These methods are often seen as associated with trade unions (or more
lately eco-socialism). In addition, collectivist anarchism, anarchist
communism and mutualism all support workplace democracy.
Most unions have democratic structures at least for selecting the
leader, and sometimes these are seen as providing the only democratic
aspects of work. However, unions are not everywhere, and not every
workplace that lacks a union lacks democracy, and not every workplace
that has a union necessarily has a democratic way to resolve disputes.
However, some unions have historically been more committed to it than
Industrial Workers of the World
Industrial Workers of the World pioneered the archetypal
workplace democracy model, the Wobbly Shop, in which recallable
delegates were elected by workers, and other norms of grassroots
democracy were applied. This is still used in some organizations,
notably Semco and in the software industry.
The best known and most studied example of a successfully democratic
national labor union in the United States are the United Electrical,
Radio and Machine Workers of America, known throughout the labor
movement as the UE. An independent trade Union, the UE was built from
the bottom-up, and takes pride in its motto that "The Members Run This
Studies by management science
Industrial and organizational psychology
Industrial and organizational psychology and even more formal
management science has studied the methods of workplace democracy.
They are just that—methods—and do not imply any particular
political movement, agenda, theory, or ideology: There are many
management science papers on the application of democratic
structuring, in particular, to the workplace, and the benefits of it.
One such international study of more than 50 different democratic
companies discovered that a minimum of six specific organizational
components (including political, economic, psychological and juridical
processes) were all equally necessary if the democratic functioning of
management systems was to last over the long term.
Benefits often are contrasted to simple command hierarchy arrangements
in which "the boss" can hire anyone and fire anyone, and takes
absolute and total responsibility for his own well-being and also all
that occurs "under" him. The command hierarchy is a preferred
management style followed in many companies for its simplicity, speed
and low process overheads.
The anarchist thinker
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon raised workplace
democracy in What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of
Right and of
Government arguing that management "must be chosen from
the workers by the workers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions
of eligibility." He repeated this call in later works like General
Idea of the Revolution and used the term "industrial democracy" in the
1850s to describe it.
20th century pioneers of workplace democracy include the early Belgian
advocates of syndicalism who argued that workers had more knowledge
but less control of the workplace than they had of major political
decisions (where they at least had a vote and the right to be heard
even if they knew nothing about the situation). Of these theorists the
most influential, de Paepe, is often considered as a peer or
competitor to Karl Marx's concept of the workplace as merely a
cauldron and test for the proletariat.
Relation to political theory
However, workplace democracy theory closely follows political
democracy, especially where businesses are large or politics is small:
Spanish anarchists, Mohandas Gandhi's
Swadeshi movement, farm and
retail co-operative movements, all made contributions to the theory
and practice of workplace democracy and often carried that into the
political arena as a "more participatory democracy." The Green Parties
worldwide adopted this as one of their Four Pillars and also often
mimic workplace democracy norms such as gender equity, co-leadership,
deliberative democracy applied to any major decision, and leaders who
don't do policy. The Democratic Socialist Parties have always
supported the notion of workplace democracy and democratically
In Sweden, the Social democratic Party made laws and reforms from
1950-70 to achieve more democratic workplaces. Giving the unions a
right to balance the management and have some influential power was
rather radical at that time.
Salvador Allende inspired a large number of such
Chile before his assassination on September 11, 1973.
The book Brain of the Firm by
Stafford Beer details experiments in
workplace feedback that exploited systems theory extensively.
Limits of management
Many organizations began by the 1960s to realize that tight control by
too few people was creating groupthink, turnover in staff and a loss
of morale among qualified people helpless to appeal what they saw as
misguided, uninformed, or poorly thought out decisions. Often
employees who publicly criticise such poor decision making of their
higher management are penalized or even fired from their jobs on some
false pretext or other. The comic strip
Dilbert has become popular
satirizing this type of oblivious management, the icon for which is
the Pointy Haired Boss, a nameless and clueless social climber. The
Dilbert principle has been accepted as fact by some.
Much management philosophy has focused on trying to limit manager
power, differentiate leadership versus management, and so on. Henry
Peter Drucker and
Donella Meadows were three very notable
theorists addressing these concerns in the 1980s. Mintzberg and
Drucker studied how executives spent their time, Meadows how change
and leverage to resist it existed at all levels in all kinds of
Adhocracy, functional leadership models, and reengineering were all
attempts to detect and remove administrative incompetence. Business
process and quality management methods in general remove managerial
flexibility that is often perceived as masking managerial mistakes,
but also preventing transparency and facilitating fraud, as in the
case of Enron. Had managers been more accountable to employees, it is
argued, owners and employees would not have been defrauded.
Corporation is the largest worker
cooperative in the world, and as such the largest corporation that
operates some form of workplace democracy. The Marxian economist
Richard D. Wolff
Richard D. Wolff states it is "a stunningly successful alternative to
the capitalist organization of production."
Influenced matrix management
Managerial grid models and matrix management, compromises between true
workplace democracy and conventional top-down hierarchy, became common
in the 1990s. These models cross responsibilities so that no one
manager had total control of any one employee, or so that technical
and marketing management were not subordinated to each other but had
to argue out their concerns more mutually. A consequence of this was
the rise of learning organization theory, in which the ontology of
definitions in common among all factions or professions becomes the
main management problem.
London Business School
London Business School chief Nigel Nicholson in his 1998 Harvard
Business Review paper How Hardwired is Human Behavior? suggested that
human nature was just as likely to cause problems in the workplace as
in larger social and political settings, and that similar methods were
required to deal with stressful situations and difficult problems. He
held up the workplace democracy model advanced by
Ricardo Semler as
the "only" one that actually took cognizance of human foibles.
Semler and Semco
Ricardo Semler, in his own book Maverick, explained how he took his
family firm in Brazil, a light manufacturing concern called Semco, and
transformed it into a strictly democratic firm where managers were
interviewed and then elected by workers, where all decisions were
subject to democratic review, debate and vote, and where every worker
was expected to justify themselves to their peers. This radical
approach to total quality management got him and the company a great
deal of attention. Semler argued that handing the company over to the
workers was the only way to free time for himself to go build up the
customer, government and other relationships required to make the
company grow. By literally giving up the fight to hold any control of
internals, Semler was able to focus on marketing, positioning, and
offer his advice (as a paid, elected spokesman, though his position as
major shareholder was not so negotiable) as if he were, effectively,
an outside management consultant.
Decentralization of management
functions, he claimed, gave him a combination of insider information
and outsider credibility, plus the legitimacy of truly speaking for
his workers in the same sense as an elected political leader.
The book ends with twenty pages of cartoons that constitute Semco's
only employee manual. They explain such things as the company's
attitudes to women and their advancement, managers and their role,
sales and operations, technology, and read somewhat like the rationale
of a nonprofit or political party.
Nicholson's analysis was more academic and conventional and focused on
many other detailed problems of human behaviour and dispute
resolution, which he claimed Semler had resolved.
Venezuela has instituted worker-run "co-management" initiatives in
which workers' councils are the cornerstone of the management of a
plant or factory. In experimental co-managed enterprises, such as the
Alcasa factory, workers develop budgets and elect both
managers and departmental delegates who work together with strategists
on technical issues related to production.
Comparison to Taylorism
A more political approach to workplace reforms was advocated in
Closing The Iron Cage: The Scientific
Management of Work and Leisure
by Canadian sociologist Ed Andrew based on Max Weber's notion "that
the spirit of capitalism envelopes our activities like an iron cage,
that the ubiquitous structure of technical rationality appears as an
iron cage to those who live in it."
Frederick Winslow Taylor
Frederick Winslow Taylor and so-called
has grown up—beyond the limits that Taylor himself would have
advocated—to become a "scientific management of leisure."
Andrew asks provocative questions such as:
Are work and leisure mutually exclusive spheres?
Can individuals condemned to alienating "scientifically managed" work
environments ever really function as free players in their "free"
Andrew argues that both the political left and the right accept the
thesis of "leisure-as-compensation" and that most issues between
unions and "management" are too narrowly framed. Andrew in particular
believes that scientifically managed leisure is "the closing of an
iron cage of technological rationality" on all human life. In other
words, a technological escalation not just in the workplace but also
imposed by the need to use communications, transport, and other
technologies to get to work, learn, do the work itself, and justify
the work afterwards. New technologies take time to learn and to use,
and that time is taken away from either real work, or leisure.
The growth of scientific management in the industrial work force, and
the consequences of that growth for how workers spend their leisure
time, according to Andrew, combine to create a false idea of workplace
efficiency. His critique is similar to that used to justify throughput
accounting: overfocus on human labour is counter-productive since more
and more minute divisions of labour deny workers' intelligence and
creativity at work, destroys their ability to enjoy their time away
from work, and puts them always at risk of losing opportunities simply
for experimenting, thinking or dreaming on the job. An undemocratic
workplace cannot be substituted by "more, and more enjoyable, leisure"
if "boring and denigrating work" that alienates the individual—a key
concern of Marx's sociology—remains the daily norm.
He counters pseudo-"conservative claims by efficiency experts that
productivity is greatest when individual initiative is minimized"
which is exactly the opposite of the ideal preached for
He presents his own model, workers' self-management, which he claims
"would give all workers the same ability to create their jobs and to
mingle leisure and work", as a radical alternative to both scientific
management and technocratic socialism. His economic and organizational
framework he intends to provide a unity of meaningful work and
His model parallels that of
Amartya Sen who argued in his 1999
Development as Freedom
Development as Freedom that the goal of all sustainable development
must be the freeing of human time. But while Sen addresses the
interface between the workplace and leisure-place, Andrew addresses
freedom within the workplace.
Many of Andrew's ideas were echoed by companies during the dotcom boom
during which many experiments in combining work and leisure were
launched, but mostly applied only to higher level creative workers
such as software developers, not to people doing more routine work.
^ Rayasam, Renuka (24 April 2008). "Why
Democracy Can Be
Good Business". U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved 16 August
^ Bernstein, Paul (2012).
Workplace Democratization: Its Internal
Dynamics. Chelsea, MA: Educational Services Publishing
^ Property is Theft! A
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology.
Edinburgh/Oakland: AK Press. p. 119, pp. 586-7, p. 610
^ Wolff, Richard (24 June 2012). Yes, there is an alternative to
capitalism: Mondragon shows the way. The Guardian. Retrieved 12 August
^ Iain Bruce (2005-08-17). "Business Chavez calls for democracy at
work". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
News, analysis, and resources about workplace democracy
Quotes and other writings on workplace democracy (Chomsky, Wheatley,
David Ellerman on workplace democracy
Democracy at Work. A social movement for a new economy founded by
Richard D. Wolff
Democracy and Democratic Ownership—Richard Wolff & Gar
Alperovitz at Left Forum, 2013.
Cooperatives and mutual organizations
Types of cooperatives
Cooperative wholesale society
Business and employment co-operative
Mutual savings bank
Savings and loan association
Housing society (egalitarian)
Community wind energy
Anarchistic free school
Learning by teaching
Health insurance cooperative
ICA Statement on the
Socially responsible investing
G. D. H. Cole
Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen
List of cooperatives
History of the cooperative movement
Aspects of workplaces
Culture of fear
Divide and rule
Fit in or fuck off
Kick the cat
Kiss up kick down
Queen bee syndrome
Safety and health
Aspects of corporations
Aspects of jobs
Aspects of occupations
Aspects of organizations
Key topics and issues
History of socialism
Socialist mode of production
Commune (model of government)
Production for use
Calculation in kind
Mary Harris Jones
Fred M. Taylor
W. E. B. Du Bois
Luis Emilio Recabarren
G. D. H. Cole
Léopold Sédar Senghor
Gamal Abdel Nasser
Martin Luther King Jr.
First International (International Workingmen's Association)
Third International (Comintern)
Foro de São Paulo
World Federation of Democratic Youth
World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDI)
International Union of Socialist Youth
International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY)
World Socialist Movement
International League of Religious Socialists
International Marxist Tendency
Socialism in One Country
Socialism of the 21st century
Third World Socialism
Criticism of capitalism
Dictatorship of the proletariat
Equality of outcome
Socialisation of production
Socialism in One Country
Socialist market economy
Mode of production