Workplace Democracy?

By Robert Bernstein   |   November 29, 2022

Some years ago, I helped an engineer friend get a job at our company. Soon after she started, I invited her to attend a Science and Engineering Council meeting with me. I was shocked when she told me she had to miss the meeting because the new owners of the company were requiring her to get tested for drugs.

I was one of the founders of the original company and the idea of drug testing would never have occurred to us. Notably, they were only testing new employees. A case of “divide and conquer.” The existing employees wouldn’t know this new policy was happening and the new employees would assume it was always this way.

At a company-wide meeting I challenged the company president who was visiting from New York. He said, “Our customers are asking for this.” I replied, “Suppose your customers were asking you not to hire Black people. Would you go along with that?”

What are the bounds of what a business can demand of its employees? There may be gray areas. And there may in fact be jobs where some intrusive testing may be necessary. But how can it possibly matter what drugs an engineer does or does not use on her own time?

The new owners were also quick to fire people with little regard for how this impacted real people, the important work being done, or worker morale. Think of Elon Musk and his Twitter debacle. They dealt with the resulting fear and anger by locking the doors and hiring armed guards. Unthinkable for us founders.

My political scientist friend Jerry Fresia recommended a book to me called Workplace Democracy, which discussed such issues from a very practical standpoint. The book consisted of case stories of businesses that were run with varying degrees of worker control.

Jerry pointed out to me that most people spend most of their waking hours at a job, working for someone else. Does it make sense to say we live in a democracy if most of our waking lives have no democratic control at all?

At the same time, several of my co-worker friends were brainstorming the idea of starting a new company based on more worker control. It was very idealistic, and they followed through with high hopes, creating a company I will call “Acme.”

Over the years I was able to watch what happened at Acme. Early on there were conflicts when some people felt they were working harder than others. More conventional standards of work hours, vacation time, and benefits had to be established.

Some of my engineering friends really just enjoyed their engineering work and did not want to spend much time in the world of management. They were willing to delegate their democratic control to others.

All of the original founding members owned a share of the company. But those shares were worth nothing until or unless the company was sold. Which gave an incentive eventually to sell to a corporate entity that did not respect the original values of Acme.

Workplace Democracy was full of similar examples to what I observed. But it also included some spectacularly successful examples of sustainable workplace democracy. Most famous: The Spanish Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa and Israeli Kibbutzim. Mondragon has over 250 companies with 80,000 worker/owners and over $10 billion in sales.

In contrast, many U.S. cases had worker ownership, but little worker participation in decision making. Workers are still alienated from their work. Successful workplace democracy requires a fundamental rethinking that makes the work creative and meaningful as well as being structured in a way that inherently encourages participation.

Mondragon began with a young Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta settling in Mondragón, Spain. In 1943 he built a technical college that also promoted his humanistic principles of solidarity and participation. In 1955 he established the first Mondragon company, Talleres Ulgor.

Current Mondragon companies include consumer and industrial manufacturing as well as retail, finance, and insurance. Top management wages are only about five times the lowest wages. Worker wages are above industry averages.

Mondragon is immersed in a larger economy that rewards exploitation and externalizing environmental harms. And not all workers are owners or managers. But they have demonstrated long-term success operating on principles including: Democratic organization, participatory management, social transformation, social responsibility, and constant renewal/innovation in all areas.

Can you imagine a future where these principles are found at every company? Can you imagine a future without this?  


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