In this weeks’ New Statesman there is a stunning article by Peter Wilby, advocating that democracy in the workplace be considered a human right.
It’s worth reading on this, Work Your Proper Hours Day, which is “the day when the average person who does unpaid overtime finishes the unpaid days they do every year, and starts earning for themselves.”
Democracy at work ought to be a human right.
It is hard to think of anything more unfashionable than workplace democracy. It gets just eight hits on the Social Science Research Network website against 348 on shareholder value.
All political parties insist that, when it comes to public services such as education and health, we must be active citizens, voicing opinions, making choices and “co-producing” public goods. Yet in our working lives, we must be treated as ignorant and foolish children to be dominated and controlled. Trade unions were originally the vehicles through which most working people exercised power and influence and connected to the wider political process. The workplace used to be a kind of academy of citizenship. The decline of the unions – only 28 per cent of employees are now members – is surely connected intimately to the general disconnection from politics.
So can we revive workplace democracy? Compass, the democratic-left pressure group, thinks we can and must. In a pamphlet to be published shortly (Swimming With the Tide: Democratising the Places Where We Work by Chris Ward and Zoe Williams), it argues that it is “unacceptable” that “we can be masters of our destiny in all aspects of our lives except in terms of our relationship with our employers”.
I would go further: under a government that argues we must all find redemption through work, it is preposterous. But capitalism has pulled a clever trick. It encourages people to define themselves through what they consume: I drive a BMW, you drive a Volvo; I shop at Waitrose, you shop at Tesco; I take an independent holiday in South America, you take a package holiday to the Costa del Sol. Work is just a means to an end. It no longer defines character (I borrow that word from the great sociologist Richard Sennett) or offers personal fulfilment. It simply allows us to improve our status as consumers. Where once the promise of a place in the kingdom of heaven guaranteed docility at work, so now does the promise of a place on a luxury cruise.
You can make a decent argument for workplace democracy on efficiency grounds. It stands to reason that, where employees feel they have some say in how the office or factory operates, they will take fewer days off, stick with the company for longer, co-operate more readily with the bosses, and generally improve productivity. Compass quotes research showing that, in companies where staff are consulted, financial performance is 33 per cent more likely to be above average.
Britain’s productivity is well below the European Union average; productivity in Sweden and Denmark, which have strong unions and well-developed systems of workplace democracy, is much higher. The New Labour guru Charles Leadbeater – who has no truck with anything as quaint as an office, factory or company – argues that the future lies with the masses organising themselves and thinking together, rather as web users do on Wikipedia or Linux. “Barefoot organisation”, as he calls it, is the best route to innovation (see http://www.wethinkthebook.net).
All this may be true. But as a report for the Work Foundation puts it (Speaking Up! by David Coats), “it is a hallmark of the triumph of neoliberal economics” that discussion of workplace democracy “is couched in the language of efficiency”, as though its merits would be negated if employers could prove it led to lower output. Democracy at work ought to be a question of human rights, just as the right to vote in parliamentary elections is. If economic efficiency were the only yardstick, we might follow the Chinese and rule out political democracy as well.
From April, new UK regulations come into force requiring all companies or organisations with 50 or more staff to provide information to employees and to consult on decisions. Employer enthusiasm for this new deal may be gauged by the response of the Institute of Directors to the EU directive that led to the regulations: it was, the institute judged, “quite alien to British workplaces”. We can expect employers to take decisions and then “consult” staff as an afterthought; to favour tame “staff associations” as consultative channels in preference to trade unions; to offer minimal time and funding for employees’ representatives to acquire the necessary negotiating skills; and, if all else fails, simply to ignore the law, risking a not very severe fine of £50,000. Unsurprisingly, new Labour framed the regulations as weakly – or, as it prefers, “flexibly” – as it could.
With recession approaching, workplace democracy may well be regarded as a distraction. But we have seen the weaknesses of unregulated capitalism. The thought may seem a fanciful one, but if Northern Rock had been compelled to explain and justify its business strategy to the workforce, it might not now be in such dire straits.