The discussion of workplace democracy in historical and theoretical context: from the growth
of the factory system to Therssa May.
Here you are demonstrating the long historical debate and range of schemes designed to
embody the democratisation of work, at the level of public policy and in relation to ER
theory. So, taking the notes from my lecture on the subject of Work, Employment and
Situating the debate on democracy at work
(i) Concern with democracy at work is as old as capitalism: the rise of centralised work station
(factories) and the loss of control over production
(ii) Then cooperative movement in England and France in the 19th century: Robert Owen in
England, considered the father of the cooperative movement; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon,
anarchist philosopher , economist and politician saw cooperatives as the foundation for a
new post-capitalist society,
(iii) Growth of trade unionism and collective bargaining seen as important developments in
the road towards workplace democracy.
(iv) Whitleyism and joint consultation, to promote collaboration and peace at work and to
ward off the threat of Bolshevism. (see piece by Harold Clay from 1949).
(v) The impact of continental Europe and the European Union in particular (Directives on
industrial democracy, European Works councils) etc.
(vi) Britain: 1970`s sharp debate over the Bullock Report (1977).
(vii) All major political parties have declared support for Industrial democracy and
participation of various types. Even post-1979 Conservative Governments advocated the
vision of employee empowerment through employee share ownership, albeit while
maintaining the Unitarist mantra of “the right of management to manage” and the sanctity
of private property.
(viii) The argument that participation and involvement schemes release worker creativity,
such that commitment can be captured and utilised in the drive towards economic success.
This is an approach seen in the ideas put forward within Pluralism, with its emphasis upon
the positive impact of trade unionism and collective bargaining, as well as the Human
Relations tradition, which seeks to privilege employee voice in contradistinction to the
tyranny of Taylorism.
(ix) The crisis: resisting neo-liberal restructuring and relocation of production. Evoking
memories of the sit-down strikes in the USA in the 1930s, Chomsky advocates worker
control, ownership and cooperatives to stop job losses and protect American workers from
employer aggression. (See Noam Chomsky, Occupy. Penguin 2012)
(x) Theresa May, on becoming UK PM sets out a vision for workers on the board (See:
It might also be advisable to go further and demonstrate knowledge of the range of
schemes designed to embody the democratisation of work, such as:
-Workers on the Board -Information sharing and joint consultation -European Works
Councils -trade unionism and collective bargaining -Partnership Agreements -Financial
participation -Worker Co-operatives -Nationalisation and public ownership
Part II: The Consequences of restrained worker voice and the impact on Productivity
A) The contemporary scene:
There are a number of articles in the quality press which cover the latest set of findings
regarding the poor performance of the UK economy in the realm of productivity, for
The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/feb/18/uk-productivity-gapwidens-toworst-level-since-records-began
The Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/78e578a4-fd5d-3b1a-a3f5b73c28aee5dc
Also the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37574985
B) How we got here and how the poor performance of the UK has been explained:
There are a number of ways in which the poor productivity performance of the UK has been
explained. For this section of the essay, I suggest that students refer to:
Industrial Relations in Ritzer, G. (ed), The Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Sociology
Unionism. In S. Clegg, & J. Bailey (Eds.), International encyclopedia of organization studies.
(pp. 1589-1594). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE
Part III: What can and is to be done?
In this part of the essay, students would be expected to engage critically with the subject of
workplace democracy. As such, the aim is not to present a definitive set of answers to the
problems of workplace democracy, but it is to demonstrate understanding and thought
regarding the limits, parameters and possibilities for employee empowerment.
When considering democracy at work, students might do well to reflect upon the essentially
anti-democratic discourse of unitarism. In addition, it should be made clear that the wide
range of schemes designed to embody democratic production should alert us to the opaque
character of the term, “industrial democracy”. Furthermore, explorations of tendencies
towards oligarchy and the possibilities presented by the “information age” for democratising
institutions might be a useful area for discussion.
With regard to the discussion of productivity, it is expected that reference is made to the
questioning of the once dominant discourse that regulation and trade union power can be
held responsible for poor performance. Here students might want to very briefly note the
dramatic decline in the power of organised labour, in terms of declines in membership,
collective bargaining coverage, mobilisation and influence upon public policy.
In addition, consideration might be given to Pluralist arguments that collective bargaining
can be seen to have positive productivity outcomes because of the “Voice Effect” and to the
proposition that the absence of effective collective worker organisation and protection in law
removes the “shock effect”, which can serve to close off low wage, long hour and low
investment strategies for making profit.
Part IV: Conclusions
In no more than a paragraph the preceding analysis and arguments should be summarised.
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