Workplace Democracy: An Old Idea that needs to be re-born

Inequality isn’t just about wealth and income, it’s also about ownership
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the value and contribution of workers – especially those on our frontlines – to our economy and society was on full display.
Unfortunately, it also highlighted the level of precarity that many workers face and the
power imbalance between employer and employee, encapsulated in the attitude of
employers like Pat McDonagh. It was fitting that Labour leader Alan Kelly reminded us
of this imbalance at the party’s annual commemoration to James Connolly:
the basic relationship is still one between employers and employees. And that basic
relationship is not a partnership of equals. Workers do not have the same power as their
employers. So organised labour and the Labour Party have to counter-balance the
inherent power of employers in our economy.
Above all, we have been reminded that workers should not simply be another
commodity for business owners. The Labour Party has been clear over the last few
weeks that we cannot go back to business as usual once this pandemic subsides.
Workers need to be given the rights and dignity they deserve through a new social
contract.
When we consider how to ensure dignity for workers, perhaps returning to Connolly’s
vision of the ‘Cooperative Commonwealth’, as he and others called it, is what is needed.
In his 1915 work The Re-Conquest of Ireland, he wrote:
the Labour Movement of Ireland must set itself the Re-Conquest of Ireland as its final
aim, … that re-conquest involves taking possession of the entire country, all its power of
wealth-production and all its natural resources, and organising these on a co-operative
basis for the good of all.
The Starry Plough, designed by noted ‘co-operator’ George Russell, symbolised
Connolly’s vision that “a free Ireland would control its own destiny from the plough to
the stars” – from the national parliament to the factory floor. Labour’s task in the
Ireland of 2020 is to translate this vision into practical policies.
Democratic socialism aims at something that is not radical in abstract, but becomes
radical when put in the context of an economy like ours. It aims at political, social, and
economic democracy. As Labour leader Brendan Corish argued in his 1967 New
Republic speech:
Socialism … applies not just to political freedom but also to the principle of economic
freedom which recognises that all men have a right to participate in decisions affecting
their livelihood, whether in the workshop, the office or the farm.
Many in Ireland argue for our political and social democracy to be strengthened, but
what is often missing in political debates is a conversation on economic democracy.
Worker co-determination, where companies are required to give workers representation
in corporate structures, is the norm in European social democracies. In Germany,
companies of over 500 employees must allocate one third of the board of directors to
workers; those of over 2,000 employees allocate just under half of the board to workers.

As well as this, many of these countries have far stronger worker cooperative sectors
than we do.
Elsewhere, conversations about greater worker democracy have restarted among
progressives in the US and UK. A significant part of these conversations centred around
alternative forms of ownership, notably the worker cooperative model. Worker
cooperatives are the embodiment of economic democracy. Workers run, own, and direct
the enterprise themselves in a democratic manner. Worker coops have been proven to
be just as economically efficient and productive, if not more so, than traditional private
companies.
The 2017 UK Labour report Alternative Models of Ownership outlined potential policies
for encouraging the worker coop sector and other forms of ownership. One of these was
that if a company were up for sale, the company’s workforce would become the buyers
of first refusal. As well as this, ways of incentivising private owners to convert their
companies into worker coops were considered – the ownership of the John Lewis group
is an example of this. Given the initial investment problems that worker coops can have,
Labour’s current policy for a public banking sector as well as strengthening credit
unions are vital.
The Mondragon federation of worker coops in Spain has been one of the most successful
examples of the model. While not perfect, its endurance at least proves that such
cooperative structures can work. In Italy, the Emilia Romagna region has always had a
strong worker coop sector – owing to many years of leftist government in the area. Even
in the United States, often considered to be the apex of capitalism, the worker coop
sector is much stronger than it is here.
When James Connolly and Thomas Johnson spoke about socialism, they were concrete
in their aims, radical in their ambitions, and clear about what needed to change. What
they recognised is that democracy cannot meaningfully exist without challenging the
power of private capital. As the 1969 Labour Outline on Worker Democracy argued:
Unless the inequality between those who own or manage, and those who merely work,
is brought to a swift end, then political democracy will become progressively more
meaningless.
We need a more democratic economy. But we cannot achieve such an economy without
fighting for it. That’s why we need a labour movement, that’s why we need trade unions.
Our Labour Party here in Ireland can and should embrace a bold vision of a society
transformed from top to bottom. We need a vision of a radically more democratic
society in which everyone not only has a floor below which they cannot fall but also has
a say in the economic decisions that affect their lives. That is the essence of worker
democracy. In the coming debate about how to ensure the dignity of our workers post-
Covid, giving them a say in their workplace must be part of the conversation.

 

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