Defending Democracy Means Organizing Your Workplace

Barry Eidlin and Micah Uetricht

New York, 1948: Longshoremen in the Chelsea Dock area sit it out after refusing to obey shape-up whistle. The Wildcat Strike on the New York waterfront was a rejection of a 10-cent hourly wage increase which had been accepted by Union leaders. Joseph P. Ryan, President of the International Longshoremen's Association, blamed the walkout on the Taft-Hartley Law. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first pub­lished in New Labor Forum.

Most Amer­i­cans believe in the idea of democ­ra­cy, how­ev­er frus­trat­ed they may be by the gap between the promise and real­i­ty. Some would argue that the cur­rent US régime is clos­er to an oli­garchy or plu­toc­ra­cy than a democ­ra­cy, but all save for a small fringe would agree that the Unit­ed States should be a democ­ra­cy — that the peo­ple” should rule. Like­wise, most Amer­i­cans have a strong sense of hav­ing cer­tain demo­c­ra­t­ic rights — free­dom of speech, free­dom of assem­bly, due process under the law, and free­dom from unlaw­ful search and seizure. While the abil­i­ty to exer­cise these rights remains far too depen­dent on skin col­or, zip code, and bank account, the wide­spread sense of moral out­rage when these rights are vio­lat­ed shows the extent to which peo­ple believe in them. 

How­ev­er, a vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans live a para­dox: they check their deeply held demo­c­ra­t­ic rights at the door every day when they show up for work. That is because the rules and rights asso­ci­at­ed with democ­ra­cy only apply to people’s rela­tion­ship to their gov­ern­ment, not their employ­er. Cit­i­zens in a democ­ra­cy remain sub­jects in the work­place — the place where most adults spend a large part of their wak­ing hours.

Employ­ers can lim­it what peo­ple can and can­not say at work, or where and when they assem­ble. They can intrude into people’s pri­vate lives, mon­i­tor­ing their pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence and keep­ing tabs on their non-work activ­i­ties, or lim­it their breaks, includ­ing where and when they can use the bath­room. With few excep­tions, employ­ers are under no com­pul­sion to guar­an­tee due process to those they employ. They can large­ly hire, fire, and dis­ci­pline work­ers at will. To the extent that employ­ers treat their work­ers well, it is entire­ly at their dis­cre­tion, as revo­ca­ble and sub­ject to change with­out notice as a king’s writ.

Even for the 10 per­cent of US work­ers who have a union, their scope of activ­i­ty is usu­al­ly restrict­ed by a more or less expan­sive management’s rights clause.” Today’s unions may guar­an­tee cer­tain basic civ­il lib­er­ties in the work­place, but do lit­tle to chal­lenge management’s sov­er­eign­ty in the workplace.

This sharp divide may not seem out of the ordi­nary today, but this was not always the case. Under­stand­ing how and why those links frayed, then dis­solved, can help explain the para­dox of work­place democ­ra­cy that most work­ers expe­ri­ence today — and sug­gest pos­si­bil­i­ties for resolv­ing that paradox.

The Labor Ques­tion and Labor Republicanism

The link between polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic democ­ra­cy was strong fol­low­ing the Civ­il War, in which one of the cen­tral ques­tions was the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty of an eco­nom­ic sys­tem based on unfree labor with a polit­i­cal sys­tem based on the idea of indi­vid­ual free­dom. In the war’s after­math, the labor ques­tion” emerged as one of the cen­tral eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal prob­lems. While the imme­di­ate labor ques­tion involved strug­gles over inte­grat­ing the new­ly freed black pop­u­la­tion in the South via Recon­struc­tion, it spilled over to strug­gles in the North led by white work­ers who insist­ed that social recon­struc­tion be extend­ed northward.”

As mass indus­tri­al­iza­tion esca­lat­ed, the Civ­il War-era idea of free labor” as a require­ment for demo­c­ra­t­ic cit­i­zen­ship took on new mean­ings. Where­as Pres­i­dent Lin­coln and his con­tem­po­raries saw free labor” for wages as a way sta­tion to self-reliance as a small employ­er, for post­bel­lum work­ers, reliance on wage labor for sur­vival would be more per­ma­nent. This did not mean, how­ev­er, that they accept­ed the premise of wage labor. Rather, groups like the Knights of Labor called for the abo­li­tion of the wage sys­tem, rec­og­niz­ing, as orga­niz­er George E. McNeill declared in 1877, an inevitable and irre­sistible con­flict between the wage-sys­tem of labor and the repub­li­can sys­tem of gov­ern­ment.” They saw a close link between eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy, and argued that they could not be full cit­i­zens in a repub­lic if they were wage slaves at work.

This labor repub­li­can­ism” nec­es­sar­i­ly took both polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic forms. Groups like the Knights, the Nation­al Labor Union, the Indus­tri­al Con­gress, and local trade assem­blies moved between polit­i­cal demands like the eight-hour day and efforts to exer­cise cit­i­zen­ship in the work­place. They fought to main­tain craft auton­o­my for skilled work­ers, lend mutu­al sup­port through strike actions, and artic­u­late and enforce work rules. Draw­ing a clear line between the rules gov­ern­ing their lives as cit­i­zens and those gov­ern­ing their lives as work­ers, they referred to these work rules as leg­is­la­tion.”

Many of these efforts came up short, as pow­er­ful employ­ers assert­ed their sov­er­eign­ty over the work­place. But what is impor­tant is that these groups of work­ers did not rec­og­nize a stark divide between polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic democ­ra­cy — and vig­or­ous­ly sought to exert sov­er­eign con­trol in the workplace.

Sci­en­tif­ic Man­age­ment and Work­ers’ Control

While polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy con­tin­ued to evolve into the Pro­gres­sive era, work­place rela­tions remained in a qua­si-feu­dal state, tak­ing for grant­ed the employer’s sov­er­eign con­trol of the workplace.

For their part, many work­ers did not read­i­ly accept their cor­re­spond­ing role as ser­vants in the expand­ing indus­tri­al econ­o­my. In major strike waves in the ear­ly 1900s, around World War I, and then the 1930s and 1940s, work­ers engaged in what David Mont­gomery called con­trol strikes” — strikes not sim­ply over wages but over issues that chal­lenged employ­er sov­er­eign­ty such as enforce­ment of work rules, union recog­ni­tion, dis­charge of unpop­u­lar fore­men or reten­tion of pop­u­lar ones, reg­u­la­tion of lay­offs or dis­missals, and actions of sym­pa­thy with oth­er groups of work­ers.” The ongo­ing con­flict ensured that the labor ques­tion,” the ques­tion of the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism with polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy, remained a press­ing social issue; as Louis Bran­deis put it, the para­mount eco­nom­ic ques­tion in this country.”

Employ­ers respond­ed with the stan­dard reper­toire of repres­sion, to which they added tech­ni­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, and orga­ni­za­tion­al tools for reassert­ing man­age­ment con­trol. At the tech­ni­cal lev­el, increased mech­a­niza­tion appro­pri­at­ed work­ers’ knowl­edge of the pro­duc­tion process and under­mined their auton­o­my, while embed­ding management’s con­trol in the reg­u­lar, relent­less pace of the machines. At the ide­o­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tion­al lev­els, sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment and the par­al­lel rise of human resources man­age­ment sought to sup­plant the idea of work­place democ­ra­cy with that of man­age­ment as a pro­gres­sive, ratio­nal, effi­cient force that could address work­ers’ needs while retain­ing its own con­trol. Many employ­ers added to this a series of employ­ee ben­e­fits known as wel­fare cap­i­tal­ism,” using mate­r­i­al incen­tives to con­vince work­ers to cede work­place sov­er­eign­ty to man­age­ment voluntarily.

These man­age­ment tools put a lid on con­flict over work­place con­trol after World War I, but the con­flict flared up with renewed fer­vor in the 1930s and 1940s, high­light­ing three key points relat­ed to work­place democ­ra­cy. First, the core bat­tles of the peri­od were pri­mar­i­ly over the ques­tion of work­place con­trol — not pay and ben­e­fits. From the erup­tions of 1934, to the sit-down fever” of 1936 – 1937, to the wave of World War II wild­cats, work­ers were call­ing employ­ers’ sov­er­eign con­trol of the work­place into ques­tion. Sec­ond, they were able to mount this chal­lenge to employ­er sov­er­eign­ty thanks to dense net­works of for­mal and infor­mal shop-floor orga­ni­za­tion. Third, these net­works were held togeth­er by a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty,” a lay­er of polit­i­cal­ly con­scious, trained orga­niz­ers from var­i­ous rad­i­cal Left tra­di­tions. Many were Com­mu­nists, but they also includ­ed Trot­sky­ists and oth­er strains of socialists.

The strug­gles of the 1930s and 1940s marked a deci­sive and con­tra­dic­to­ry shift in the fight over work­place democ­ra­cy, estab­lish­ing the Wag­n­er Act mod­el as a basis for extend­ing cer­tain demo­c­ra­t­ic rights into the work­place. In addi­tion to mark­ing a sig­nif­i­cant encroach­ment on employ­er sov­er­eign­ty, the Wag­n­er Act and oth­er New Deal reforms sought to expand notions of cit­i­zen­ship. See­ing eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty as essen­tial for full polit­i­cal cit­i­zen­ship, New Deal pol­i­cy and rhetoric, par­tic­u­lar­ly Pres­i­dent Roosevelt’s idea of the Four Free­doms,” echoed the old labor repub­li­can calls to link eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy. As such, they suc­ceed­ed in tak­ing the labor ques­tion” off the table. There was now an answer to that ques­tion, and it could be summed up in two words: col­lec­tive bargaining.

How­ev­er, if the New Deal expand­ed notions of cit­i­zen­ship, it also lim­it­ed them in cru­cial ways. In addi­tion to rein­forc­ing exist­ing gen­der and racial inequal­i­ties, as many schol­ars have not­ed, the New Deal reori­ent­ed con­cep­tions of eco­nom­ic cit­i­zen­ship around guar­an­tee­ing an Amer­i­can stan­dard of liv­ing,” a lev­el of mate­r­i­al secu­ri­ty that would allow (pri­mar­i­ly white, male) work­ers to sup­port their fam­i­lies and par­tic­i­pate ful­ly in soci­ety. It was a vision of eco­nom­ic cit­i­zen­ship aimed at work­ers’ lives as fam­i­ly mem­bers and con­sumers, not as work­ers. While col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing did bring a mea­sure of cit­i­zen­ship into the work­place, what came to be known as indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy” focused on guar­an­tee­ing basic civ­il rights like free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion and due process. Ques­tions of work­place sov­er­eign­ty and con­trol were cast aside.

The Lim­its of Indus­tri­al Democracy

The sep­a­ra­tion between work­place civ­il rights and work­place sov­er­eign­ty that char­ac­ter­ized post­war indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy result­ed from three fac­tors. First, employ­ers who chafed at even the Wag­n­er Act’s par­tial infringe­ment on their sov­er­eign­ty launched a sys­tem­at­ic cam­paign even before the war was over to “[put] busi­ness­men back in a posi­tion of lead­er­ship in the nation­al econ­o­my” and reassert their right to man­age.” Sec­ond, judges and leg­is­la­tors helped employ­ers by derad­i­cal­iz­ing” the Wag­n­er Act via legal rul­ings and the 1947 Taft-Hart­ley Act. These took par­tic­u­lar aim at the forms of col­lec­tive action that work­ers had used to assert work­place sov­er­eign­ty, includ­ing sit-down strikes and sol­i­dar­i­ty actions. Third, unions under­mined their own capac­i­ty to assert work­place sov­er­eign­ty by expelling most of the mil­i­tant minori­ties” of Com­mu­nists and oth­er rad­i­cal shop-floor lead­ers that had been at the fore­front of union orga­niz­ing up to that point.

Instead, CIO lead­ers like Philip Mur­ray and Wal­ter Reuther hoped to build labor’s post­war pow­er and influ­ence by deep­en­ing the tri­par­tite forms of polit­i­cal bar­gain­ing that the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion had set up. Acute­ly aware of the need to secure management’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in their vision of Indus­tri­al Peace for the Post­war Peri­od,” they pro­posed a deal: if man­age­ment would sup­port the Wag­n­er Act col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing frame­work and com­mit to a high-wage, high-employ­ment post­war econ­o­my, unions would defend a sys­tem of pri­vate com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism,” which specif­i­cal­ly includ­ed the inher­ent right and respon­si­bil­i­ty of man­age­ment to direct the oper­a­tions of an enter­prise.” How­ev­er, they soon real­ized that such a grand bar­gain was not on offer. Not only could they not get man­age­ment to agree to their terms, they could not even get man­age­ment to agree to par­tic­i­pate in a tri­par­tite bar­gain­ing struc­ture. With their pow­er and legit­i­ma­cy restored after the war, man­age­ment sim­ply reassert­ed its inher­ent right to man­age. It did not need to nego­ti­ate over the issue.

With tri­par­tite grand bar­gains off the table, post­war labor lead­ers set­tled for a more restrict­ed form of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy. The basic terms were set out in the 1950 Treaty of Detroit,” the five-year con­tract nego­ti­at­ed between Wal­ter Reuther’s Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile Work­ers (UAW) and Gen­er­al Motors: union recog­ni­tion and reg­u­lar wage and ben­e­fit increas­es in exchange for management’s con­trol over pro­duc­tion. This was a deal that could pro­mote eco­nom­ic cit­i­zen­ship defined as access to an Amer­i­can stan­dard of liv­ing.” But it reject­ed a vision of cit­i­zen­ship that includ­ed the work­place. That would remain management’s sov­er­eign domain, with cer­tain civ­il rights spelled out and enforced via a bureau­crat­ic griev­ance pro­ce­dure. What rights were not spelled out were reserved to man­age­ment, as the soon-to-be- ubiq­ui­tous man­age­ment rights clause” in near­ly every union con­tract would stip­u­late.

This restrict­ed indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy did raise liv­ing stan­dards for work­ers over­all in the post­war decades and con­tin­ues to pro­vide an eco­nom­ic advan­tage for the small per­cent­age of US work­ers who are union mem­bers today. But the lack of work­place sov­er­eign­ty or con­trol took its toll, man­i­fest­ing as a wave of wild­cat strikes in the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s. While pop­u­lar media accounts focused on gen­er­a­tional shifts and indi­vid­ual work­er alien­ation— the blue col­lar blues” — the real prob­lem was unchecked man­age­ment author­i­ty. Union­ized work­ers may have enjoyed good pay and ben­e­fits, but what they real­ly want­ed was to be treat­ed like Amer­i­can work­ers, human beings, not as pieces of prof­it-mak­ing machin­ery,” as the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee at a strik­ing auto plant in Lord­stown, Ohio put it in 1972.

The Dis­ap­pear­ance of Work­place Democracy

As dehu­man­iz­ing as the sit­u­a­tion at Lord­stown and oth­er union­ized fac­to­ries was in the ear­ly 1970s, at least those work­ers had unions to pro­vide orga­ni­za­tion­al infra­struc­ture for their protest. But as union decline accel­er­at­ed under Pres­i­dent Rea­gan, the con­cept of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy came to appear quaint. With unions los­ing ground, help­less­ly watch­ing fac­to­ries shut­ter or nego­ti­at­ing over how deep con­ces­sions would go, a new dis­course on redesign­ing work­places for the mod­ern era focused on union-man­age­ment part­ner­ships and the team con­cept.” Man­age­ment tech­niques like the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem and the broad­er move toward lean pro­duc­tion” became cen­tral to management’s asser­tion of dom­i­nance over the shop floor. Rhetor­i­cal­ly, these ideas empha­sized work­ers as agents; after all, enter­ing into a part­ner­ship” or choos­ing to be on a team” with man­age­ment requires an active deci­sion to col­lab­o­rate by work­ers. But as crit­ics point­ed out at the time, the part­ner­ship mod­els quick­ly proved to be lit­tle more than schemes to force work­ers to set the terms of their own exploita­tion, cov­ered with a thin sheen of demo­c­ra­t­ic participation.

As the new mil­len­ni­um began, and cap­i­tal con­tin­ued to rack up wins in what for­mer UAW Pres­i­dent Dou­glas Fras­er called a one-sided class war,” the rhetoric of union-man­age­ment col­lab­o­ra­tion and part­ner­ship fell silent — scarce­ly any unions were left to col­lab­o­rate with. Those that remained had all but aban­doned the work­place as a ter­rain of struggle.

The eco­nom­ic effects of that vic­to­ry are well known: real wages stag­nat­ed as pro­duc­tiv­i­ty climbed, cor­po­rate prof­its con­stant­ly broke new records, and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty climbed to its high­est lev­el since the Great Depres­sion. But this weak­en­ing of work­er pow­er also made for a bleak land­scape at the work­place lev­el. Unfet­tered by orga­nized labor, com­pa­nies could do as they pleased in the work­place, from major deci­sions about open­ing and clos­ing work sites to inflict­ing ever-accu­mu­lat­ing, quo­tid­i­an slights and indig­ni­ties. Fac­to­ries con­tin­ued to be shut­tered and moved over­seas — or down the road to low­er-paid, nonunion plants; white-col­lar work­forces sim­i­lar­ly saw merg­ers and down­siz­ing.” In all sec­tors, work­ers saw what­ev­er grip they had on their work­places slip away, as man­age­ment demand­ed more respon­si­bil­i­ties, greater out­put, and longer hours.

In addi­tion, man­age­ment expand­ed more gran­u­lar forms of con­trol on the job. Employ­ers vast­ly increased the use of non­com­pete claus­es, forc­ing every­one from fac­to­ry work­ers to fast-food sand­wich mak­ers to sign agree­ments lim­it­ing work­ers’ free­dom to leave a giv­en work­place and find work in a sim­i­lar field. One indus­try esti­mate sug­gests that the use of such agree­ments has tripled since 2000. Employ­ers con­tin­ued to use tech­nol­o­gy to con­trol the work­place — and their work­ers. For exam­ple, in West Hol­ly­wood, Cal­i­for­nia, Hyatt Hotel house­keep­ing work­ers report­ed being giv­en iPods out­fit­ted with a pro­gram in which they had to log the moment they start­ed clean­ing a room and the moment they finished.

Even keep­ing work­ers’ free­dom over bod­i­ly func­tions was a los­ing bat­tle. There was a con­tin­u­ous stream of law­suits and pub­lic con­flicts over work­ers being per­mit­ted to use the bath­room, such as the union­ized Jim Beam dis­tillery work­ers in Ken­tucky in 2002 who sued their employ­er after they were dis­ci­plined for reliev­ing them­selves out­side of com­pa­ny-approved times, as well as forc­ing female work­ers to report the onset of their men­stru­al cycles.

As man­age­ment con­trol over the work­place con­sol­i­dat­ed, work­place democ­ra­cy as an idea evap­o­rat­ed. Busi­ness dis­cus­sions of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy” in the post­war peri­od, and the team con­cept” in the 1980s, at least paid lip ser­vice to work­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. Today’s pop­u­lar busi­ness books take management’s con­trol of the work­place as a giv­en; work­ers should expect to do the work of two or three employ­ees, or be down­sized or forced to switch careers every few years — and be grate­ful for the new oppor­tu­ni­ties it pro­duces. Although orga­nized labor has not been com­plete­ly van­quished, its cam­paigns have not focused on democ­ra­cy or con­trol of the shop floor. Liv­ing-wage cam­paigns have won some major pay rais­es for nonunion work­ers in cities like Bal­ti­more, but have left con­trol of the shop floor large­ly untouched. Like­wise, the Fight for $15 cam­paign has not only set a bold stan­dard for the min­i­mum pay work­ers deserve, but won tan­gi­ble vic­to­ries estab­lish­ing a $15 hourly wage floor in cities like Seat­tle. Still, con­trol of the work­place — par­tic­u­lar­ly despot­ic in the fast-food indus­try — has most­ly been off the table.

Labor schol­ar and strate­gist Jane McAlevey argues that New Labor,” the pro­gres­sive wing of the labor move­ment clus­tered around the SEIU and oth­er reform-mind­ed unions, has shift­ed away from work­place fights to focus on tac­tics like cor­po­rate cam­paigns,” which lever­age strate­gic research to pres­sure cor­po­ra­tions, but leave lit­tle role for work­ers. This shift has fur­thered unions’ all-but-total dis­in­ter­est in chal­leng­ing management’s sov­er­eign con­trol of the work­place. Even in labor’s pro­gres­sive wing, the ques­tion of democ­ra­cy at work has been ceded.

Bring­ing Democ­ra­cy Back to Work

But not all unions have giv­en up on the labor ques­tion. Some teach­ers, unions, such as those in Chica­go and Wash­ing­ton State, have made resist­ing what Shawn Gude has called the indus­tri­al class­room” cen­tral to their orga­niz­ing. This includes bat­tles over large class sizes, the overuse of stan­dard­ized test­ing, exces­sive paper­work, and teacher eval­u­a­tions pegged to stu­dent per­for­mance. Wash­ing­ton teach­ers engaged in a series of one-day strikes in 2015 to demand reduced class sizes along­side hikes in com­pen­sa­tion, and backed a bind­ing bal­lot ini­tia­tive to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce class sizes that even­tu­al­ly passed.

Nurs­es unions won a hard-fought bat­tle in Cal­i­for­nia in 2004 to estab­lish a max­i­mum nurse-to- patient ratio in the state’s hos­pi­tals and have zeal­ous­ly defend­ed the law — the only one of its kind in the nation — from health care com­pa­nies look­ing to chip away at it. The law pro­vides the basis for a mod­icum of con­trol on the hos­pi­tal floor, allow­ing nurs­es to tend to few­er patients in a giv­en shift. And the Fight for $15 has recent­ly pri­or­i­tized bring­ing an end to on-call sched­ul­ing prac­tices — in which work­ers are kept in the dark about their work sched­ule until some­times hours before a shift begins, mak­ing impos­si­ble the plan­ning and liv­ing of a nor­mal life.

While most work­ers con­tin­ue to check their demo­c­ra­t­ic rights at the door of the ware­house, school, and hos­pi­tal every day, these exam­ples sug­gest a hunger among work­ers for orga­niz­ing around issues of work­place democ­ra­cy — and point the way to devel­op­ing a new mod­el for exer­cis­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic citizenship.

A cen­tu­ry ago, many rec­og­nized that prob­lems of low pay, long or irreg­u­lar hours, arbi­trary treat­ment, and oth­er issues aris­ing from unchecked employ­er sov­er­eign­ty imped­ed work­ers’ abil­i­ty to exer­cise their full cit­i­zen­ship rights, pos­ing a chal­lenge for democ­ra­cy. Today, with eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and management’s con­trol of the work­place at lev­els not seen since that Gild­ed Age, the labor ques­tion has renewed relevance.

The post­war Wag­n­er Act mod­el of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy was always an incom­plete answer to the labor ques­tion. But the employ­er offen­sive of the past three decades has left that mod­el in tat­ters. Find­ing an answer to today’s labor ques­tion involves fig­ur­ing out a new mod­el for exer­cis­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic citizenship.

Such a mod­el requires three com­po­nents: civ­il rights, includ­ing due process and free­dom of speech and assem­bly, par­tic­u­lar­ly the right to strike; eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty, includ­ing decent wages and ben­e­fits; and a degree of work­place sov­er­eign­ty. Updat­ed forms of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions can go a long way toward pro­mot­ing the first two. The third is more chal­leng­ing, because it requires a more direct con­fronta­tion with employ­ers’ pow­er. His­to­ry sug­gests that employ­ers can tol­er­ate hav­ing to pay more in wages and ben­e­fits, or even hav­ing to pro­vide cer­tain basic pro­ce­dur­al rights. But chal­lenges to their work­place sov­er­eign­ty are a bridge too far. Even at times of mass work­er upsurge like the 1930s and 1940s, employ­ers clung tena­cious­ly to their right to man­age.” At a moment when they are ret­i­cent even to grant con­ces­sions on wages and ben­e­fits, a fight for greater work­place con­trol will be daunting.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem of chal­leng­ing employ­ers’ sov­er­eign­ty in the work­place is the prob­lem of defin­ing the mod­ern work­place and iden­ti­fy­ing the employ­er. Frag­ment­ed forms of work orga­ni­za­tion and byzan­tine cor­po­rate-own­er­ship struc­tures mean that the loca­tion of employ­ers’ pow­er may be far removed from where work­ers are work­ing, both phys­i­cal­ly and legal­ly. Estab­lish­ing a clear under­stand­ing of who exact­ly is account­able for work­place con­di­tions is essen­tial to giv­ing work­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to seek redress for every­thing from low pay to work­place despo­tism. When an Uber driver’s app is deac­ti­vat­ed by the com­pa­ny, or a temp agency refus­es to renew a worker’s con­tract, work­ers have lit­tle recourse: there is no boss to con­front. If these work­ers are to exer­cise any lev­el of demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of their work, they must be able to con­front their boss as a boss. To do so, the boss must be brought out from behind the veils of sub­con­tract­ing and inde­pen­dent con­tract­ing that cur­rent­ly obfus­cate what are fun­da­men­tal­ly man­age­ment – work­er relationships.

Strate­gic research is cru­cial for untan­gling struc­tures of cor­po­rate own­er­ship and con­trol, and expos­ing management’s game of hide the boss.” The core chal­lenge is to find ways to trans­late the lever­age that strate­gic research cre­ates out­side the work­place into pow­er exert­ed at the work­place. That requires bring­ing work­ers them­selves back into the pic­ture. Vol­un­tary agree­ments and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions can start shift­ing the bal­ance of pow­er at work, but with­out a mech­a­nism for day-to-day enforce­ment, they will fall short.

The spe­cif­ic forms this new work­place orga­ni­za­tion may take are yet to be deter­mined, but pre­vi­ous efforts at expand­ing work­er sov­er­eign­ty under­line the impor­tance of mil­i­tant minori­ties” in the work­place. Such cur­rents with­in labor exist today and could expand in the future.

While cur­rent­ly not at the scale need­ed, some cross-union efforts sug­gest the kinds of tools that could help rebuild this crit­i­cal work­place infra­struc­ture. The Labor Notes project, for exam­ple, holds local and nation­al con­fer­ences and dis­trib­utes mag­a­zines, books, and online resources focused on build­ing that mil­i­tant minor­i­ty. Such pro­grams con­nect work­ers and reform-focused union locals across dif­fer­ent cities, states, and coun­tries, with a focus on prac­ti­cal orga­niz­ing skills. These net­works could play key roles in future efforts at orga­niz­ing, artic­u­lat­ing, and enforc­ing new con­cep­tions of work­place democ­ra­cy. They could train and mobi­lize shop-floor activists who could not only serve in day-to-day bat­tles over shop-floor griev­ances and con­tract cam­paigns, but in agi­tat­ing their cowork­ers specif­i­cal­ly around the lack of full cit­i­zen­ship rights on the job.

In addi­tion, even though today’s left pales in com­par­i­son with the left that built the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty cur­rents of the 1930s and 1940s, rad­i­cal pol­i­tics are again catch­ing on. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, for exam­ple, has seen an explo­sion in mem­ber­ship in the past year and a half, grow­ing from eight thou­sand mem­bers before Bernie Sanders’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to thir­ty thou­sand today. If even a por­tion of that mem­ber­ship ded­i­cat­ed itself to rank-and-file strug­gle, as Com­mu­nist, Trot­sky­ist, and oth­er left­ist groups did in the past, and con­nect­ed the strug­gle for democ­ra­cy at work to their con­cep­tions of a just and demo­c­ra­t­ic world, the labor ques­tion could again be cen­tral to con­tem­po­rary work­er struggles.

Democ­ra­cy on the job is not mere­ly a niche issue pri­mar­i­ly of inter­est to clue­less intel­lec­tu­als, nor is it a nice add-on” that must take a back seat to more press­ing issues. It is an essen­tial part of any strat­e­gy for rebuild­ing work­ing-class pow­er. Although they may not yet artic­u­late it as such, work­ers expe­ri­ence the stark gap between demo­c­ra­t­ic cit­i­zen­ship rights in the broad­er soci­ety and rights on the job every time they are sub­ject to arbi­trary pro­ce­dur­al changes on the job that they have no say in, or when a boss refus­es to let them use the bath­room. Many union orga­niz­ers today note that even in low-wage work­places, the issue that most moves work­ers to action is not low wages — it is lack of respect at work. That lack of respect is inti­mate­ly tied to a sense of pow­er­less on the job. Orga­niz­ers and rank-and-file activists can help their cowork­ers con­nect the dots between these dai­ly pet­ty indig­ni­ties and the broad­er régime of despo­tism they toil under, and artic­u­late a com­pelling alter­na­tive vision of demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly run workplaces.

Such a vision could begin to pro­vide an answer to a labor ques­tion that remains as impor­tant as ever, even though it has fad­ed from view. At a moment when the idea of democ­ra­cy writ large is under attack from dem­a­gogues and tech­nocrats alike, a renewed push to expand democ­ra­cy and cit­i­zen­ship into the work­place could offer a gal­va­niz­ing frame­work for reaf­firm­ing the fun­da­men­tal idea that the peo­ple should rule.

Bar­ry Eidlin is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty and a for­mer head stew­ard for UAW Local 2865.Mic­ah Uet­richt is an asso­ciate edi­tor at Jacobin. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty and a grad­u­ate stu­dent in soci­ol­o­gy at McGill University.
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