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Waiting for Workplace Democracy
Political scientist Carole Pateman's theories about democracy in the workplace took off in the 1970s, but workplace democracy didn't. Will it now?
TL;DR: Political scientists have been writing about workplace democracy for decades, but it hasn’t taken off—until now, maybe? 🤞
Catch up quick: In her 1970 book Participation and Democratic Theory, Carole Pateman took aim at “classical” democratic theorists (Schumpeter, Berelson, Dahl, Sartori, and Eckstein). Building from the work of Rousseau, Mill, and Cole, Pateman put forward participatory democracy as an alternative theory with participation in decision-making—rather than representative voting—at its core. Her book paved the way for deliberative democratic theory, now a major field of study in political science and theory.
What’s missing: Often forgotten is Pateman builds her 1970 thesis from case studies of democratic participation in workplaces, where workers can train themselves to participate effectively as citizens of a democracy. Her examples include:
The collective decision-making of British miners (the composite longwall method)
Standard car plant workers’ nearly bossless gang system
Glacier Metal Company’s constitution and network of legislative Works Councils
The John Lewis Partnership’s employee ownership structure (which has lasted until at least 2023)
Scott Bader Commonwealth’s charitable trust-based structure, including its system of check and balances
State-mandated Workers Councils in communist Yugoslavia
What happened to workplace democracy? In 1970, Pateman believed an age of worker participation might be on the way:
“It seems probable,” she wrote, “that an element of participation will be introduced into the work life of many individuals in the future under the influence of the new theories of management that have been developed in the last decade or so.”
An idea whose time has (finally) come? Depending on what Pateman meant by “many,” that hasn’t happened—yet. Employee ownership grew in the United States mostly through employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), which only sometimes include employees in decision-making. And there are fewer than a thousand worker cooperatives in the United States with fewer than 10,000 workers in them.
The number of worker cooperatives in the United States has nearly doubled in the last four years
Congress passed new legislation supportive of ESOPS in 2022, and research suggests that the incorporating workers in decision-making is the key to higher performance in those firms
Governors of multiple states signed 2022 bills supporting employee ownership in 2022
Some American companies are experimenting with a new form of employee ownership, the employee ownership trust
Watch this space. We’ll find out together whether these developments will lead to the growth of workplace democracy, and whether that will have the transformative effect on democracy that Pateman predicted.
Go Deeper: Read more on “The Political Theory of Carole Pateman” and Paul Blumberg’s influential Industrial Democracy: The Sociology of Participation (1968).
Image credit: From the cover of the 1970 edition of ‘Participation and Democratic Theory;’ artist, title, and date unknown.