Is The Workplace A Democracy?

Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders and some of his colleagues in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation called  The Workplace Democracy Act to help with union organizing drives at workplaces and eventually narrow income inequality.  This week blogged about workplace democracy.   The blogger revived some workplace democracy thoughts of Senator Robert F. Wagner who, in 1935, sponsored the current legislation known as the Wagner Act that has given unions the ability to organize for collective bargaining rights.

According to U. S. Senate history, Senator Wagner created legislation that continues to profoundly impact us both as a society and at workplaces.  Not only is he responsible for the Wagner Act, Senator Wagner introduced the legislation for the Social Security Act which, of course, is now something we all rely on to provide benefits in retirement.

While on an oversight committee to review the tragic fire of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, Senator Wagner realized change was absolutely necessary and he believed giving workers a voice in the workplace was important.  As Hitler was beginning to make his moves in Germany, Senator Wagner, a German immigrant in his childhood, also thought unions could be a model to help workers, who were also voters, understand the importance of a democratic system.  What he considered as workplace democracy was also a fight against evil dictators and fascism.

What did Senator Wagner envision when he wrote about workplace democracy?   There have been a number of interpretations of his idea of a democratic workplace but many see it as social justice and the ability of workers to be free to vote for union representation.  He believed workers should have a voice as to their pay and working conditions.

The OnLabor blog sites low union membership has diminished the ability for workplaces to be the models of democracy Senator Wagner wanted.  The blogger says another problem with the workplace democracy model is that it can’t happen until after an election for union representation because unions may not be successful.  Employers  sometimes put relentless pressure on employees against unions and that, according to the blogger, isn’t a fair democratic process.

The blog compares workplaces to kingdoms with the manager or CEO as a king who makes all the decisions and the shareholders as a governing body based on the number of shares they own.  Comparing workplaces to kingdoms and CEOs as dictating monarchs can be somewhat harsh especially when the other side is not always innocent in their tactics.

Yet there are some employers who will threaten and intimidate employees with anti union information during organizing drives and that not only gives the impression the workplace environment is autocratic, which is what Wagner was trying to counter with his legislation, but it does remove the ability of employees to make their own clear and free choice.

All workers, both management, non-union employees and unionized employees, should be respected and allowed to have a voice in the workplace.  Worker voice can be such a tremendous tool for workplaces to change culture, be more productive and develop new ways to increase business.  But what about this idea workplaces should be democracies?  Can a true democracy exist in the workplace?  For a democracy to exist within the workplace, it needs to be beneficial for everybody.  Can that happen for both employers and employees?

We can focus on the other side of a union gaining representation.  What’s the perspective of the owner or CEO of the workplace who has just experienced a vote from the employees?  Does that owner or CEO think they have a voice?  Some obviously do especially those that use extensive anti-union strategies.  While it may not allow the worker to make a good decision, it does provide the employer an opportunity to have a say. But what about the owner or CEO who tries really hard to do the right thing and doesn’t resort to the scare and intimidation tactics while under the pressure of an extremely aggressive union organizer.  Is that democracy for that owner or CEO?

What about supervisors who may have some concerns about a specific problem or issues related to their job classification but they’re not comfortable about voicing those concerns or talking about issues. They also may not even be asked for an opinion on workplace problems.   Is the workplace a democracy for them?  Supervisors are in very awkward positions.   They must address concerns and help subordinates with their issues but they may have to take those issues to another level and respond to the needs of their boss even when they may not feel supported.  Does that sound democratic?

Workplace democracies can also be bad for the very people trying to create that environment.  Workplace democracy can become a very high pedestal for unions to achieve.  In other words, some members may have a completely different expectation of what workplace democracy is compared to their leadership.  Unless the union has been explicit in just exactly what workplace democracy means, it can be very destructive for the union.  We’ve had more than one  experience where leaders wanted to go one direction and members another or didn’t understand why leaders were making decisions for them they didn’t necessarily agree on.   Sometimes leaders have to make decisions without taking it to members for a vote.  Some members may see that as contradicting workplace democracy.  There can be issues just among leaders, too, which causes them to disagree and that can pull a union apart.

Workplace democracy sounds great!  It’s a very powerful term!  But it can be treacherous when not applied as everybody envisions. The term may be well intended but the nuts and bolts of it can be very difficult to uphold and manage.

Using a term like worker voice has a little more explicit meaning plus doesn’t hold people to a standard they may not be able to deliver.  Both Senator Wagner and Senator Sanders had good intentions and focused on helping employees with union representation, allowing them a voice and be more involved in issues such as pay, benefits and working conditions and that’s good.    It’s also important for workers to be able to decide whether to be part of a union or not without aggressive interaction from either side.  That may be more democratic but it doesn’t necessarily identify as workplace democracy and that’s important.   Using another term might be a better idea!



About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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