A Stronger Democracy Starts in the Workplace


One’s sense of agency starts at work. Let’s democratize the workplace!

With just two weeks remaining until the 2020 Election, we’re being reminded to vote with more urgency than ever. In an election as pivotal as the one that lies before us, in a year as unprecedented as 2020, it’s no wonder that we’re being encouraged to do our civic duty as early as possible, as safely as possible, and with as much information as possible. Without a doubt, voting continues to be one of the most valuable tools at our disposal to influence policy and select officeholders we believe will best represent our values and interests.

While many of us will choose to actively participate in our democratic process and help decide the outcomes of elections for all levels of government, how many of us can say the same about our ability to influence the decisions of our workplaces? Though it may be a crazy notion to some, it seems sensible to us that all employees would have a stake in the decision-making processes that affect their jobs, just as citizens decide the outcome of elections and ballot proposals. What if workers, like voters, had the same autonomy and power of choice to decide how workplaces should be governed?

Just as our votes make a lasting impact on policy and shape our political atmosphere for years to come, we believe that democracy in the workplace may be just as essential to the future of democracy in our country. In fact, by reinforcing democratic principles like “one person, one vote,” as well as advancing the economic interests of workers who have been long overlooked by our current system of government, workplace democratization and increased worker autonomy may be key to preserving democracy at large.

Workplace Democratization in Co-ops and Unions

First, what exactly do we mean by a “democratized workplace”? In reality, it’s not as far-fetched or utopian as one might think. As you may recall from our June article about Detroit co-ops, the cooperative model has paved the way for democratically governed workplaces, where each employee shares ownership and receives one “vote” in making important decisions affecting the co-op. Because they are “part-boss, part-owners,” workers make decisions that benefit each other, rather than an executive, and enjoy greater autonomy and social responsibility in a system akin to a mini-democracy. (Model D)

In a similar way, unionized workplaces also enjoy a degree of democratization, mainly through unions’ representation of workers’ interests. Within unions, “workers can…secure a degree of control over their economic lives by organizing collectively to check the power of their employers,” the benefits of which are perhaps most evident in the wage premium enjoyed by union workers. (NY Magazine) In this system, workers can voice their demands to employers, whether for higher standards of living (e.g. wage increases, benefits) or safer working conditions, exerting greater autonomy over their own economic circumstances and the conditions of their workplace.

The Importance of Workers’ Economic Control & Agency

So, how does democratic governance in the workplace help democracy at large? At its core, workplace democratization allows individuals greater control over their economic circumstances, as well as an increased sense of agency. The notion of workers having “control over [their] economic lives” is by no means radical or new; Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Even earlier, our Founding Fathers asserted that economic autonomy was critical for democratic governance, which Alexander Hamilton echoed in his statement that “a power over man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” (NY Magazine) It follows, then, that a perceived inability to change one’s economic circumstances would undermine one’s sense of agency both within the workplace and in the democracy at large, decreasing motivation to participate in either sphere.

What’s more, the benefits reaped from democratized workplaces tend to “fill in the gaps” where our democracy falls short. To illustrate, co-op and union workers are able to advance their material interests that are often overlooked in our current system of governance and our prevailing economic policies. While the middle class has suffered the brunt of wage stagnation for the last half-decade or so, workers in highly democratized workplaces have more power to determine their material well-being and economic conditions, such as their compensation–doing so even without the government’s reversal of conservative economic policy or a rewriting of tax codes that have favored the wealthiest Americans for several decades.

Moreover, the economic gains from these workplaces promote a viable middle class, helping ensure stable democracy. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “a strong and prosperous middle class is crucial for any successful economy and cohesive society” and “societies with a strong middle class have…greater political stability and good governance.” (“Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class) As we’ve already posited in last month’s article that unions increase middle class wages, a boost in wages for the majority of Americans may actually be protective of democracy; oppositely, extreme wealth inequality correlates with political inequality. (New York Times)

Not Just Economics: Workplaces as Mini-Democracies

Beyond their advancement of material interests and increasing workers’ sense of agency, democratized workplaces also act as mini-democracies. More specifically, these workplaces embrace democratic ideals, promote participation in our nation’s democracy and, in some instances, lead to increased voter turnout.

In co-ops in particular, each employee has an equally weighted vote in the decision-making process, mirroring our own democratic system’s principle of “one person, one vote.” Co-ops also provide for open, meaningful discussion and deliberation on issues, not unlike the forums, debates, and hearings of our political system. Likewise, the democratic process is also integral within unions; to form a union, an election is held in which workers decide whether to allow the union to represent them. Union workers also vote on union contracts and union leadership, considered “important drivers of democratic acculturation.” (New York Times)  In this way, such workplace freedoms, including the opportunity to vote on critical issues and participate in open discussion, replicate the freedoms we enjoy in our own democratic system.

What’s more, employees in workplaces that function more democratically may be more likely to vote in elections. Studies have shown that members of unions are more likely to vote than their non-union counterparts–especially union workers in the private sector. This may be attributed to union efforts to mobilize workers to participate in the democratic process: namely, by ensuring members have information about voting and which candidates and proposals have the union’s endorsement. (Shanker Institute) Perhaps, then, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that workers who enjoy greater autonomy and freedom in the workplace also feel empowered to take advantage of their civic freedoms in democracy at large.

Ultimately, there is an important link that can be drawn between democratization in the workplace and participation in our nation’s democracy. And it is clear that the benefits of workplace democratization go beyond the workplace, by encouraging participation in–and thereby strengthening–our democratic process.

Though many of us may not have the power to transform our workplaces into “mini-democracies,” we can still help preserve our nation’s democracy by making a plan to vote in the upcoming election. Realistically, we have a long and difficult road ahead of us in empowering the entire electorate to participate in the democratic process, but it’s our responsibility to start now. As one of the most divisive and emotionally-charged elections in recent history approaches, let’s remember that the future of democracy lies in our hands–and, above all else, let’s remember to vote.


Model D

NY Magazine

OECD: “Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class

New York Times

Shanker Institute

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