Vetter: The case for workplace democracy

Milo Vetter, Staff Writer

I think I speak for most of us when I say that work sucks. That might seem like a weird or even childish thing to complain about—possibly similar to complaining that the sun’s too bright or that your feet are tired after walking a while. “Sure, work sucks,” you might say, “but somebody’s gotta do it, right?” Well, let me illustrate my point with one of my favorite quotes ever, from a 1985 essay by Bob Black called “The Abolition of Work.” 

In it, he writes, “The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary … Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing. And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace.”

When applied to any workplace, Black’s reasoning shows us simple ways in which being an employee is similar to being a member of an authoritarian state. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use Amazon—a company whose services we’re all familiar with—as an example. You’ve probably heard stories about the working conditions at Amazon fulfillment centers. The workers there are treated like robots, forced to walk as much as 20 miles in a workday. In addition, the schedule of a fulfillment center worker is so tight that many of them wear adult diapers just to avoid wasting time going to the bathroom. In short, they spend their workdays doing backbreaking work with no control over or recourse against the company they make profits for.

You may say that workers do have recourse—they can quit and find a new job with better pay and better conditions. And that is one major distinction between authoritarian governments and private companies. However, the ability to change jobs rarely offers people a true leg up. There may not be better alternative workplaces nearby, and many people who live paycheck to paycheck cannot afford a gap in employment while looking for better work. The cold reality is that many workers are stuck with their bosses, who have complete control over their employees. A business’ corporate ladder is shaped not like an egalitarian society but rather a totalitarian one.

But what if the structure of a business could be different? What if workers had democratic control over their workplaces? That idea may seem absurd, but should people continue to have no say in a place where they work over 40 hours a week? Well, the good news is that workplace democracy has been tried before and is not as outlandish as it seems. Worker cooperatives are an excellent example of workplace democracy in action. At a co-op, workers can elect their leaders, which gives them a direct voice in the structure of their firm as well as ownership of a part of the business—which is typically owned exclusively by higher-ups.

Worker co-ops have been attacked with the principle of the “free-rider problem”—the idea that if every worker is guaranteed a piece of the pie, they will slack off and not work nearly as hard as they would if their performance were monitored and subject to discipline as in a traditional firm. However, the evidence shows that this phenomenon does not tend to manifest in worker co-ops—although there is regrettably little evidence either affirming or denying it. This criticism also ignores that the free-rider problem very much exists in traditional companies, just on the part of the administrators and higher-ups in the company. Powerful individuals within a company not held accountable by a democratic process are absolutely guilty of the free-rider problem.

The way forward is for companies to be given monetary incentives to become worker co-ops. Moreover, there should be more research into the effectiveness of co-ops; the little evidence that exists about the success of worker co-ops shows that co-ops are either on par or slightly more efficient than traditional firms. 

In the meantime, unions should be expanded and supported. Amazon workers in New York right now are celebrating the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse, which will set a good example for the rest of Amazon’s workplaces throughout the nation. It is imperative that we support unions and worker cooperatives as we work toward making workers’ well-being our top priority.