“All that time spent going to school,” Jello Biafra sneers on the Dead Kennedy’s punk classic, “At My Job,” “just to end up following rules.”
It is a sentiment we have likely all felt at some point while slaving away at one type of job or another. And it is one that raises a profound contradiction about U.S. democracy. That is, quite simply, it does not exist at the workplace.
Here is the catch-22 of American democracy–the one your teachers neglected to inform you of:
While we pride ourselves on our “freedom” and “democracy,” we spend the vast majority of our waking lives in an institution that can only be described, at best, as a benevolent dictatorship: The workplace.
Think I am exaggerating? Consider:
Workers have little to no say over the type of work they do, the duration it is performed for, their schedules, how much they are paid, or any of the general conditions under which they labor. Certain “unskilled” jobs, like retail or dinning, place restrictions on how workers may dress, their personal appearance, when they can take a break or even when they may use the bathroom.
In fact, given the state of the weakened economy in the wake of Wall Street’s free-for-all (do not believe the end-of-the-year media hype: The actual unemployment rate remains close to 13 percent) many educated and highly talented Americans have little say in the job itself. They must settle for whatever they can find.
As a result, workers are completely alienated from the products of their labor. No wonder we are all constantly looking forward to the weekend.
“The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth,” writes economics professor Richard D. Wolff in his book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.
“Workers have no say over decisions affecting them. If workers sat on the board of directors of democratically operated, self-managed enterprises, they wouldn’t vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many.”
In his book Wolff points to workers’ self-directed enterprises (or WSDEs) as the remedy for this fundamental contradiction of the lack of democracy at work.
As Wolff sees it, it is not enough for workers who toil in a factory to own the factory as well, as many on the left have long suggested. Much of the problem with the traditional capitalist workplace structure, Wolff argues, is that it is typically controlled and operated by a prestigious corporate board of directors–often company shareholders. The members of this board are not elected by the workers. (Can you name your company’s CEO?)
As a result, these corporate executives are completely unaccountable to the workers whose surplus labor creates–in the case of, say Wal-Mart–the massive profits they enjoy.
A worker self-directed enterprise alters this structure, placing full control of the workplace into the hands of the employees. Workers would become, Wolff writes, “collectively and democratically, their own board of directors.”
“Shareholder-selected boards would no longer direct what, how, and where the enterprise produces,” he writes. “Instead, all the workers in enterprises… would collectively become the directors deciding what, where, and how to produce and how to distribute the appropriated surpluses.”
“Such a reorganization of workplaces,” Wolff adds, “coupled with the institutionalization of democratic codetermination, would effectively end capitalism.”
Workers ought to be–all of us who work in an office or factory or store–ought to be in the position of participating in the decisions governing that enterprise…. And let me say that if you do believe in democracy, it’s always been a mystery to me why that democracy that you believe in does not apply to the place where you work….
Worker-cooperatives (or “co-ops”), while they do not completely satisfy Wolff’s more far-reaching concept of WSDEs, may represent one positive step toward building a more comprehensive worker-controlled workplace. There are currently 48,000 worker co-ops in the United States, including Local Sprouts Cooperative, on Congress Street.
According to Jonah Fertig, one of the founders of Local Sprouts, co-ops “point the way to a new economy based on cooperation, social justice, and environmental sustainability.”
“A worker cooperative is a business that is owned and controlled by the workers,” Fertig explained in a recent interview. “Profits are distributed among the employees. All workers have a vote [in company decisions].”
At the very least, worker co-ops create a considerably more positive, fulfilling work experience than that depicted by Biafra in the aforementioned Dead Kennedy’s song. “We can’t just wait around for the revolution,” said Fertig. “We have to start somewhere. Co-ops not only provide jobs, but they are jobs that are more fulfilling. You’re not just punching a clock.”
Professor Richard Wolff speaks to a standing-room-only crowd at USM last year. You can watch his entire speech, above. Adam Marletta can be contacted at email@example.com.