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Ideas for Australia: Improving democracy for workers is not easy but it must be done

David Peetz, Griffith University

The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series will examine, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform.


There’s a phrase you sometimes hear about the workplace: “leave your brains at the gate”.

Workers use it to summarise the dismissive view their bosses have about the contribution employees can make – and about how much say workers have in what they do at work.

Not all bosses are like that. But it seems most employees want more say at work – sometimes called “voice” or “participation in decision-making” or even “workplace democracy”.

Having a say at work

Two trends have affected employees’ ability to have more say at work.

The first is the decline in union membership over the past three decades. It has fallen from over 40% of employees in 1988 to 16% in 2014.

Unions were the workers’ “voice” at work. At times they forced managers to take account of, or even accede to, what workers wanted.

Lower union membership and lower union power mean less worker say at work. Internationally, higher rates of union membership had been linked to lower inequality and union bargaining to better gender equity practices.

The second trend is how managers have changed their handling of employees. Some are seen by employees as tightening their grip over them. Barcode measurement of workers’ task times in warehouses, their scan rates in supermarkets, how many seconds they take between calls in a call centre, are all illustrations of that.

But some bosses are seen as giving workers more say. It’s hard to tell, but the latter group seems to outnumber the former.

Quality circles, “open-door” policies, consultative committees and the like promote that perception. Sometimes it’s for real. Sometimes employers do it to discourage workers from joining a union.

Often, though, it is a mirage, and lasts only until the next round of redundancies. Starbucks called its employees “partners” until it sacked 685 of them. Wal-Mart calls its employees “associates” unless they start using words like “grievance” or “seniority”; that could make them ex-“associates”.

You can try to stop employees thinking about their rights as employees by calling them “members” or something else, but that doesn’t make much difference when the pink slips go around.

And therein lies the problem with management-driven initiatives to give employees more say at work. What the boss giveth, the boss can take away.

The problem runs even deeper than this. Within the workplace, there are major concerns about working hours, work intensity, work-life balance, pressures on women, “overemployment” and underemployment, demands on employees for flexibility, job insecurity, micro-management of time and managerial efforts to control “culture”. This wouldn’t be happening if power was shifting towards workers.

Since the 1980s, Australia, like many other advanced industrialised countries, has experienced rising inequality and a growing concentration of income, wealth and power in a small group sometimes referred to as “the 1%” or, more accurately, “the 0.1%”.

Before the global financial crisis, members of the financial elite even spoke of the rise of “plutonomy”, an economy “powered by the wealthy”.

The physical climate is changing because those who financially benefit from carbon pollution have externalised the costs onto the rest of society, and are now resisting change with all their resources.

All this reflects a major shift in power.

Whatever employers have done voluntarily about employee voice, there is little doubt that the underlying trend is towards less worker power in the workplace. And less power for the multitude means less democracy.

Giving workers a voice

So, what should be done about it?

At one level, laws encouraging or mandating specific mechanisms to increase employee say at work would help. In parts of Europe, and for large firms across Europe, laws require the establishment of “works councils” that give employees some say on defined workplace matters.

It’s a good idea and Australian unions were rather short-sighted when they ran cold on it some decades ago. But as worker power has declined in Europe, so too has the incidence of works councils.

Workers need ways to increase the reality of power at the workplace, not just the formal appearance of it.

In the end, that means increasing the influence of worker organisations, which in Australia has mostly been unions.

That’s not the same as increasing the power of union officials. Unions themselves need to become more democratic — not just because democracy is a good thing in itself, but also because union democracy seems likely to enhance the power of workers at work.

You can’t have power in the workplace if you don’t first have power in the union.

A lot of this is up to unions themselves to fix. I’ve written elsewhere about that, and won’t repeat it here.

They’re not likely to do this on their own. There are many organisations or movements, constituting what’s sometimes referred to as “civil society”, representing various groups that are disadvantaged or disenfranchised — even the environment. In a world where wealthy interests dominate politics, if these parts of civil society act individually they won’t get far, but acting together would be a potential game changer.

There are also questions about what public policy should do.

Changes in policy have had no small part in union decline – in particular, by making it easier for employers to avoid or displace unions – and in the redistribution of power to a small group.

Industrial relations laws that made it more difficult for employers to avoid unions, and simpler for employees to unionise, would therefore be a worthwhile step.

So, too, would laws that genuinely facilitated democracy and prevented corruption within trade unions and other bodies. That’s the opposite of what the government proposes in reintroducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission. This has nothing to do with corruption (except in government rhetoric) and would instead reduce workers’ ability to unionise.

The “other bodies” part is very important. A lot of attention has been given to union law-breaking or corruption of late, but many other examples have emerged of law-breaking or corruption in banking, insurance, financial advice, politics and administration in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, the oil industry, franchising, agriculture, international business and politics and many other areas. It seems odd that a royal commission focused on just one area.

Democracy requires that all areas of law-breaking and corruption be addressed. It also means placing constraints on the ability of those in positions of power to draw upon all the resources they might have to influence policy and policymakers.

So fixing up the problem of declining democracy at work means action both within and outside the workplace. The former without the latter would have minimal effect.


You can read other articles in the series here.

The Conversation

David Peetz, Professor of Employment Relations, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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