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Free in Theory, Serfs in Practice

Written by Wanda Pasz Thursday, 02 February 2006

In a democractic society it seems untenable to have people subject to autocratic rule almost all for their waking moments. But when you consider the time we spend at work and the impact of work and workplace relations on our lives that is exactly what is happening to us. Most of our waking hours are spent under the command and control of others.

If our political system were modelled on the current system of workplace relations, it would look like this:

We would live in a totalitarian nation. We would be subject to the rule of a dictator whose power over us would be absolute. We would have no opportunity to ever vote him out because he would not be subject to election by the people. We could not criticize the dictator or call for a different kind of political system.

The dictator would control all means of communication and censor any that did not please him.

It would be understood that all communication, thought, effort and activity must be focused on supporting and further empowering the dictator.

He would listen to our concerns when, where and to the extent to which he was prepared. He would not listen to us directly but would instead appoint a group of "representatives" to speak for us. The representatives would be mindful of his wishes and beholden to him for their existence.

Our representatives would be permitted only to raise certain kinds of concerns. They could not, for instance, question the supremacy of the dictator or the rules that he imposed upon the people.

Once every couple of years, our dictator would meet secretly with our representatives who would - we think - tell him our concerns and ask him to be nicer to us.

The dictator would decide what, if anything, he in his sole discretion was prepared to do address our concerns.

Our representatives would then allow us to ratify the dictator's decision by voting to accept it or reject it. If we rejected it, we would get to vote again and again until we accepted it.

If we rejected it, the dictator would be free to punish us in humiliating and degrading ways.

That's what our political system would look like if we were governed based on the statutory framework that governs relations among people in the workplace.

"Democracy" means "the people rule". To establish democracy in any system of relations requires the implementation of fundamental democratic principles. Not some of them, some of the time, for some of the people, but all of them, all the time for all the people.

"Workplace democracy" can only mean the implementation of democratic principles at the workplace.

Think about what that means. The people rule. The people make the decisions. No more submitting to the will of somebody else. No more master-servant relationship - among other things.

In a democracy, the people don't beg, plead or bargain with an omnipotent ruler.

The implementation of democratic principles in the workplace would mean that relations among the people who interact within the sphere of the workplace would be governed by democratic principles. That's what workplace democracy is.

Workplace democracy means that the people make the decisions and that all have an equal "vote" in the decision-making process. So that there's no confusion about this. "Decision-making" means making decisions - not having input or being consulted or any other form of involvement in the decision-making process where the final decision is made by others.

What kinds of decisions would the people make in a democratic workplace? Why, they would make all decisions. That would include the purpose of the enterprise, the objectives of the enterprise, the rules that would govern its relationship with the people, its responsibility to them (and their communities) and stuff like that.

Impossible? If entire societies with all of their complexities and communities of interest can govern themselves democratically, why can't democratic principles govern relations among people at the workplace level?

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