State of the Art

For the longest part of the 20th century, industrial democracy has been a vibrant movement that encompassed a broad spectrum of meanings, from internal union democracy over collective bargaining to co-determination at shop-floor, enterprise, industry and national economic level. Since their origin, trade-unions have played a major role in the theoretical promotion and in the concrete management of workplace democracy in most European countries. Today, however, things look different. While there are instances of democracy in the business landscape, hierarchical forms of organization remain dominant and organizational democracy commands only scant attention in the media and in public life. The decline of workplace democracy is partially tied to that of trade-unionism, and certainly related to the transformations of the economic system of production. But it is also related to the decades-long domination of a liberal (as against social) conception of political democracy which reclaimed a rigid separation between the political and the economic spheres.
In the last years there are, however, signs that the ideal of workplace democracy is getting new traction. In the academia, we observe a wide array of new publications appearing in many different disciplines such as political theory (Anderson 2017, Singer 2018), social and political science (Landemore and Ferreras 2016), history (Berger et al. 2019), legal theory (Ackerman 2017, Ciepley 2013), economy (Mellizo 2017, Dow 2019), management (Wilkinson 2010; Grandori 2020), and work psychology (Unterreiner et al. 2011). At the political level, a new EU Directive “on establishing the principle of democracy at work, in capital, and in every field of economic life” has just been drafted, and the European Trade Union Institute is actively promoting the idea among its national partners (De Spiegelaere, et al. 2019).

In this project we want to inquire into the history of workplace democracy and its place within trade unionism, exploring its moments of splendor as well as its moments of downturn and near disappearance in the period after WWII.

Three major assumptions shape this project. The first assumption is a pluralistic understanding of workplace democracy. By this term we will refer to a large variety of institutional, organizational and procedural models that in the post WWII period have been considered to be conducive to an organization of work and production for which the predicate ‘democratic’ has been used. The second assumption is that our current understanding of the meaning of workplace democracy has been forged not only by academic discourses, but through a wide variety of discourses and practices enacted by actors such as trade-unions, employers and manager associations, political parties, and social movements. The relations of these actors to workplace democracy displays tremendous temporal and geographical variations. Since studying the contribution of all these actors within a single project would be an exceedingly ambitious task, in our research we will devote the highest attention to trade-unions as knowledge producing institutions, and we will study the evolution and circulation of ideas about workplace democracy after WWII in the European context. The third assumption is a comparatist approach to the study of our object. Instead of focusing on national country-models (eg. self-management in France, co-determination in Germany) we will focus, instead, on how specific models have been perceived, received, discussed, adjusted through their circulation across trade unions in different countries as well as in their interactions with academic discourses and their practical application in the workplace.

Workplace democracy: a contested concept.

Debates on the democratization of workplaces during the 20th century have been characterized by an extremely varied range of theories but also of terminologies which, moreover, have been complexified by their reception in different European languages. What for reasons of simplicity we will term ‘workplace democracy’ correspond in reality to extremely diverse views concerning the meaning, the scope, and the goals of democratization of workplaces, ideas whose currency has varied across states, across academic disciplines, across types of actors, and across time. Historically, we can identify six major ideal-typical approaches to the workplace democracy. Industrial democracy refers to a system where workers are organized and represented through trade-unions that bargain with employers and employers’ associations, mostly at sectoral level (Poole 1986, Budd 2004). Since the origin of trade-unionism (Webb & Webb 1892), this model has enjoyed great popularity among trade-unions. Theories of self-management and workers control focus on decision-making and power-sharing mechanism at the level of the plant or workplace. Historical examples are radical early 20th century anarcho-syndicalist experiences and later works councils (Muldoon 2018; Azzellini 2011; Eley 2002). A third approach has focused instead on workers indirect participation at the board level, with responsibility in taking strategic decisions. Co-determination is the better-known example of a representational conception of democracy (Müller-Jentsch 2003). A fourth set of theories focuses on the lived experience of work, on the conditions through which being a worker can be an emancipatory or an alienating experience. Whilst a sensitivity for the consequences of workplace organization on workers’ life co-originates with socialist movements and is strongly rooted in trade-unionism, it is mostly within humanistic and later management and work psychology that a full-blown approach has been developed (Yeoman 2014, Veltman 2016, Unterrainer et al. 2011)). A fifth tradition of theories and practices concentrates on property rights. The cooperative movement as well as mutualism and other forms of bottom-up association for economic purposes exemplify this approach (Mills and Yeoman 2017). Later, other types of schemes have been developed either to promote workers ownership of their workplaces or to allow also other stakeholders, such as consumers, users and community to participate in the governance of firms (Merrett & Walzer 2004, Jossa 2008). Finally, particularly in the Anglo- American countries, forms of workers financial participation have been promoted, arguing that letting workers share in firms’ profit would have elevated them to the status of citizens of the firm (Kruse 2010, Poutsma 2017).
Trade-unions have displayed very diverse attitudes toward these models, ranging from overt opposition to staunch support (Poole 1986; Budd 2004; Wood 2017). If trade unions have traditionally been sympathetic to industrial forms of organization that relied on collective bargaining, their attitudes toward company-based solutions have been much more diversified (Poole 1986, Müller-Jentsch 2008). In the post WWII period, two models have been most prominent in trade-unions’ debates, the Franco-Yugoslav model of self-management (‘autogestion’) and the German dual model of labor relations, co-determination (‘Mitbestimmung’) at plant level and collective bargaining on sector level (Georgi 2018; Berger et al. 2018; Hedin 2015). This is the major rationale behind our choice of focusing on the European circulation of these two models. References to the other four models will provide the indispensable background for assessing the impact and relevance of the Franco-Yugoslav and German model in shaping European trade-unions’ attitudes toward workplace democracy.

Trade unions and academic disciplines as knowledge producing institutions.

In disentangling the different meanings of workplace democracy, one has to acknowledge the extreme variety of actors which have contributed to its formation. During the 19th century, and to an extent even till much later, knowledge about the workplace has mostly been produced outside the academia, initially by militants, journalists, and trade unionists, and later also by new types of experts, mostly with an economy and engineering background (Braveman 1974; Wupper-Tewes 1995; Mudge 2018). Not only because many relevant authors –– Marx is a case in point –– never joined the academic ranks, but also because work remained a topic estranged from the usually more speculative concerns of academics. As a consequence, non-academic knowledge producing institution have been decisive in orienting debates and practices of workplace democracy. For example, with reference to labor and workplace democracy issues, the origins of debates in the late 1800s and early 1900s have to be found in mixed institutions such as the German Verein für Sozialpolitik, the British Fabian Society, or the International Labor Organization (Azzellini 2015; Poole 2017; Berger et. al 2019). At this stage academics and non- academics mingled intensely and the contribution on each side was much less differentiated than it has become lately. Today, trade unions and their foundations such as the Hans-Böckler Foundation in Germany, the International Labor Office, and the European Trade Unions Institut (ETUI) at EU level continue to be active knowledge producers in this field. At the same time, the increasing specialization of academic research and the birth of new work-related academic disciplines such as industrial relations, work psychology or management studies, has offered new and increasingly fragmented perspectives on the democratization of the workplace. Today, our understanding of workplace democracy is diffracted through an increasingly fragmented variety of academic fields and languages, each one characterized by its own disciplinary perspective, normative priorities, and sometimes implicit or explicit political agenda. The emergence of increasingly professionalized academic discourses has, however, not ruled out the specific role of other institutional actors such as trade unions, whose role in the production of knowledge about workplace democracy remains major. Given their prominent role in shaping discourses and orienting practices, these two knowledge-producing institutions and their mutual influences will be at the heart of the project.

A comparative history of workplace democracy.

Our project is essentially about comparison – a comparison that does not artificially isolate its units of comparison but is aware of the complex entanglements between the different units of comparison and factors into the comparison. (Berger 2020). Through a comparative conceptual and oral history of workplace democracy that is based on thorough archival research (see methodology below), we are hoping to make a major contribution to understand how the West European trajectories surrounding this concept have developed and in how far we can see a Europeanisation in this concept before the eastern extension of the European Union and the establishment of European works councils in the mid-1990s. Our project will follow the strategy of ‘individualizing comparisons’ as outlined by Tilly (1985). Individualizing comparisons aim to understand better a specific individual case by comparing it asymmetrically with a range of other cases. In examining the French-Yugoslavian model of ‘self-management’ and the German model of ‘co-determination’ and their circulation, reception, adoption, transformation within five European countries each one characterized by its own distinctive model of industrial relations, we aim to provide an ‘encompassing comparison’ where differences are explained between cases that share an overarching commonality, i.e. a concept of ‘workplace democracy’. The combined study of the history of the concept in several academic disciplines in the same period will provide an external criteria to assess the intellectual, scientific, and political orientation of trade unions’ views. We will also engage in variation-finding comparisons, as we are examining one concept – workplace democracy, seeking to delineate different layers of meaning that are associated with the concept. Overall our comparative approach will allow us to establish what was specific about each case and how the transfer of ideas on workplace democracy has influenced the overall positioning of different actors in the conceptual field of workplace democracy. (Werner and Zimmermann 2006; Zimmermann, Didry and Wagner 1999).