Wolff on Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Plan

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This is a response to Bernie Sanders’ Workplace Democracy Plan, that this candidate for the Democratic nomination for president announced this last week. Let me begin by indicating that I support 100 percent what Bernie Sanders is advocating here. I agree with him that the government has tilted in favor of corporations for many decades in this country, far beyond what it had done earlier. I agree with him that that eviscerated a middle class which counted on the labor movement to protect them from corporations’ voracious profit appetites. And I agree with him that rebuilding the ability of trade unions and labor unions to function as they once did in the United States is a crucial support for the mass of working people in this country, to get better wages, to get better working conditions, and to get back to something like the balance of power that existed in the 1940s and ’50s before the 50-year decline of the labor movement set in and the government’s attack on labor, in coordination with business interests, set the whole process in motion. So I’m in support, and I agree also with Bernie that every other candidate — the Democrats and the Republicans — will now have to respond. We can forget about the conservatives. They have always been spokespeople for the business interests and have no interest in supporting labor — something they have proved for 50 years, if not longer. But among some of the Democrats there will be waffling; there will be some partial accommodations. But once again, Bernie Sanders has taken the initiative, has forced the issue, and has shown to all the people of America that he is much more of a champion of what they need and want economically than almost anyone else. Having said all of that, there is something with which I must disagree with Bernie Sanders. I don’t think it’s a workplace democracy plan because it falls short of the kind of democracy our workplaces need. Let’s be clear: Democracy has a simple, honest, and transparent meaning. It always has. Democracy exists if and when the people who are affected by a decision are the ones making it. To be more precise, that a majority of the people affected by a decision should be decisive in reaching that decision. It should be a majority decision. For there to be democracy in the workplace the workers , who are everywhere — in every factory, in every office, and in every store — the majority, ought to be the ones making the decisions that affect them. And we know what those decisions are: what to produce, how to produce, what technology to use, where to produce, and what to do with the profits that everybody has helped to produce. Majority decisions on those four crucial questions would constitute workplace democracy. Bernie Sanders’ plans, however positive, however necessary, however in the interests of working people, fall considerably short of workplace democracy because they do not entail — and I’ve read the plan right through — they do not entail the transformation of the workplace from a situation where a very small number of people, unaccountable to the mass of workers, make the decisions. The owner, the board of directors, tiny groups of people, now dominate in our economic capitalist system. They make all the decisions, and the majority, the working people, live with them. It’s because of that condition that the achievements of labor unions up to the 1940s and ’50s were taken back, requiring Bernie now to suggest we have to undo the last 40 or 50 years. The reason we have to undo them is we don’t have democracy at the workplace, because we if we did, we would not have lost all the benefits that Bernie nicely lists having been given up over the last 40 years. Workplace democracy is the right objective, but we will have to go to real democracy before we can have the kind of economy we ought to have and before we can be secure that the very things Bernie Sanders advocates will not be achieved only to be lost again because an unaccountable minority, an undemocratic minority, controls capitalist enterprises, as they always have. This is Richard Wolff for Democracy at Work.

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