“Until you have marched to the barricades with the workers of the world, life has no meaning.”
— Jean-Paul Sartre
I’ve spent much of my career consulting with workers to establish worker-owned cooperatives in Africa, ESOPs in the U.S., and economic democracy in the ex-USSR. The exploitation and dehumanization of workers at the bottom of society by those at the top is the harsh reality of world economic history. In ancient eras, it consisted of kings, emperors, and feudal lords ruling over their peasants, slaves, and serfs. Watchwords were phrases like “bluebloods,” “the divine rights of kings,” and slogans such as “might makes right.” During the past two centuries, such oppressive control took new forms—those of mercantilists who exploited labor with more modern managerial strategies, ultimately evolving into capitalists during the Industrial Revolution.
Early in the 20th Century, the robber barons were in control, exploiting men, women, and children in the mines and factories. The concentration of power in the hands of the world’s elites were then split: On the so-called Left was the dictatorship of Lenin, Stalin and their co-conspirators in satellite nations of the “Second World.”
Equally oppressive were the actions of First World tyrants in the West—from the Rockefeller’s and Ford’s to the Gate’s and Welch’s. General Foods, General Motors, General Dynamics, and General Electric—all sought to control the workplace, channel wealth to top executives and keep the workers under lock and key. Their slogans are eerily similar to monopolists of the past: “Greed is good;” “I manage by the Golden Rule—he with the most gold rules;” and “It’s us versus them.”
Thus, I’ve spent a good part of my adult life fighting the tyrants, trying to enhance the economic and political powers of the working class in the U.S. and Europe, as well as the Soviet bloc, and the Third World. Worker Empowerment has been the path I’ve helped to blaze by opening up the workplace to human rights. My basic argument is that just because workers enter the company gates, doesn’t mean they should have to give up their rights as free citizens.
From moral principles, I have advocated the rights of workers to organize–the legitimate expression of democracy in the United States, as well as in most other nations. Free trade unions led by democratically-elected leaders offer the average worker a voice in corporate policies and practices. I’ve also sought to push for a corporate constitution or bill of rights in companies so that employees on the job do not lose privileges such as free speech in the workplace, freedom to organize, the establishing of corporate codes of conduct, the right to report unethical actions, and so forth. With many others, we’ve been somewhat successful in securing whistleblower protections, anti-discrimination legislation, and other legal mechanisms to protect workers from abusive managers. All these are elements of worker empowerment.
But I’ve tried to take democratic industrial values even further. Instead of aristocracy, I push for equality. Instead of top-down managerial decisions foisted on subordinates, I’ve sought to promote more participative managerial cultures. However, even that isn’t sufficient. Too often, I have seen the consulting work that I did, or that of other change agents, be reversed by a new manager of a division, or a new CEO who prefers autocracy rather than participation.
So in the 1980s, I began designing new systems that would give workers legal control and long-lasting influence. With colleagues at Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, we drafted legislation to facilitate the voice of workers through Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), encouragement of producer cooperatives, and workers’ seats on a firm’s board of directors. My reasoning was that if America is ever to become a truly capitalistic society, then more than a small percentage of its people ought to have ownership rights. Through years of efforts, new legislation, and hard-fought worker struggles, today some 12,000 U.S. firms have ESOPs, and perhaps 11 million workers own shares in the firms where they are employed. The ripple effects of the move toward economic democracy have spread to Western Europe, Scandinavia, the ex-USSR, and even some Third World nations.
It has led to greater equality and a better quality of working life for employers, as well as higher productivity and profits for corporations. The growing movement to empower workers around the globe isn’t precisely Marxist, nor does it fit the narrow definition of capitalism. Rather, it derives positive elements from both systems to create a powerful new Third Way. While economic democracy still has a long way to go, hundreds of millions of workers around the world today belong to co-ops, enjoy a degree of codetermination, and/or participate in their firms’ ESOPs.
The sections below include my research on economic democracy, worker cooperatives, ESOPs, and related links with further information.
“I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Major worker empowerment projects I’ve initiated and/or to which I’ve provided professional consulting services include the following:
Rath Packing Co.–Assisting top executives, the board of directors, and the 1800-member Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, Local 46, in their efforts to buy the company, organize cells of workers’ councils, and establish a workers’ board of directors. Rath was an important and unusual case because the union, in order to save the firm and their members’ jobs, negotiated the creation of both employee ownership and control through the 3000 employee purchase of 60% of the firm’s stock and the placement of this stock in an unusual Employee Stock Ownership Trust (ESOT) which operated on the cooperative principle of “one-person-one-vote.” The trustees were elected by the employees, and they, in turn, were responsible for appointing ten of the company’s sixteen directors. The action research effort flowed from a joint union-management committee that operated under the board. A wide variety of innovative problem-solving activities were created which set a precedent for subsequent “democratic buyouts” in North America. These innovations included a joint labor-management corporate planning team and numerous departmental and ad hoc problem-solving teams.
State of Colorado–Providing technical assistance to the Governor’s Office in a venture to create a new worker-owned enterprise in Pueblo jointly with 600 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 565.
Regional Industrial Democracy Development–Linking various efforts around the U.S. in moving toward more worker participation and labor-managed projects including the Jamestown, New York Labor/Management Committee; the Industrial Cooperative Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Association for Self-Management in Washington, D.C.; and the Program on New Systems of Work and Participation, New York State School of Labor and Industrial Relations, Cornell University.
John Morrell Co.–Technical assistance to the Estherville, Iowa, the operation for management and Local 79, UFCW as they engaged in a cooperative process for improving production, quality of working life, and socio-technical changes.
Countering Plant Shutdowns–Consulting with various groups attempting to make the transition to employee ownership. Clients include United Independent Taxi Drivers, a 200 member cooperative in Los Angeles; GMW Trucking, an ESOP firm headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota; U.S. Steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio; The New York Daily News; Continental Airlines in Los Angeles, California; Firestone Rubber Workers in Dayton, Ohio.
Beyond empowering workers, I’ve also tried to mobilize the broader community, especially in troubled areas suffering economic malaise:
National Industrial Mission–Design and development of an approach to combat economic depression and reduce labor/management conflict with the broad objective of generating economic and social change in Muskegon, Michigan.
Institute for Social Research–Action research and the establishment of a systematic problem-solving capability for major sectors of the community of Battle Creek, Michigan.
State Government Assistance in Economic Development–Helping various regions around the country combat the problems of economic recession and dislocation. Service was rendered to the state legislature of Pennsylvania, Job Service of Utah, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Economic and Business Planning of the State of California.
Coping with Utah Economic Erosion–Mounting a campaign to preserve jobs and assist communities in Central Utah, including NRP, the rubber workers’ union, and the City of Nephi; management and the ironworkers at McNally Steel; and the Save Geneva Coalition, local governments, steelworkers, and business groups in Utah Valley; action research with groups of managers attempting to combat major plant closings, including Signetics Corp. (Orem), Hiller Book Binding (Salt Lake City), National Semi-Conductor (West Jordan) and Unysis Corp. (Salt Lake City).
Workers’ Self-Management in Mexico–Engaged in assisting several small, cooperatively managed communities and businesses being created in Mexico. One was an urban setting in which workers are establishing light manufacturing cooperatives to revitalize the regional economy and ensure their own future through self-determination. The other is a participatory approach to organization-building on a rural ejido in which a group of families is seeking grass-roots empowerment through the creation of a kibbutz-like collective system.
Eastern Europe/Ex USSR Transition–Consulting assistance provided to government policymakers, company managers, and labor leaders involved in attempting to shift from state-owned, centrally planned bureaucracies to market economies, entrepreneurial cultures in which organizations install new technology, improve production and quality, and develop democratic decision-making. Efforts so far have focused on the telecommunications and steel industries of Poland, small manufacturers of Lithuania, and large firms of Belarussia–bearing producers, truck assembly, lingerie plant, and watch factory.
“It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people’s minds.”
— Samuel Adams, American patriot
Worker Empowerment Links
“A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop. When does it stop? When it ceases to possess individuality…Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called.”
— John Stuart Mill, British Economist