More Democracy At Work? Do We Need That?

Peter Scherrer

“What you are going to put on your political agenda is pretty much out of date,” was the comment of a trade unionist with 50 years’ experience of work in trade union policy, when I told him about the ‘Strategy for more Democracy at Work’. Well, he is right and wrong at the same time. The fight for more participation rights for workers and their representatives, the fight for more direct democracy is even older than the modern working class and trade union movement. The desire to be not just an object that is receiving orders and has to live with what others have decided goes way back to when humanity “invented” a working relationship with superior and inferior levels.

It is, in my view, more necessary now than ever before to put the fight for more democracy at work on the political agenda. But at the same time, it is an issue to which neither the general public nor the EU political élite pays much, if any, attention, even though it is of great importance for millions of working people. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), at its Executive Committee meeting this week, went ahead in that spirit and adopted the strategy.

ETUC members are deeply convinced that a European approach to democracy at work can directly improve working life, collective labour rights and the concrete participation of workers in society and the economy. The performance of EU Member States like Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria demonstrates that extending workers’ participation rights in companies and in administration is not an obstacle to a productive and profitable economy. Many EU member countries have developed fair rights to information and consultation and a significant number have workers’ representation on company boards. The active involvement of trade unionists and workers’ representatives contributes to economic success and employment stability.

A glance at the current situation shows that democracy at work is being eroded by e.g. increasing centralisation of company decision-making in all areas and increased concealment of real ownership etc. This widening gap could be partly closed by European legislation on workers’ participation. But a huge danger to the options for more democratic labour/industrial relations comes from the rapid growth in the proportion of ‘digital’ workers and employees in the so-called sharing economy. In this area of the global economy, workers’ representation cannot be organised as it was previously. The physical distance, separation and isolation of workers are just some of the problems. The giant variations in working conditions, working contracts, labour law and remuneration add to the obstacles to acting in a unified way vis-a-vis the management of a company or contractor. New tactics are needed to organise these workers, new ways of making trade unions attractive for them. Their opportunities for getting a bigger say in the way working conditions and the future development of the company are determined are much reduced because they often work on their own, in isolated positions. To give them a voice that is heard in management offices is certainly a major challenge for the trade unions.

Extending civil rights

Because of changes in the nature of work, a minimum floor of participation rights for working people is no longer just a labour law issue, but part of an approach to a more democratic society. It is in my view an extension of civil rights to the sphere of work. For the ETUC, the European Commission’s preparation of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) would have been an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that democratic rights at workplace level (in private ‘traditional’ companies and the ‘new economy’ as much as public service and administration) across the whole EU would be desirable and would show working people that Europe is contributing to a more democratic and participatory life. European policy-makers (Commission, Council and Parliament) have again missed a chance to show that democracy should not stop at the factory gates.

With its strategy for more democracy at work, the ETUC is going to step up its demands between now and the 14th ETUC Congress and European Parliament (EP) elections, both in May 2019. The political parties’ campaigns for the forthcoming EP elections are a welcome opportunity to put the need for more participation rights closer to the centre of the debate. When we are talking about European values, here is a chance to show that Europe and MEPs are serious – workers are not just objects (and often victims) of global market economy rules. In the analysis of the rise of right-wing extremist parties in many European countries, quite often the widening distance between political decision-making and ‘ordinary people’ is used to explain why their propaganda is effective. Now is the time to narrow this gap at company and workplace level.

More and effective rights for European Works Councils (EWC) can clearly demonstrate that European (and in some cases global) employees’ interests can be safeguarded through European workers’ representation. The ETUC drew up a catalogue of demands for improvement of the EWC Directive a year ago. So far, no positive reaction has been received. Workers should take a close look at which parties include more democracy at work in their EP election manifestos. European trade unions have supported, right from the beginning, the European idea, the deepening and enlargement of the Union. It is time for Europe to show a more democratic face to the workers!

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