»Democratizing Work« – Historic and Contemporary Case Examples of a Socio-Ecological Labour Movement

8 Minutes
Movement Histories, Contemporary Struggles, Democratic Utopias
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What would it mean for work to be democratic?

Many of us spend large parts of our waking hours doing it, and many of us spend large parts of our waking hours looking for it when we don’t have it. But if this thing called work concerns so many of us, what would it mean to democratize it? Perhaps it should mean at least five things:

  1. High standards of rights for all workers, which ensure their equality, their dignity, their mental and physical wellbeing and their fair share of the benefits and profits their work contributes to, even if those benefits are not directly produced by the work itself (for example, teachers and cleaners clearly contribute to massive benefits for society, but don’t get paid in anything like an equitable way. It often seems like the more essential the work is, the worse it is paid!)
  2. Strong and inclusive worker organisations which enable workers to collectively protect, access and advance their rights vis à vis their employers, and also vis à vis the government. These worker organisations should be present in all parts of the economy, and provide collective agency to every kind of worker. This both implies it needs to be easy to set up worker organisations and that such organisations need to be open and non-exclusive.
  3. Recognising unpaid work as work: this includes care work, reproductive work, civic education, volunteering and other forms. These forms of work should be recognized as work, and society should ensure rights and recompense for this work, without subjecting them to market norms.
  4. Enough meaningful work for all: some members of society are overwhelmed with forms of paid and unpaid work, and others do not have enough. A democratic culture of work would seek to spread the load, spread the opportunities and spread the gains more equally.
  5. A model of governance for companies which gives meaningful voice over the business not only to employees but to all stakeholders, including citizens, local community and future generations, and models of accounting and audit which measure social and environmental impact.

Framing the struggle for better working lives as a struggle for democracy has a certain number of advantages. Above all, it emphasizes that we don’t stop being citizens with political opinions, interests, rights and divisions once we start the working day – politics reaches into our activity of labour. As workers we have a political agency, which we have to use deliberately and mindfully. Furthermore, as workers in a company we might easily be in regular contact with people who live in different places to us: the supplier in China, the designer in Chile, the accountant in the Czech Republic. Democratising work also means thinking about the democratic rights of these others in other places, in a way that thinking about democracy in our own countries through other activities like voting might not. And talking about democratizing work also encourages us to think about people who are not working: it is not just about democratizing the workplace, or democratizing companies; in our understanding of democratizing work we approach work holistically, thinking about how different kinds of work build upon and depend upon each other, and about how people affected by our labour can be given meaningful voice and even decision over it.

Work rights and citizenship overlap in ambiguous ways

The experience of European Alternatives in approaching workers rights issues as a democratic issue has shown us how work issues and citizenship issues can often overlap. It is no accident that those who have the weakest citizenship rights often face the greatest threat to their rights at work: undocumented migrants often forced to do work in the irregular economy are often totally without recourse against exploitative employers. Seasonal workers coming sent from one part of the European Union to another to work on the farms depend on their work for their rights to be in the county they are in, and so risk being held captive by their employers, unable to effectively contest bad or unsafe working conditions. These overlaps between work issues and citizenship issues do not only concern those people who move: women, minorities and youth all have systematically less political agency than other parts of the population, and these injustices are compounded at work.

If being mindful of the overlaps between workers rights issues and democratic citizenship issues has shown the importance of addressing these issues together, it is important to realise that intersectional solidarity does not happen automatically. Indeed, without sustained efforts of organization, communication and education amongst and between workers, it is easy for undemocratic actors to set people against one another. In the vast majority of instances, the workers movement itself has been historically guilty of excluding women, racialized groups, young workers and migrants. Furthermore, there is a constant danger that the combination of combination of capitalist consumerist culture, liberal democratic institutions and competitive management practices at work reinforces a solipsistic and individualistic attitude of each citizen, under the illusion that each person is responsible for their own fate with little responsibility for each other. The forces promoting this ideology can be further empowered by technologies, and our determined countervailing response needs to be massive, and decisively transnational, aware that conceptions of national solidarity have well-established historical roots in our societies and can too easily appear as the solution to an atomized society.

Post-Pandemic opportunity

The Covid-19 pandemic has of course acted as a revelator of inequalities at work and injustice in the way different kinds of work is valued. It has also showed that the health, safety and rights of workers is not just a matter of importance for them individually, but is a matter of wellbeing for everybody: sick workers in meat factories, farms or distribution hubs, or exhausted and overwhelmed nurses and teachers, are just the most obvious examples. More generally, the pandemic has reminded us that our democratic rights and institutions can be suspended or made redundant: the right to assembly, the right to protest, the right to move all came under threat to different extents at different times in different places, and the place of parliament and political debate have also been at times made largely redundant as technocracy loomed large. At the same time, lockdowns and restrictions have led many workers to question how useful and fulfilling their work really is. [1] For these reasons the post-pandemic period is a historic opportunity to mobilise for changes.

In these mobilizations, we each have different roles. The classic anarcho-syndicalist slogan

Agitate! Educate! Organize!

is not a bad place to start. At European Alternatives we have riffed-off this trinity to proclaim Imagine! Demand! Enact!, to emphasise at once the essential role of cultivating imaginative resources and capacities, of demanding of political institutions, but also of taking responsibility and simply going ahead and doing. The move to more democratic work will be made by workers, organisers and by educators, but also by business leaders deciding to do things differently, by citizens mobilizing to protect natural environments and to humanize urban environments, by politicians standing up to big business, and by artists and intellectuals fostering our capacities to see the world from the point of view of others, and from the points of view of the alternatives.

  • 1.See Smith, A. (2014) Socially Useful Production, STEPS Working Paper 58, Brighton: STEPS Centre (https://steps-centre.org/wp-content/uploads/Socially-Useful-Production.pdf)
  • About the contributor

    Niccolò Milanese
    Co-Founder & Director, European Alternatives (Paris)

    Niccolò is a philosopher and poet. He is a director of European Alternatives, and co-author of "Citizens of Nowhere: How to save Europe from itself" telling the story of 10 years of activism throughout Europe. He is trustee of ECIT Foundation for European Citizenship in Brussels. Between 2018-20 he was a Marie Curie visiting fellow at PUC-Rio De Janeiro and UNAM Mexico. He is part of the advisory board of the NECE network of civic educators, and has been involved in establishing civil society, cultural and political organisations on each side of the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings.