Democracy in the Workplace is Dead



We are constantly told that democracy is in crisis. More must be done to engage citizens, particularly young citizens.

We hear relatively little, however, in political discourse about democracy in the workplace. It is hard to believe that a few decades ago, many proclaimed industrial democracy as the pathway to greater political participation and perhaps even social transformation. 

In the 1960s and 70s industrial democracy – the control of production by workers – was regarded by many on the left as a viable program. Industrial democracy was not just seen as a legitimate right for workers, but as a harbinger of wider social change.

For some, the hopes pinned on industrial democracy were relatively modest – that workers who participated in running their workplaces would become citizens who participated actively in democratic government of their communities and nations. For others, influenced by thinking dating back to the 19th century, industrial democracy would pave the way for worker control of the economy and society.

In spite of some experimentation, such as government-funded initiatives in Australia, workers’ cooperatives in Britain, and worker control in the former Yugoslavia industrial democracy never lived up to its promise. Indeed, by the 1990s in most of the advanced economies, but most emphatically in the Anglophone world, industrial democracy was to all intents and purposes dead.

Perhaps paradoxically, at the same time as industrial democracy passed away, managerial discourse was increasingly full of references to employee ‘empowerment’ and workplaces were allegedly awash with initiatives aimed at affording workers discretion and influence at work.

The insidious nature of empowerment lies in its conflation with democracy [...] This is dangerous nonsense

We can only reconcile this paradox if we understand just how different contemporary ‘empowerment’ initiatives are from traditional conceptions of industrial democracy. In contrast to the rationale for industrial democracy – the right of workers to chart the direction of the workplaces they contributed to – the empowerment agenda is motivated by twin managerial needs. These are for a committed and engaged, or at least compliant, workforce; and one which utilises its skills and initiative to boost productivity and pursue managerial goals.

Empowerment is typically achieved through mechanisms such as suggestion schemes, semi-autonomous workgroups and information sharing. Even these initiatives are limited, with many workplaces continuing to be run on traditional command-and-control lines in which employees have little or no influence over their own work, let alone the direction of the organisation.

Is ‘empowerment’ necessarily a bad thing? Of course it is not. While such practices are managerially-driven and aimed at productivity gains, this does not preclude workers experiencing genuinely better working lives through opportunities to exercise discretion.

The insidious nature of empowerment lies in its conflation with democracy, with many popular management writers proclaiming that we live in an age where workers are increasingly the architects of their own destiny, freed from the shackles of managerial control. This is dangerous nonsense, which flies in the face of all the evidence, yet it appears that many want to believe it.

What then are the prospects for more genuinely democratic workplaces in the OECD and particularly in Australia? In my view, they are bleak.

Over the past few decades, the relatively weak position of organised labour, the influence of neo-liberal ideology on government policy and the relative strength of employers, albeit often in highly competitive environments, has led to the dominance of an employer-driven agenda.

None of these factors appears likely to change in the near future. If industrial democracy failed to take hold and flourish during earlier, more hospitable, times it seems fanciful to expect it to now.


Democracy in the workplace will be under discussion at the ‘Democracy in Transitionconference, taking place in Melbourne December 6-8. Registrations are now open.

Image credit: Omar Gurnah, Flickr

Bill Harley

Department of Management and Marketing & Centre for Workplace Leadership, The University of Melbourne

Published Date
November 11, 2015