In a world increasingly dominated by work, many politicians, activists, and theorists have argued for the application of democratic ideals to a new scope—the workplace. Political democracy in the United States has been eroding since 2016, and was officially labeled a “backsliding democracy” in December 2021. Simultaneously, economic inequality is at record-breaking highs, a trend that was worsened by the pandemic. While workplace democracy is not a new idea, it is not yet mainstream in American political discourse, although this may be changing. Workplace democracy was a core issue for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in his 2020 campaign, and movements like the ‘Great Resignation’ and r/antiwork have gained popularity during the economically-bleak pandemic, signaling workers’ increasing discontent with their lack of autonomy in the workplace. While workplace democracy has proven beneficial for the companies and employees who have embraced it, researchers have shown that a commitment to democracy in the workplace could lead to a more democratic government, too. The United States should embrace a model of workplace democracy, not just for the wellbeing of its citizens and workers, but to help save our backsliding democracy.
Workplace democracy involves the introduction of democratic processes into the workplace, such as voting, debate and participatory decision-making systems. Essentially, it involves private firms and employers to adhere to the democratic principle that those who make decisions should be accountable to the people who are affected by them. Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, a proponent of workplace democracy, argues that most Americans are under the rule of arbitrary, unaccountable government headed by their employers, and that their rights and civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution can be, and often are suspended when they are categorized as a worker, rather than as a citizen: “Americans are used to complaining about how government regulation restricts our freedom. So we should recognize that such complaints apply, with at least as much force, to private governments of the workplace.”
Some may question the application of a political concept to an ostensibly apolitical realm. However, as political scientist Robert Dahl wrote: “If democracy is justified in governing the state, it must also be justified in governing economic enterprises.” Like Anderson, Dahl argued that the scope of power and organization that many companies wield are compatible with the definition of “government,” and should be understood accordingly. In 1970, Dahl wrote that General Motors should be understood as a matter of public interest: “With gross receipts approximately equal to Sweden’s Gross National Product; with employees and their families about as large as the total population of New Zealand; with outlays larger than those of the central government of France or West Germany, wholly dependent… on a vast network of laws, protection, services, inducements, constraints, and coersions provided by innumerable governments, federal, state, local, foreign… to think of General Motors as private instead of public is an absurdity” . The same could surely be said today of mega-corporations like Amazon, which employs 1 out of every 153 employed workers in America, or Walmart, which employs 1 out of every 91 workers. These mega-corporations have sweeping control over their millions of employees’ workday, and this influence ripples outward to their everyday and political lives.
Governmental and private institutions are not as distinct as one may think—public and private realms overlap often both in everyday life and in political theory. In fact, according to Ellen Lust, a political scientist at Yale, “political economy” is an important theoretical dimension through which to consider democratic backsliding. According to Lust’s Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding, political economy is the study of “the reciprocal relationship between the organization and exercise of power on the one hand, and the production and exchange of consumable goods and services on the other,” and both can affect the other in myriad ways . Part of political economy includes, for example, considering how changing levels of income affect citizens’ preferences for different types of government structures, and their capacity to act collectively on behalf of their preferences.
Many studies have shown that economic conditions causally affect democracy . It has been found that higher levels of income raise the likelihood of democracy , economic inequality leads to less democratic transitions and more democratic breakdowns , and that “organized working classes can play a critical role in the development of a strong civil society that is able to constrain powerful incumbents,” meaning that it is “important to consider the development of organizations representing workers as potentially powerful ingredients in the development of civil society” . Finally, it has been shown that the working class is a key in creating a powerful citizenry that demands accountability, and a shift in the balance of political and economic power in favor of the middle and working classes means that democracy becomes more likely. This means that “the lack of an organized industrial class puts democracy at risk” . A synthesis of the various studies featured in Unwelcome Change finds that many benefits provided by workplace democracy—higher incomes, less economic inequality, and an organized and empowered working class—are also beneficial for the perpetuation of democracy in government.
This is backed up by Social Europe’s research finding consistent positive correlations between workplace democracy and political democracy in European countries. Specifically, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark have all shown high levels of workplace democracy and high levels of political democracy from 2009 to 2019. The researchers wrote that “where employees have a say in how companies are run, where unions are strong and collective-bargaining coverage is broad, and where employees have a representative who can defend their vision and interest, societies perform better.” They hypothesize that this correlation is partially due to mutually-reinforcing democratic ideals between the public and private spheres: “Workers who can vote for workplace representatives, can have an influence on how the company is managed and experience the difficult but rewarding process of democracy in their firm are more likely to be citizens with greater confidence in political democracy who wish to participate more and voice their opinions in society.” Researchers, academics, politicians and workers agree: it is time for democracy in the American workplace. Not only do the benefits to workers justify its material necessity, a commitment to democratic ideals morally mandates it. Zirakzabeh, Cyrus Ernesto (1990). “Theorizing about Workplace Democracy Robert Dahl and the Cooperatives of Mondragón”. Journal of Theoretical Politics.
 Waldner, David, and Lust, Ellen (2015). “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” USAID, 12.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 60.
Sofia, this is a great analysis of a possible means to bolster democracy by the introduction of workplace democracy. In the United States at least, workers are greatly lacking in autonomy at work and thus workplace democracy would be transformative if implemented. I wonder if allowing people to have greater input in their working lives leading to greater economic or work satisfaction has further effects on democracy. By diminishing the discontent that leads to democratic erosion via populism, would it have still been possible for Trump to have been elected, considering he leaned heavily on populist rhetoric and ideals?
This is a great point! I wanted to get into this topic more, but I had limited space, and there is little research about the topic. I have a theory that greater democracy at work would lead to less authoritarianism by way of populism, because the economic equality to populism to authoritarianism pipeline would be interrupted at the source. I think voters would desire “strong men” would-be authoritarians less if they had more direct control over their own work and economic situation. I don’t know if Trump would be less popular (because he also harnessed motivators like racism, xenophobia, and sexism very effectively) but I do believe populists in general would be less popular.