Workplace Democracy: A Passing Phase?

Article excerpt

FOR MOST AMERICANS, EMPLOYMENT HAS become a political experience in which an individual's decision to hold on to or give up power can affect quality of life. This often can't be said about world politics. In that arena, issues are so complicated that most people don't feel they have any answers, and besides, who would listen if they did. Also, local, national and international issues often appear out of reach, but the workplace isn't. At work, we can--by our own actions--improve lifestyles.

For many, the workplace is what's left of the Jeffersonian town meeting, a place where democracy still can thrive. In our increasingly capitalistic, Franklinian world in which "a stitch in time saves nine" and "the early bird gets the worm." this democratization of the workplace is a fabulously American idea.

However, even in this democratic workplace, life isn't idyllic. A tough challenge lies ahead: In a universally capitalistic world, how can we compete in the most efficient and productive way given our highly individualistic and legalistic style of democracy?

CURRENT WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY IMPEDES RATHER THAN ENCOURAGES BUSINESS. Our workplace democracy is characterized by lawyers and legalisms. With increasing employment regulation, layers are replacing union stewards, and the workplace is being ruled by laws, not individuals. The human tendency toward subjective, emotional responses is being replaced by less human but more democratic policies.

The good news is: Democracy exists. The bad news is: It's a sterile, legalistic democracy that gives protected groups leverage against good old boy networks, but makes it difficult for employers to get rid of loafers.

We truly could be on the threshold of an interdependent world in which the United Nations acts as an administrative assistant, implementing policy as well as mediating disputes. Under this scenario, over-capacity will keep plenty of inexpensive, imported goods on U.S. shelves. Third-world rivers, air and soil will absorb the contaminants of low-cost production. The United States won't make any serious attempts to become energy independent or, for that matter, independent at all. Instead, our country may remain highly regulated, making it almost impossible for business to compete in the global marketplace. The only chance of success will be to continue to move from what Secretary of Labor Robert Reich describes as "high-volume" production to such "high-value" goods as computer technology, information engineering and architecture. In other areas, the United States will suffer because of high prices caused by regulation. To survive, companies such as the one I work for, which moves oil drilling rigs and natural gas compressors across the nation, are selling their equipment to foreign countries. …