Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

A Contradiction of Organization Democracy among Labor-Managed Firms

Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

A Contradiction of Organization Democracy among Labor-Managed Firms

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Ideas can influence the reproduction of social orders in our work lives, and ideas can alter activities to create new social orders. A key concern of my research is whether individuals can engage new ideas to create organization social structures that promote the basic ideals of democracy. To address this concern, I examined the social structures of labor-managed firms, which, through their ownership by those who are workers in the firm, are believed to embody the ideals of organization democracy. In previous research I developed a general framework of organization democracy from a narrative analysis of the ethnographic and case study literature on labor-managed firms. I propose that there is a fundamental contradiction in the practices of organization democracy among labor-managed firms in that some members believe that humans are essentially egoistic in nature, while some members believe that humans are essentially cooperative in nature. My contribution is that an unproven belief regarding human nature, or what one might call faith, will drive the preferred types of social structures utilized to create organization democracy within a labor-managed firm.

INTRODUCTION

At least since the writings of Max Weber at the early part of the 20th century (1947, 1978), understanding the manner in which social structures emerge and reproduce themselves is one of the fundamental concerns for the study of organizational life. It is my position that ideas can influence the reproduction of social orders in our work lives, and ideas can alter activities to create new social orders. A key concern of my research is whether individuals can engage new ideas to create organization social structures that promote the basic ideals of democracy - that is of the rule of law and the protection of rights for individuals and minorities, and of elected representation and accountability. I address this concern by researching the social structures of the 'labor-managed firm,' a historically unique form of organization (sometimes called a worker owned cooperative or a producer cooperative) that blossomed out of the ideology of the nineteenth and twentieth century cooperative movement. Labor-managed firms are believed to embody the ideals of organization democracy through the simple fact of the ownership of the firm by those who are its workers. Most theoretical works state explicitly that, given the property-rights of workers in a labor-managed firm, workers are in control of the workplace, and therefore, they then imply that workplace democracy will naturally occur.

In previous research (Luhman, 2000) I developed a general framework of organization democracy from a narrative analysis of the ethnographic and case study literature on labor-managed firms. I set about to conduct a narrative examination of the literature on labor-managed firms to discover the social structures within labor-managed firms, and to assess if they may be described as democratic in nature. My primary research question was: Does the literature on labor-managed firms confirm the assumption that they practice organizational democracy? This primary research question required, however, that the term of 'organizational democracy' be defined through a secondary research question: What is theoretical definition of organizational democracy? I first examined the theoretical literature to create a framework of how firms might incorporate concepts of democracy in their social structures, and second, I examined a collection of ethnographic and case studies on labor-managed firms to discover their actual practices. I did develop an answer to the secondary research question. It consisted of fourteen key concepts derived from the theoretical literature, and nine key concepts derived from actual studies of labor-managed firms. However, I concluded from the evidence that the answer to the primary research question was ambiguous. How could organization democracy be proven to exist given this very broad theoretical definition? …

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