Every workplace requires structures and procedures for making decisions. Today, workplaces are organised as top-down hierarchical corporations where those at the top have far greater power and income. How can we organise work more equitably and allow workers to participate in decision making? The goals of a participatory workplace are to:
- Provide every worker with a direct say in the decisions that affect them in their workplace via their workers’ council.
- Balance jobs for empowerment, so that that everyone is equiped with the knowledge and confidence to participate in democratic meetings.
- Establish procedures for fairly distributing compensation based on any differences in effort or sacrifice.
The Workers’ Council
To give all workers a say in decisions that affect them, a participatory workplace is designed around a decentralised organisational structure whereby power and decision-making are distributed into self-managing teams. This replaces the conventional top-down management hierarchy, so while there are still roles and assigned responsibilities, there are no bosses.
For decisions affecting the whole workplace, the main decision-making body of the workplace is the workers’ council. Workers come together to make proposals, have discussions and make decisions affecting the whole workplace. For example, strategic plans, what to produce, workplace guidelines, etc. In larger workplaces, self-managing units may choose to send rotatable delegates to the workers’ council meetings.
Workplaces will also be made up of a number of interconnected smaller sub-divisions, such as departments or teams. Each department and team forms a smaller council which has a mandate with a clear purpose that has been agreed by everyone via the workplace workers’ council. Each team is self-managing and has decision-making autonomy about how they wish to go about achieving their collectively agreed goals.
For example, in a computer game design workplace, each programming team would choose the technologies to use for their particular project, how they wish to organise their working environment, which development processes to use and work schedules.
While all issues are ultimately subject to majority rule in the workers’ council, this does not preclude establishing more refined procedures where different degrees of consensus make sense, since not all workers are equally affected by all workplace decisions. Within each self-managing unit, a variety of participatory decision-making processes could be used. Some decisions may require consensus; others majority rule. These collectively agreed rules would be written in the workplace’s constitution. As workplaces vary in their size and circumstances, every workplace would organise the exact details of their decision-making system in whichever way that they can best maximise self-management.
Can self-management work in larger workplaces with lots of people?
Yes. Larger workplaces can organise into a structure of linked smaller semi-autonomous councils. Each council formed could be a team, a department, a project or any other functional area that makes sense to that particular workplace.
Each council would have decision-making say over decisions that affect only them. They can send delegates to the highest level workers’ council for decisions affecting the whole workplace. Delegates are rotatable, recallable, and represent the views of the sending council. Depending on the type of decision, delegates could deliberate and make decisions on behalf of the sending councils, or formulate options for all workers to vote on.
Mondragon Cooperative is the largest worker-owned business in the world today with over 80,000 workers. In Spain in the 1930s, tens of thousands of workers took over large parts of industry, organised into nested councils and successfully ran the economy along the principle of workers’ self-management.
Won’t there be too many meetings?
It is important to first note that meeting time is far from zero in our existing economies. Conception, coordination, and decision-making are part of the organisation of production under any system.
Under hierarchical organisations of production relatively few employees spend most of their time thinking and meeting, and most of the rest of the employees simply do as they’re told (or try not to do as they are told). So it is true, most people would spend more time in workplace meetings in a participatory economy than in a hierarchical economy. This is because most people are excluded from workplace decision-making under capitalism and authoritarian planning. However, it does not necessarily mean the total amount of time spent on thinking and meeting rather than on working would be greater in a participatory workplace.
Decisions are taken at appropriate levels of organisation. The whole workplace doesn’t meet to decide everything. Rather some things are decided widely, others more narrowly. And while it might be that democratic decision-making requires somewhat more overall meeting time than autocratic decision-making, it should also be the case that a lot less time is required to enforce democratic decisions than autocratic ones.
In addition, decisions made through democratic procedures are more likely to have better outcomes and are less likely to have to be changed in the future. Also, workplace meeting time is part of the normal workday in a participatory economy, not an incursion on people’s leisure.
How does a workplace hire or dismiss members?
The exact procedures for hiring or dismissing a member would vary and be written in each workplace’s constitution as decided democratically by its members. You would expect that decisions over who to recruit would involve all workers the new recruit will work with, rather than the decision being made by only a few managers, as is the case with hierarchical organisations today.
In a participatory economy people are hired as members of a workplace with full and equal rights from the moment they arrive, not as employees. Everyone is free to apply for membership to the workplace of their choice, or apply to form a new workplace with whomever they wish.
Won’t workers’ self-management exclude expertise?
The “expertise” argument fails to distinguish between the legitimate role of expertise and an unnecessary usurpation of decision making power. In circumstances where the consequences of decisions are complicated and not readily apparent, there is an obvious need for expertise. But economic choice entails both determining and evaluating consequences. Those with expertise in a matter may well predict the consequences of a decision more accurately than non-experts. But those affected know best whether they prefer one outcome to another.
So, while efficiency requires an important role for experts in determining complicated consequences, efficiency also requires that those who will be affected determine which consequences they prefer. This means it is just as inefficient to keep those affected by decisions from making them as it is to prevent experts from explaining consequences of complicated choices to those who will be affected.
Self-managed decision making, defined as decision making input in proportion to the degree one is affected by the outcome, does not mean there is no role for experts. Instead it means confining experts to their proper role and keeping them from usurping a role that it is neither fair, democratic, nor efficient for them to assume.
Related Real-World Examples
Worker Cooperatives are business which are democratically owned and controlled by their workers. They implement a wide range of direct and indirect decision-making structures based on the co-operative principles of democratic member control and member economic participation. There are around 85,000 worker co-operatives in the world today. Visit the International Cooperative Alliance.
Mondragon is the world’s largest worker-owned federation of cooperatives in the Basque region in North of Spain. Founded in 1956, it consists of 257 businesses and 75,000 workers, in four sectors: industry, finance, retail, and knowledge. In terms of turnover it is the tenth-largest Spanish company.
Morning Star Tomato Processing Company
The Morning Star, based in California, is the largest tomato processor in the world. It is a self-managed organisation, with no managers or fixed hierarchy. It has 400 workers and annual revenues of $700 million with double digit growth for the past 20 years.
Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing
Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing is a worker-owned cooperative in Wisconsin, USA, specialising in high performance automation machines and equipment since 1980. Management decisions are made democratically by one member, one vote.
The Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy has one of the highest concentrations of cooperative businesses in the developed world, producing one third of the region’s GDP.
Sociocracy / Holacracy
Sociocracy and Holacracy are self-managed horizontal governance systems, which are used in practice in many organisations today. Zappos.com is an online shoe and clothing retailer which is the largest holacracy organisation in the world.
In every workplace there are a number of tasks that need to be done. Some tasks are fulfilling and empowering, whereas others are dull and unpleasant. But why should some people be left doing only unpleasant disempowering tasks all their working lives?
To fairly distribute work, tasks are combined into jobs in ways that make jobs more “balanced” with regard to desirability and empowerment.
Balancing jobs is for two key reasons:
- To enable everyone in the workplace to have the sufficient confidence and knowledge necessary to participate in democratic meetings. This is necessary for meaningful self-management. Balanced jobs is necessary to prevent informal hierarchies and class division from occurring even in democratic organisations.
- To fairly share the burdens and benefits of work so everyone has the opportunity to do some fulfilling work and no-one is left doing only unpleasant work. This is for economic justice.
Balancing is done by each workplace as they see fit depending on what is possible or practical in their given situation. For example, the workers’ council or human resources department could be given responsiblity for indentify which tasks are disempowering and distributing them fairly into job descriptions. This would likley include things like cleaning, taking out rubbish and boring administration tasks.
The idea is not that everyone perform every task, or that all jobs are rotated. A balanced job will still only involve a small number of tasks. There will be workers that still specialise in surgery, architecture, engineering and so on. However, if the specialised tasks are more empowering than tasks are on average, those who perform them will also perform some less empowering tasks as well as part of their job description.
Work is simply re-organised in order to end the large, persistent differences in empowerment and desirability that characterise work life today.
Is balancing jobs the same as job rotation?
No, The idea is not that everyone perform every task, or that all jobs are rotated. A balanced job will still only involve a small number of tasks. For example, there will be workers that still specialise in surgery, architecture, engineering and so on. However, if the specialised tasks are more empowering than tasks are on average, those who perform them will also perform some less empowering tasks as well. The balancing of jobs is a flexible process and could be conducted over months and not over every hour or day.
What are the benefits of balancing jobs?
The benefits of balancing jobs in a Participatory Economy is to ensure all workers can claim to have a relatively fair distribution of empowering and disempowering tasks in order to enhance overall worker participation.
These benefits not only aim to distribute the benefits and burdens of economic activity, but also to prevent hierarchies forming as a result of the division of labour, which would violate self-management. This is not meant to inhibit specialisation or expertise, but rather to prevent the development of managerialist tendencies and the re-creation of a coordinator class.
This equitable sharing of the burdens of work also fosters solidarity among workers and aids in creating a classless economy. It also acts to counter the tendency of hierarchies to form in other areas of life, such as with race and gender.
Won’t balancing jobs exclude specialisation and expertise, and waste scarce talents?
No. Balanced jobs are not designed to avoid specialisation. They are designed to avoid disparate empowerment.
The tasks each performs do not have to be balanced for empowerment or desirability every day, week, or even every month. There is ample leeway in organising work to accommodate technological and psychological considerations while eliminating large, persistent differences in empowerment and desirability. A participatory economy is one that reaps the productivity awards of a very high degree of specialisation but without the undesirable effects of permanent hierarchies.
However, it is true not everyone has the talent to become a brain surgeon, and there are social costs to training brain surgeons. Therefore, there is an efficiency loss whenever a skilled brain surgeon does something other than perform brain surgery. But most people have some socially useful talent whose development entails some social costs. And an efficient economy would identify and develop everyone’s most socially useful talent. If this were done, there would be an opportunity cost no matter who changed bed pans, and the efficiency loss from brain surgeons changing bed pans from time to time would be less than in today’s economies where the talents of many go undeveloped.
To give an example, if we think that nearly all doctors eighty years ago were men. This was not because women were not capable of becoming doctors, but because of structural barriers in a society with gender hierarchies. Today, the gender balance of doctors is more or less even. This implies that there are many more people in society who have the capability to perform specialised tasks but who do not have the same opportunities to do so, due to structural barriers in today’s society, which could be based on class, gender, race or other factors.
Countless studies confirm that participation increases worker productivity. If Balanced Jobs enhance effective participation as they are intended to do, whatever efficiency loss they entail should be weighed against the productivity gain they bring.
Related Real-World Examples
The Mondragon Bookstore & Coffeehouse
The Mondragon Bookstore & Coffeehouse is a political bookstore and vegan cafe located in Winnipeg, Canada where tasks are shared in a way to equalise empowerment.
South End Press
South End Press was a non-profit book publisher run on the model of a participatory economy from 1977 to 2014 in Boston’s South End. It published books written by activists, including Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn. It run as an egalitarian collective with self-managed decision-making and jobs balanced for empowerment.
Unicorn Grocery Cooperative
Unicorn Grocery is a workers’ co-operative in south Manchester, UK, twice named the nation’s ‘Best Food Retailer’. Members learn a range of core tasks working the till, packing, cleaning – and then two or three people are trained up in specialist roles, so there is back-up when needed.
Suma is a worker co-operative based in the UK with no bosses. Workers multi-skill, usually between desk and manual work, and contribute to collective management. Drivers often drive for part of the week and work in the warehouse or offices for the remainder. Desk workers are encouraged to do manual work for at least one day per week.
Income for Effort
Members of workplaces need to decide how to divide income between themselves. In a Participatory Economy, the goal is to distribute income gained through work based on differences in effort or sacrifice. Since the effort or sacrifice we choose to make is the only factor under our own control and therefore the only moral basis for rewarding some people with more.
An important difference in a participatory economy is that, unlike in a market economy, income is not related to how much a workplace sells. As long as a workplace is making a responsible use of society’s scarce productive resources, i.e that it is providing more social benefit than social cost, it is allocated a pot of income, from which workers decide themselves how to distribute internally based on any differences in effort or sacrifice. Social benefits and costs are explained in participatory planning.
Effort or sacrifice can take different forms:
- working longer hours
- working at a higher intensity
- by performing more dangerous, unhealthy, or unpleasant work
Each workplace has autonomy over designing their own procedures for how they wish to go about measuring effort. Some workplaces might want to establish more detailed processes, such as having annual peer-reviews. Other workplaces may wish to simply have a flat hourly pay structure and base any differences in income on number of hours worked.
Isn’t it difficult to measure effort and sacrifice?
Firstly, each workplace has complete autonomy over how they go about measuring differences in effort or sacrifice between themselves. Let’s consider in turn some of the different ways a workplace might go about this. A workplace could choose one or a combination of the following:
Duration: A workplace could decide to simply have the same hourly income. Measuring differences in the number of hours a person works is easy and straightforward.
Unpleasant or dangerous tasks: It’s also not hard to grade how unpleasant or dangerous a task is. Workers could list all the tasks that need to be done in their workplace and rank them accordingly. For example, this could be done quite coarsely if one wished by simply putting tasks into three categories: Pleasant, moderate and unpleasant.
Intensity: Some workplaces may choose to factor in differences in how hard people work. Even if this done coarsely, say, by having three categories (low, moderate and high), this is more difficult to measure than the above two factors and one can imagine many workplaces may choose to ignore this entirely. However, for those that do consider this, as an example of this in practise today, the Morning Star is a self-managed tomato processing factory in California with over 400 workers, who have a peer evaluation remuneration committee whereby co-workers submit effort ratings and use that as a basis for their annual salary reviews.
What are the incentives to work?
A participatory economy is designed to maximise the motivating potential of non-material incentives. There is reason to hope jobs designed by workers will be more enjoyable than jobs designed by capitalists. Also, there is reason to believe people will be more willing to carry out tasks they have proposed and agreed to themselves than assignments handed to them by superiors. And finally, there is reason to believe people will be more willing to perform unpleasant duties conscientiously when they know the distribution of those duties as well as the rewards for people’s efforts are equitable.
But this does not mean that there are no material incentives in a participatory economy. People’s efforts at work directly affect their consumption rights. However, any differences in efforts will certainly not lead to the extreme income differentials characteristic of market economies today.
To assume that only conspicuous consumption can motivate people because under capitalism we have strained to make this so is unwarranted. There is plenty of evidence that people can be moved to great sacrifices for reasons other than a desire for personal wealth. And there is good reason to believe that for non-pathological people, wealth is generally coveted only as a means of attaining other ends such as economic security, comfort, social esteem, respect or status.
If economic security is guaranteed, for everyone and for their children, there will be no need to accumulate out of fear for the future. If people participate in making decisions, they will carry out their responsibilities with less recourse to external motivation. If the distribution of burdens and benefits is fair, and seen to be fair, sense of social duty will be a more powerful incentive than it is today.
In sum, if a fair share of effort and personal sacrifice are demanded by work mates who must otherwise pick up the slack, if additional effort is appreciated by one’s companions, recognised by society, and awarded commensurate increases in consumption opportunities, and if people planned and agreed to their tasks themselves, there is no reason to think that incentives will be lacking.
Won’t workers exaggerate their effort?
Self-managed worker councils have autonomy over how they go about distributing income between themselves. The only restriction placed on them is that the income each workers’ council receives is capped. This could be done by either giving the same cap to all workplaces or by basing it on the social benefit to social cost ratio of the workplace.
Another way to look at it is that the workplace receives a pie, and they decide themselves how they wish to slice up the pie between themselves. This prevents the possibility of workers over-estimating each other’s effort ratings in return for the same favour, or what could lead to “effort rating inflation”. Remember also that a key difference in a Participatory Economy is that income is not received from a business’ sales revenues like in a market economy. Income is allocated to all workplaces from a different account, called the society account. See anarchist accounting for more information.
Related Real-World Examples
Motion Twin Software Studio
Founded in 2001, Motion Twin is an independent studio in France specialising in online video games, notably the global hit game ‘Dead Cells’. The company is a worker cooperative where all developers and designers, regardless of length of service, get the same pay.
Compensation Committee at the Morning Star
Tomato processor, Morning Star, use an elected compensation committee to set pay levels, who measure their colleagues’ performance against peer-agreed contracts and using other metrics. Morning Star can pay 15 percent more in salaries and 35 percent more in benefits than the industry average because they don’t have managers to pay and productivity is so high.
Leeds Bread Cooperative
Leeds Bread Co-op founded in Leeds, UK, in 2012, are an independent worker co-operative, specialising in slowly fermented, hand-crafted bread. They have a flat wage structure, maximum-hour working weeks and use consensus decision-making.
Founded in 1977, Suma is a worker co-op, owned and run by 200 people with no bosses or shareholders. It is UK’s largest independent natural food wholesaler and distributor. Every worker at Suma gets paid exactly the same hourly wage. Suma is thought to be the largest organisation in Europe operating an equal pay policy.
There are decisions that go beyond the workplace which affect wider sections of the industry, for example, industry membership, standards, innovations and regulations.
To give those affected a say, every workplace selects a person to represent the views of their workplace, called a delegate. Workplace delegates are sent to democratic decision-making bodies covering wider geographical regions to discuss issues and make decisions affecting their industry. This nested bottom-up decision-making structure is called a worker federation. Each industry will have its own federation.
Delegates are accountable to the workplaces that send them. To safeguard self-management and ensure power is kept bottom-up, each delegate is:
- Rotated – the role is rotated between people to prevent any one person monopolising the position
- Mandatable – they can be instructed to vote a certain way over any particular issue by the sending worker council
- Recallable – they can be recalled and replaced at anytime by their worker council
What are the main tasks that federations perform?
Every industry federation is part of a federation structure with several levels within the National Federation of Worker Councils, which represents every worker in every worker council in the whole economy.
The industry federations play an important role in the development and investment planning. They provide estimates of the expected future development of technology, and they make decisions about how necessary changes in industry outputs should be achieved, by closing or creating new worker councils or by increasing or reducing existing worker councils’ production capacities.
During the annual planning procedure, members in each industry federation could be delegated the task of approving or rejecting other members’ production proposals. The federations may establish special committees for reviewing proposals that are not socially efficient, when there is a reason to believe that the numbers do not tell the whole story or in situations when this could be justified. They may also help struggling worker councils by temporarily directing people from successful worker councils to those struggling.
Together with representatives from the consumer federations, Industry federations also have a prominent role in case an annual plan needs to be renegotiated or adjusted during a year due to changed circumstances.
Finally, industry federations have a responsibility to make sure that the goods and services that worker councils produce hold a comparable standard and reach the criteria that the industry has set. For example, light bulbs need to meet standards relating to size, quality, electrical current, performance, etc, that are set by the industry.
How many worker federations will there be?
The organisation of workers’ councils into industrial federations is obviously something that a future participatory economy will decide on. However, a possible industry classification of federations could be according to the general function they perform as follows:
(1) agriculture and forestry; (2) extraction of minerals; (3) manufacturing; (4) construction; (5) freight and transport; and (6) services.
Each of these main federations may then be divided into sub-federations in one or more levels based on a more detailed breakdown of the groups of goods and services that the worker councils produce, as well as geography.
How does a workplace gain or lose membership of a federation?
Anyone is free to start up a new enterprise in a participatory economy. However, an important difference to today is that a startup does not apply for a loan from a bank or seek equity from a private investor. There are no banks or stock markets because productive resources are owned by society.
Instead a startup will need to make an application for membership to join their relevant industry federation. The application will involve creating a business plan similar to today, in order to demonstrate to their industry peers their credibility and ability to carry out what they say they will.
If approved by their industry federation they will be granted a set of initial capital, such as equipment or a building, some support setting up if needed, and be granted a license to enter the annual participatory planning procedure along with other workplaces to submit a proposal for access to resources.
A workplace could lose membership of their federation for two reasons:
1) if they are unable to provide a proposal in the annual planning that is making an efficient use of society’s resources, or
2) fails to deliver more social benefits to social costs during the year.
How do we know whether a workplace is making an efficient use of resources? By measuring the total value of the products or goods they make, which we call social benefits, and dividing that by the total value of inputs they use, what we call social costs. Anything below one can be considered inefficient.
Before losing membership of a federation, a workplace will be given an opportunity for support and help by their federation to improve. It may also be that the industry is simply at over capacity through no fault of their own and some workers in the industry will need to be re-trained to join other industries which are increasing in capacity.
Related Real-World Examples
In Jackson, Mississippi, USA, Cooperation Jackson are building a solidarity economy. The network is made up of: 1) a federation of worker-owned, democratically self-managed cooperative enterprises, 2) a cooperative incubator, 3) a cooperative education and training center, and 4) a cooperative bank.
The National Federation of Labour (CNT)
The National Federation of Labour (CNT) is a Spanish confederation of anarcho-syndicalist labour unions founded in Barcelona. The largest example of self managed workers’ federations was during the spanish revolution 1936-1939. In Catalonia, more than 75% of industry was under worker control.
Korean People’s Association in Manchuria (KPAM)
Korean People’s Association in Manchuria (KPAM) was an autonomous anarchist zone in Manchuria near the Korean borderlands, populated by two million Korean migrants in 1929. The KPAM drew heavily from the economic theories of libertarian socialism and established worker cooperatives, democratic schools and federations of regional councils.