Opinion – Syndicalism in the 21st century: The case for worker-controlled industries

By: Evan Engering

In this recessionary age of massive layoffs and outsourcing, there is a priority to restore the promise of secure, stable jobs that we once had. However, the solutions being presented often do not address the depth of the problem, and instead advance the status quo, with the hope that maybe capitulating to the interests of employers will trickle down to benefit employees.


Here in Ontario, we see several forms of this. From the Progressive-Conservative Party, we have Tim Hudak, proposing a total evisceration of labour unions, a move that would set worker’s rights back over sixty years. While the reactionary substance is alarming, it is also revealing of the true implications of “competitiveness” that regional markets are supposed to have, if they are to survive in today’s world.

The Liberals would propose corporate tax cuts in the hope that businesses would in turn hire more people sheerly out of gratuity. Andrea Horwath’s NDP has a similar, yet more sensible approach of cutting corporate taxes based on how many people they will employ. While this last proposal could theoretically succeed in raising employment rates, none of our politicians seem willing to acknowledge the reality.

In a global market where corporations are free to move their businesses wherever they like, workers here are competing with workers everywhere in a global race to the bottom. The result, inevitably, is a return to near-slavery, where living wages, benefits, and collective bargaining are the privileges of those who work in small niche markets.

Economic theory tells us that the problem could eventually meet with some resolve, given that workers must also be consumers, and thus need to make enough to afford what they produce. But the catch up could be minimal and take decades, and it’s being artificially delayed by giving consumers easy credit to buy things they can’t afford (isn’t that what started the crisis in the first place?)

The true solution, in my opinion is doing away with this entire failing economic model. For as long as workers have no control over their own workplace, they don’t really have any meaningful say in society. This concept is called economic democracy. The idea that the producers of goods and services should have a say in how their business is run, instead of the economic oligarchy that we now have.

In many ways, I believe this would not only be more equitable and sensible, but a more efficient and productive way of doing things as well. In large corporations, workers often get policies and rules about how to work dictated to them from corporate bureaucrats in air-conditioned head offices miles away from the workplace. These managers are supposedly experts on how workplaces should be run because they studied business at some elite university. Their policies get implemented, whether the workers agree or even understand the directions or not, and the manager gets his/her paycheque for their expertise.

The disconnect between workers and management in the big business model however, is more than just disagreement over how work is to be done. It leads to apathy, and even a conflict of interests between the workers and the management. Whereas management is concerned greatly about the profitability of the corporation, this concern is shared only minimally with the workers at the bottom of the corporate chain. They need the company to stay in business to be sure, but this is mostly the extent of it. Their main interest is making sure they are treated fairly at work, which is often in direct conflict with the company’s profitability. The individual employee might even hope that business is slow on a certain day, so that their day is less hectic and stressful.

It doesn’t take long to realize this is a heavily flawed, and in many ways failing system. So what if all the employees of a large corporation were to own the business collectively, and manage it democratically? What if they all decided they don’t need a boss, and could figure things out for themselves?

We could see a minimization of the ineffective bureaucratic decision-making model that has plagued big business’ for so long. Employees could look at what actually needs to be done and do it, instead of trying to follow the dictate of their out-of-touch managers and higher-ups. Instead of having someone constantly looking over the worker’s back, many of the workers would adopt a very different work ethic. They would work not out of fear of discipline if they don’t, but out of duty. If they own the business, they are their own boss, and it would be up to them to make sure that what they are doing is profitable. With power comes responsibility, and it is this responsibility that could motivate workers to work better than any threat of firing or lay-offs ever could.

Most importantly, if the workers owned their own business, there would be no off-shoring of jobs. As long as they are producing something of value to society, the workers could always do what they are doing without living with this fear of not being profitable enough.

So how might one go about achieving this sort of thing? Well, it’s no secret that the business owners aren’t going to give up their livelihood without a fight. And, seeing as how they are the ones that own everything, it may seem futile.

It isn’t always so, however. When the big auto companies went bankrupt in 2008, there was an opportunity to attach conditions to their bailout. The US federal government could theoretically have even bought the businesses outright and then handed them to the workers. Sort of a reverse of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” theory of disaster capitalism. Unfortunately, such radical ideas were not on President Obama’s agenda. Instead he socialized their bankruptcy, and got nothing in return, other than the privilege of the employees keeping their jobs.

Until people demand that worker ownership of businesses and economic democracy be real demands on the agenda of the government (the only agent for peaceful change of the economy this fundamental) we will continue to suffer this fate of growing inefficiency, precariousness of work, and slow self-destruction. It only requires the working people of the world to question the way they are told things have to be; to look outside the box, and dream about the way the world could work. Then civilization could finally begin to realize it’s true potential.


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