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Workplace democracy - a cross-national perspective
By S. Wojciech Sokolwski, PNews 6 March 1996
How do people in different parts of the world view workplace democracy? New data show that the United States of America is the single most un-democratic country in this respect, among 50 developed and developing nations of the world.
The results of the World value Survey conducted in 1991 in nearly 50 countries can shed some light on that issue. In most of the countries, a representative sample of the population of 18 years of age was selected to answer the survey questions on a number of social and political issues. One of the survey questions read:
"There is a lot of discussion about how business and industry should be managed. Which of these four statements comes closest to your opinion?
1. The owners should run their business or appoint the managers.
The answers to that question by country are shown in the table below. The percentages represent the percent of the total number of respondents in a given country (shown as N in the last column) who selected the particular answer. The percentages may not add to 100 due to the rounding error.
The overall most commonly selected response was 2, asserting the shared responsibility of owners and employees in managing the business. On average (all averages are unweighted) about 43% of the respondents world wide selected that option. This option was particularly popular in Western Europe, where 50% of the respondents (on average) selected it. In the Scandinavian nations (Sweden and Norway), nearly 2/3 of the respondents selected that option.
Second most frequently selected response was 1, asserting the unabridged right of the owner to run the business as he/she sees it fit. On average, 34% of the respondents selected that option. However, this alternative to run business was especially popular in North America (52% of all respondents. In United States, about 57% of the respondents selected that option. This American predilection for the authoritarian workplace relationship is the highest among all surveyed nations - all other countries opted for more democratic workplace relationships.
The third most frequently selected option was employee-control of the workplace (#4), on average 19% of the respondents selected it. This option was especially popular in Eastern Europe, on average, 31% of East European respondents selected that answer. In South America, 21% of respondents selected that answer, while in Asia - 15%. In Western Europe the response ratio was 10% and in North America - 9%. However, the countries with the lowest response ratio was not the US, but the Scandinavian countries =96 Sweden and Norway (5%).
The least popular option was government control of the workplace, only 3% of all respondents (on average) chose this option. On average this option was most popular in Eastern Europe (7%), closely followed by Asia (6%), and South America (5%). However, the country where government control of the workplace was most popular was not Russia, but India (16%).
How do we explain these differences?
There are two theoretical perspectives, linked to the organizational ecology perspective and microstructural theories of social movement recruitment that claim that the existing institutions shape people=92s perception of the= world outside them.
The organizational ecology variant claims that the design of social institutions in a given country shapes the way how people perceive and define social problems around them. The civil society variant claims that participation in voluntary organizations increases people=92s trust in the existing social institutions, and thus increases the effectiveness of those institutions in addressing people=92s needs and grievances, hence their popular acceptance.
To test those two hypotheses, I examined the relationship between the acceptance of two "democratic" options in business management, owners and employees participating in management decisions, and employee-control of such decision, and the active membership in labor unions. Active membership was measured as the % of the respondents to the World Values Survey who reported performing voluntary work for the unions. I also report the number of respondents who reported being a union member. These figures are not based on any national statistics, they pertain to the sample only.=20
The purpose of this analysis was to match changes in active union membership with changes in the acceptance rates of any of the two options of managing the workplace (description of the methodology available upon request). If the "civil society" explanation is correct, we should expect active union membership having a positive impact on the response rates to the "democratic options." If the "organizational ecology" perspective is correct, we should expect the institutional design historically prevalent in a given country to be the most frequently selected alternative to running the workplace.
I found that having a state-socialist form of government has a positive effect on the popularity of the employee ownership solution. When the form of government was taken into account, the active union membership had no overall effect on the popularity of this option. However, when only Western European countries were analyzed, active union membership had a negative effect on the popularity of that option. That is, high acceptance rate of that option in Spain was associated with low level of active union membership. The low acceptance rate of that option in Sweden was associated with high active union membership.
As far as the employee-owner participation option is concerned, the state-socialist regime had a negative effect on the acceptance rate of that option. Active union membership had no effect on the selection rate.
These findings suggest the importance of overall institutional design, or political regime, on workplace democracy. It appears that trade-unionism, while an important organizational resource base, is insufficient to translate working class interests into social norms and institutions. In short, if you want democracy in the workplace, you must reform the entire social-political-economic system.
The US of A is in an urgent need of such a reform. As far as workplace relations are concerned, US is the most authoritarian country of those that were surveyed. The source of that unfortunate state of affairs lies in the weak political position of labor in this country. It is clear that labor must gain its own political voice to have a lasting impact on the democratization of labor relations in this country.
S. Wojciech Sokolwski
This posting may be freely distributed, provided that the sources are= quoted.
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