Work, Europe and Utopia – part eight by Henri Brugmans


8. Industrial Democracy

We come to the question of “participation”, a word belonging as much to the vocabulary of Gaullism as to German trade unionism (“Mitbestimmung”). But it is passionately challenged by the majority of French trade unionists and, partly, also by a section of the British labour movement.

They speak of “autogestion” or of “workers’ control”. Are these systems irrecoilable? Is it always that the legal drafting of the articles for a “European company” runs up against the fact that the law imposes, in Germany, a type of “participation” which elsewhere the employers refuse? It has therefore been impossible to achieve the integration of teh continent, officially supported by all, because of a conflict of doctrine, the “Mitbestimmung” going too far for some people and not far enough for others. Here again, is an area the Centre would find it necessary to explore.

Finally, and whatever formula wins the day, one factor remains certain: no form of worker “participation” will be fruitful without a solid grounding in working class culture and a sense of civic responsibility. Managing an enterprise is not a task which is achieved solely by virtue of dogmatic principles. In order for the operation to be a success conditions have to be satisified such as the ability to read an annual report and balance sheet and to discern within it the broad outlines of a policy being followed, and the ability to discover the hidden intentions of a budget. Hence the need for a specialised training to be given to those who will carry responsibility in the enterprise.

But the idea of “responsibility” suggests not only technical know-how, but also a sense of the common interest. A polarisation of classes, within a Board of Directors, with each class considering the other their natural enemy, would destroy the whole project. There again, whetever the system of ownership, it remains true that the “boss”, the “manager” – even if elected by the workforce – will have different preoccupations from the representatives of the employees. It makes no difference whether the director is a state employee or the representative of a family: his desire to see the factory prosper in its own right is not necessarily shared by those who happen to work there, but could equally well work elsewhere. It is certainly so, then, that there is a difference of approach. But if this should harden into a permanent conflict the sense of common good (despite everything) will be lost. One will no longer be on speaking terms. Each will be deaf to the other’s point of view, increasing rather than eliminating alienation.

Nevertheless, this “common good” exists and can be discerned. There are issues on which “management” and workers are not necessarily irreconcilably divided: the struggle against noise, against job monotony, or against unhealthy working conditions. Even the drive for profit does not inevitably or single-mindedly tend towards tougher exploitation of the labour force. In conclusion: one of two things. Either, there is no common ground between management and workers (it matters little whether this management is “nationalised” or even freely elected) – and thus, it is useless to discuss forms of “participation” or “self-determination”. Or, this basis for understanding does exist, but in that case it is necessary to define it, in order for it to contribute to the removal of alienation.

Two problems remain. In the first place, experiments carried out in Yugoslavia in this area have shown that radical “self-determination” risks engendering (cause or give rise to) a real “firm loyalty”, likely to conflict with the policies for the administration of regional territories and national and international planning. Here again it will thus be a matter of finding a balance, which will be constantly shifting; there is, in short, a whole collection of problems for the Centre to stoyd.

Secondly, it is true that, everywhere, these different forms of “participation” always began with discussions on social questions; not until later were economic issues raised. Often the employers even believed that all they needed to do was to slot trade unionists who were on the board of management into the first category that came to mind: “give them responsibility for recreational activities, for example, that will give them something to chew on, and we will be left in peace to do the real work, that is to say, the managing.”

That was a far cry from the “deproletarisation” which should be the real objective. Further grievances (cause for complaint or protest) quickly emerged, and so the doctrine of the German trade unions was still relevant: “It is neither healthy, nor normal, nor acceptable, that the workers should be citizens with full rights in the State, but only second class citizens (“Untertane”) in the firm.” There is a whole area to be expored here. These problems, moreover, are particularly acute in the case of firms which belong to a vast “multinational” enterprise. In this respect it is obvious that the traditional demand for “nationalisation” is totally inadequate. One cannot nationalise something that is no longer national. Are we expected to make Philips-Eindhoven a municipal firm? However, it is clear that possibilities for “participation” within these organisations remain even more limited than elsewhere, because management decisions are taken, not solely with respect to Eindhoven, but for a group of plants, scattered across the world. In these circumstances, any dialogue between management and workers could only be a sham (a thing that is not what it is purported to be).

It is here, in fact, that the problem of social control of multinationals arises. Certainly one can see to it that at one level and another workers’ delegates participate in the life of the firm. But they will remain isolated and weak as long as they cannot also find support from responsible political authorities which, logically, ought to be federal, continental or intercontinental.

In a word, confronted with “big business”, which was established without anyone specifically consenting to it, but which is nevertheless necessary because it is modern, “big labour” must organise itself, as it has done already in the chemical industry. But “big government” must complete the picture, which will only then be fully democratic from the grass roots upwards. I am thinking in particular, but not exclusively, of the problems posed by the potential of contemporary technology: in what framework and to what end should it be used and should it all be used?

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