Frequently asked questions about workers' self-management or workers' control.
What is workers self-management?
Workers self-management is a way of running a workplace without bosses or a fixed managerial hierarchy. Instead, the workplace is run democratically by its workers. By democracy, we do not mean that workers elect a manager to make decisions for them. We mean that the workers themselves decide how they will do things as a group. No one in a self-managed enterprise has control over any of the other workers - decision making power is shared equally between all workers.
How does it work?
Each self-managed workplace is managed by a face-to-face meeting of everyone who works there – a workers’ assembly. The workers of each enterprise collectively make all "management" decisions on a basis of one-worker-one-vote or consensus. The workers of each department form their own smaller assemblies, in which they make the decisions that affect only their department, and so on to the smallest work groups.
Isn't that very time consuming?
Not really. Managers will often complain about how time consuming their jobs are, but they spend most of their time doing administrative work. Relatively little time is spent making big management decisions.
However, in great factories and plants there are too many workers to gather in one meeting every day. The workplace-wide assemblies might occur once a week, or once a month instead. They are the focus of major "policy" decisions - i.e. those which the workers DECIDE are most important.
So how will work be coordinated on a daily basis?
The workers will meet in their department assemblies and work groups to make the thousands of day to day decisions that crop up. Each department sends a delegate to a "shop committee" to coordinate their activities.
Delegates are not professional managers: They are ordinary workers who have been sent by their department assemblies with special instructions (mandates); they return to these assemblies to report on the discussion and its result, and after further deliberation the same or other delegates may go up with new instructions. Once the shop committee meeting is over, they return to their everyday jobs.
Any compromises reached at delegate meetings are subject to ratification by the department assemblies, and delegates can be recalled and replaced at any time. Therefore the shop committee does not tell the workers what the official policy is - the workers tell them. They are not a management board, but means of communication between the different departments. Indeed, the shop committee is not even a permanent body, since different delegates will probably be chosen for each meeting, so that everyone in the workplace gets to serve this role.
Will there be managers?
No. Workers’ self-management abolishes the permanent division between managers and workers. Instead, the people who do the actual productive work – making products, designing them, maintaining machinery, collecting information and so on - will collectively manage their own work. Workers self-management means that workers literally manage themselves, and therefore there are no professional managers or managerial hierarchy – just normal workers cooperating as equals.
Note that rejecting a fixed managerial hierarchy does not necessarily reject leadership. If packing luggage onto an aeroplane needs a team leader, then so be it. But there is no reason why it should be the same person today as it is tomorrow. Similarly, a book may require a chief editor, but there is no reason why that person should be in charge of all the books published. Another member of his working group might edit the next book they take on. And where a team requires a leader for a specific task, she should be elected and removable by that team, and should work within the democratic decisions made by the whole team.
But even if cleaners have full voting rights in plant decisions, how will they ever exert the same influence as those who develop budgets or design products?
You are right. Despite equal rights, cleaners' work may not challenge their intellectual capacities or provide them with information about technological options or with skill at making decisions.
One approach is to rotate jobs regularly, so that engineers do some cleaning work and so on. The most unpleasant jobs could be rotated between the whole workforce, so that no one is made to spend their whole working life doing degrading tasks. However, hierarchies of power will not be wholly undone by temporary shuffling, if the quality and empowerment of peoples’ day to day jobs differ largely.
Instead of dividing workers into brain workers and manual workers, it has been suggested that each worker have a “balanced job complex”*. Each worker has a set of jobs composed of comparably fulfilling responsibilities. This does not mean everyone must do everything. But it does mean that the half dozen tasks that I regularly do must be roughly as empowering as the different half dozen tasks that you do regularly. Everyone must have a comparable balance of conceptual and rote tasks. So Instead of secretaries answering phones and taking dictation, some workers answer phones and do calculations while others take dictation and design products.
We are not suggesting that everyone has completely equal abilities, although better education and less poverty would do a great deal to equalize things. We won’t all do intellectual or manual jobs equally well, but we will all do them well enough to bring our own unique experiences and insights to bear on decision making. After all, good ideas aren’t the monopoly of any individual or group. For sex or sports we don't say that only the "best" should participate - the same should be true for using one's head.
But what about relationships between workplaces?
Well, this depends on how people wish to do things. Self managed workplaces could compete in a market as capitalist workplaces do now, although this could still create a myriad of injustices.
Others argue that workplaces should join “confederations” – free and equal associations of workplaces which replacing competition with co-operation. These would be run through conferences of delegates elected by each workplace, who come together to make decisions that effect the economy as a whole. These would be controlled from below, because delegates would be mandated and subject to instant recall by the workers who elected them. All decisions made at conferences would be subject to ratification by a vote of the workers’ assemblies in every workplace. So in fact, decisions affecting the whole economy would be made by everyone, with delegates being ambassadors rather than decision makers.
In these confederations, workplaces would agree a fair price for each product, probably based on the number of hours they take to produce. Or otherwise, workplaces might make a mutual agreement to give their products away for free.
* The credit for this idea must go to Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. Many of their books and essays are available online at www.zmag.org/parecon/indexnew.htm
By Alejandro Vega