Democracy in the Workplace: A Brief History

Democracy in the Workplace: A Brief History

by Lawrence Wittner

(Talk delivered at the Teach-in on Democracy and Shared Governance, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, October 24, 2007)

Democracy is usually thought of in connection with the long struggle for popular control of government — political democracy.

But there has also been a long struggle for popular control of the economy — economic democracy.

Today, I’d like to focus on one facet of the campaign for economic democracy: the demand for workplace democracy.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, as Americans began to move off the farms and to find employment elsewhere, craft workers enjoyed relatively good lives. They controlled their own workplaces and utilized an apprenticeship system to bring new workers into their craft system.

Ultimately, though, the development of a large, profit-driven commercial market began to undermine this craft system. Inreasingly, craft workers were either driven to adopt exploitative practices or to take jobs as semiskilled or unskilled laborers. In desperation, the cobblers and the hatters, the carpenters and the iron molders, began to form unions to defend their way of life. By the late 19th and early 20th century, they had largely lost that battle. Their numbers had been reduced, and the cutting edge of labor struggle had passed on to the workers in the new mass production industries.

During the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World led the way among mass production workers in demanding not only shorter hours and higher wages, but a new industrial order, in which the economic decision-making would be transferred from the capitalist bosses to the workers themselves. Although the IWW was destroyed by a combination of corporate and governmental assault, the rise of the CIO — the Congress of Industrial Organizations — in the mid-1930s revived the demand for workers’ control. In July 1936, as the CIO’s organizing drives surged forward, John L. Lewis, the labor federation’s leader, thundered: “Let him who will, be he economic tyrant or sordid mercenary, pit his strength against the mighty upsurge of human sentiment . . . in the hearts of 30,000,000 workers who clamor for the establishment of industrial democracy.” Eventually, through unionization, many of them won collective bargaining rights and some degree of control over their working conditions.

But what does this story have to do with college faculty? I would suggest that college faculty are undergoing much the same shift in status as those craft workers. Let me explain.

Faculty in medieval times had enormous power over their workplaces. They governed their educational institutions and, thus, had some semblance of workplace democracy. But this situation changed in the United States, where administrators and boards of trustees (usually composed of wealthy businessmen) assumed supreme power. For a time, faculty contented themselves with their relatively privileged positions (compared to other workers), with their “professional” status, and with their medieval caps, gowns, and ceremonies.

But, gradually, faculty began to recognize that they really didn’t have much power at all. As colleges and universities were run more and more like businesses, administrators and trustees increasingly viewed faculty members as “labor cost.” And, if faculty became too expensive or got out of line, they could easily be dismissed.

One famous case was that of the well-known economist Edward Ross. In 1900, he lost his job at Stanford University when Mrs. Leland Stanford objected to his critical views on railroad monopolies. Faculty dismissals became much more common during World War I, when administrators and boards of trustees at colleges and universities around the country fired faculty whom they deemed insufficiently patriotic. Disgusted by the firings at Columbia University, Charles Beard — probably the nation’s most famous historian — resigned in protest. In a scathing letter to the university’s president, Beard wrote that Columbia was controlled by trustees who had no “standing in the world of education” and who are “reactionary and visionless in politics.”

Recognizing their deteriorating status and power, faculty began to organize. In 1915, the philosophers John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy established the American Association of University Professors (the AAUP) to defend academic freedom and shared governance of colleges and universities.

But this was only the beginning. In 1916, activists founded the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union that would represent the economic, social and professional interests of teachers. John Dewey received AFT card number one. Also, the AFT adopted one of his statements as its official slogan: “Democracy in Education and Education for Democracy.” Other prominent intellectuals joined the new union’s ranks as well, including Albert Einstein.

Job security, of course, was a key demand of both the AAUP and the AFT, and it soon emerged in the form of tenure — henceforth the most closely-guarded prerogative of the professoriat.

Thus, the situation on campuses today is a mixed bag. There is some measure of faculty governance through faculty Senates and comparable committees. There is also some degree of faculty governance through unions.

The AFT alone has 1.4 million members, of whom hundreds of thousands are college teachers. The AAUP is much smaller than the AFT, but — like its competitor — now serves as a faculty union and negotiates contracts. A third union representing faculty today is the National Education Association, which has 3.2 million members, although most of them are primary and secondary school teachers. The AFT is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, unlike the AAUP and the NEA.

At the State University of New York today, we have both a faculty Senate and a union.

Naturally, these organizations provide faculty members with enhanced power and set limits to the prerogatives of administrators and trustees on college and university campuses.

As you might expect, those who prefer an authoritarian model have resisted this expansion of democracy. David Horowitz and other rightwing extremists have sought to discredit faculty around the nation, claiming that they do no more than propagandize for leftwing, anti-American, and terrorist policies. This is part of a rightwing campaign to have government police academic life and to destroy tenure. Furthermore, the Supreme Court, in its Yeshiva University decision, has ruled that, in private colleges, faculty are really supervisors, and thus are not entitled to collective bargaining guarantees under the National Labor Relations Act. This court decision has not destroyed all unions on private college campuses, but has made life more difficult for those that have survived or for faculty on private campuses that would like to unionize.

And, finally, of course, there is RPI, where there is no faculty union and where the president has recently scrapped the faculty Senate.

Although I am an outsider, I would like to make a modest proposal to you folks at RPI: Demand the restoration of your faculty Senate. And if the administration refuses to accept that demand, form a faculty union and use the absence of faculty governance to explain why the Yeshiva decision should be moot in the case of RPI. Above all, never give up the struggle for democracy — in government or in the workplace. Democracy is too precious to surrender to power-hungry administrators, trustees, or other petty tyrants!


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