Empowered Participation: Workers Unite 2.0
Nicholas Natrella writes on how, after getting the raw end of the deal for decades, workers are mobilizing once more and technology is unleashing people-power in new ways, as the smart companies empower their workers.
“You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop-out
The revolution will not be televised”
-Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Democracy is upheld as a symbol of Western freedom and fairness; a demonstration of our commitment to ensuring everyone’s voice is heard. Yet, the workplace, where we spend 40 hours a day, 5 days a week, for the majority of our lives, is excluded from this sacred democratic sphere. Through Empowered Participation, Regenerative businesses can involve all key stakeholders in the decision-making process, expanding democracy to all those who are affected by the actions of business rather than just an exclusive board of ultra-high-net-worth individuals. By bringing local communities and workers to the table, we are much more capable of making socially-optimal decisions, and creating a better world in the process. Regenerative businesses understand that the most effective organizations empower their teams to take decisions at the most appropriate level. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and companies the world over are experimenting with how this works in practice in many varied exciting new ways. We can see this change all over, whether it be through the innovative structure of the retail platform Zappos, or in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy where worker cooperatives continue to thrive.
How It Was
Traditionally, in the age of industrialisation, unions struck, marched and fought for a better life against the interests of the exploitative ruling class. Although, mainstream conversations confine this struggle to working conditions, hours and fair pay, we must not forget there was no limit to the exploitative nature of the emerging capitalist class, with unions even having to fight to ban child labour. Working Class History offers “on-this-day” tales of resistance, demonstrating the long-lasting struggle of peoples across the world against the wealth-owning class’ pursuit of profit; I highly recommend reading their book or giving their Instagram page a follow.
The demonisation of unions took hold under the neoliberal agenda of Thatcher and Reagan, backed by the “laissez-faire” economic dogma which was being spouted by the likes of Milton Friedman. This dangerous ideology suggested that acting in self-interest is the cure to all ills; establishing a cult-like adherence to “the free market”. 40 years on we can see this was a lie: statistical data demonstrates that as union membership declines, so does the middle-class’ & working class’ share of national income, creating the shocking levels of inequality we witness today.
Where We Are Today
Today, in a world defined by the increasingly significant role of capital, unionization can seem powerless. Big Tech companies, in contrast to the industrial capitalists of the 20th century, employ far fewer workers yet rake in equally enormous profits. This dynamic sustains the unbalanced pattern of wealth concentration that has been occurring for the past few decades. Today’s situation is also complicated by the vague & blurred nature of the conflicting interests between the people and Big Tech. While companies such as Facebook seek to maximize your screen time, to improve their marketing services, the mental health implications for us users are awful. For example, a study by Dr. Dutta from the Medical Research Foundation examined the significant link between social media use amongst young people and increasing rates of self-harm, anxiety & depression as well as other mental health issues. Perhaps if we view the struggle of workers against industrial capitalists as a battle for our physical health, then this struggle against Big Tech must be seen as a fight for our sanity.
In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff speaks vividly about the dystopian, digital reality we live in, and the unfiltered power possessed by Big Tech technocrats. She explains the elaborate data production & extraction techniques that enrich the surveillance capitalists at the expense of our privacy, mental health, and, worryingly, democratic systems. For a better understanding of the elaborate ways by which Big Tech firms produce, extract, and use your data, Zuboff’s book is the ultimate read.
Workers of the World, Unite!
The damage created to democracy by Cambridge Analytica in the US and UK has shown how pernicious tech can be when in the wrong hands. But technology itself is neutral and can also be used as a force for good. Hence, we need innovative solutions to combat the monopoly which corporations enjoy over technology, information, and power. Fortunately, we have initiatives like Organise entering the stage to bring e-unionization to life. Organize is an online platform for workers’ rights, which allows users to digitally kick-start campaigns for improved working conditions & pay. This is clearly a major stepping-stone towards the digitalization of union activities and leading the global workers' struggle into the digital age.
Also, over at Google, workers have established the Alphabet Workers Union, redefining the responsibilities of unions. As Chewy Shaw, vice-chair of the union, declared: “Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of, ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader. It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.” The AWU seeks to shape the way Google conducts its business, openly criticizing the company’s participation in the US government’s Project Maven program. In the program, Google was offering its expertise to improve warfare applications of AI, a decision which received a strong objection from many Google engineers who were to be involved in the project. The potential for AI to cause suffering is just as strong as its ability to improve lives & achieve sustainability goals; this is a dilemma confronted spectacularly in Peter Dauvergne’s book “AI in the Wild”.
The struggle is real. If we ever needed evidence of this, we only have to look at how Amazon has been cracking down on unionization attempts. Even during this pandemic, suppression of workers has continued, culminating with the firing of Amazon employee Chris Smalls after he exposed the unsafe working conditions forced upon him and his colleagues. However, his response has gained significant attention and has become an inspiration for all workers struggling to speak up against authority (video link below). There have also been awful stories of Amazon drivers being excessively overworked, with drivers even being denied time for toilet breaks.
Throughout history, the law has failed to safeguard peoples’ rights. Hence, the biggest legal achievements have been preceded by some of the mightiest social movements of our time; whether it be the end of segregation in the United States or the recognition of nature as a legal entity in the Bolivian constitution. To tackle this century’s robber barons, put the brakes on ecological collapse, and save the integrity of our democratic systems, we must organize combining the spirit of the past with the technological genius of the present.
Powerful Voices for Positive Change
If we truly care about fostering a fair world that cares for all, we need to start respecting all life within it. The rights of Bangladeshi garment workers must come before consumeristic desires; displaced peoples can not be an afterthought in the business plans of mining conglomerates, and sensual pleasure must not be tolerated as an adequate justification for environmental destruction & animal suffering. Against this backdrop, Regenerative businesses go one step further than respecting the rights of their employees. Because they view their structures as human organisms, they embrace their team members’ “wholeness”, inviting employees to bring their whole selves to work. This new generation of business shuns the top-down decision-making characterized by boardrooms the world over. They prefer to hive off their decision-making powers to the parts of the chain it has the most relevant impact. The job of leaders must then be to reconcile the purpose and goals of the organization with the wellbeing, creativity, and innovation of their teams. To that end, at Positive, the community for regenerative businesses, we have embedded this value in our Compass methodology with a ‘People’ focus on “elevating human potential.” What is more, we are betting that on the notion of empowered participation as a key driver of 21st-century change.