• What is the history of workers’ self direction?
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Contents

Roots of self-determination
Revolutions, American & Industrial
Karl Marx & The Rise of Labor
The Great Depression & Social Solutions
Post-War & The Emergence of a New Approach
Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises, in form if not in name, have a history extending back to some of the world’s earliest societies. From modern mankind’s hunting parties, the origins of work can be traced to its most basic purpose: the enjoyment of the “fruits of one’s labor.” Before work became synonymous with employment, humankind survived in communities through the expenditure of time and energy so that the community could reap what they sowed. No less important than the end product, was the process of work and the psychosocial benefits derived by community members from participation in that process. While it may have been that way in the beginning, the history of work has shown that time does not always equal progress. Economies have integrated and advanced technologically, but over time a greater distance has opened between the worker’s produced surpluses (the excess of their output over what they themselves consume) and the workers who produced them.

Roots of self-determination

More people are employed today than at any other time in the world’s history. Democracy at Work seeks to restore the appropriation and distribution of surpluses back to the very people who produced them and to make the work itself a genuinely democratic process to that end. Human history provides a long, rich history of communes, cooperatives, labor movements, and progressive thinkers advocating them. These efforts and experiments aimed to change production, to make work better serve people’s needs and interests than existing conditions did.

 

Even in the dark days of feudalism, important examples of collective labor and collective appropriation and distribution of realized surpluses existed in China’s well-field system and in Russia’s mir communities. Preceding the Modern Era, pockets of communal living flourished throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Southern France saw the Albigneses in the 11th century. In the 14th, the Moravian brethren practiced communally in what is now the Czech Republic while Mennonites , Hutterites , and Dunkards were among the groups in modern-day Germany one century later. Ostracized by the church and other ruling interests, the descendants and practices of many of these groups emigrated to the New World.

Before it became the world’s most prominent capitalist society, North America’s native populations often shared their work processes and outputs in the manner of a WSDE with examples not limited to the Lenape , Dakota , and the Iroquois Confederacy . As waves of immigrants arrived on American shores, the continent became a fertile laboratory for experiments in various forms of communal ownership of productive assets, collective work, and/or collective distribution of surpluses. Plymouth operated as a commune and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was so named because much of the land was communally held. Before the first shots were fired in the American Revolutionary War in 1776, collective-oriented communities were spreading across the continent. The Puritans’ common-land system survived for several decades until falling prey to land speculators. In the Spanish-controlled American Southwest, the ejido system of collective land ownership and shared surpluses was implemented among immigrant families just as it was in the old country. Throughout the colonies, escaped slaves and Native Americans formed communal societies known as Maroons , often serving as bases for guerrilla attacks on settlements. Meanwhile, across the pond, the world’s first cooperative was established in 1760 by dockworkers and shipwrights in Woolrich, England. Cooperatives arose in many towns throughout England, though many failed, sometimes owing to sabotage from capitalist competitors.

Revolutions, American & Industrial

Much of the working class discontent that fueled the American Revolution continued into the early days of the United States. Tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, and working men of various occupations combined to achieve feats such as the ten-hour day, better working conditions, and communal warehouses through strikes. Figures such as Langdon Byllesby , Thomas Jefferson , William Leggett , and Thomas Paine were among those advocating for a more equal distribution of wealth or democratic participation in labor, if not both. Some of their ideas approximated the concept of WSDEs, although not so named. While not put into effect generally, such ideas served as inspirations for important oppositional movements in the decades that followed.

 

Both the world and the nature of work changed drastically in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution brought about the obsolescence to many small-scale trades as production shifted to factories. The concomitant growth in population and concentration of wealth in fewer hands drastically decreased the opportunities for a small farmer, especially in England and Wales. Many of the peasants so recently stripped of their land became the wage-earners soon filling the factory floors. With a surplus of available labor and an explosion in profit for industrialists, the gap between the rich and the poor widened starkly. The possibility of self-sufficient economic activity evaporated as more and more were drawn into the global capitalist economy.

 

From these harrowing conditions arose some of the great thinkers and movements whose influence on economic justice remains strong today. Claude Henri de Rouvroy was one of the first and most prominent to recognize the societal changes brought about by industrialization and proposed the inevitability of workplace equality. While Robert Owen was establishing a communal society at New Lanark , Scotland, French social theorist Charles Fourrier proposed the idea for a new social order based on phalanxes , utopian societies in which workers were compensated commensurate with their contribution. Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane helped popularize the concept and brought the communal societies to the States, most notably at Brook Farm , outside of Boston. Cooperative stores grew throughout the period, inspiring the trade’s first newspaper, The Cooperator , and, eventually, the first sustainable cooperative in the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society . Many contemporary cooperatives abide by the principles established during this period.

 

Eventually these ideas of economic justice grew and deepened to challenge the status quo on a far greater scale. Beginning in France , similarly motivated uprisings under varying conditions culminated in the Revolutions of 1848 , including Austria, Denmark, several German states, Poland, and Switzerland. These revolutions often focused workers’ resentments, grievances, and angers on their capitalist employers as the main enemy, an historical first. While revolutionary outcomes varied substantially, one widespread result was large-scale emigration to the United States. The consequently relocated class consciousness likely contributed to the abolitionist movement and the American Civil War one decade later.

Karl Marx & The Rise of Labor

Around this time, the contributions of Karl Marx , from his 1848 The Communist Manifesto through his publication of the first volume of Capital , began to work their major influence on theoretical critiques of capitalism and political efforts to go beyond it. They have remained influential to this day, having accumulated the world’s richest repository of criticisms of capitalism and efforts to supersede it. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his focus on exploitation . He showed how slave, feudal, and capitalist economies were exploitative. Each in its distinctive way positioned the mass of workers to produce a surplus (an excess of output beyond what they received back for their consumption) that other people received and disposed of. Exploited workers confronted exploiting other people: slaves vs. masters, serfs vs. feudal lords, and proletarians vs. capitalist employers. Marx advocated the end of exploitation- to abolish it struck him as parallel to abolishing slavery. For him as for his followers across the globe in the 125 years since his death (1883), the goal was communism. They defined this economic system as follows: workers who produced surpluses would likewise collectively receive and dispose of them. They would thus have abolished exploitation. Among steps toward communism, many Marxists have advocated that workers become collective/cooperative owners of the means of production ; that they plan the distribution of resources and products rather than rely on markets, and so on.

 

The decades following the Civil War were marked by a continued ebb and flow of growth and decline; industry and agriculture; progress and regression. Within the capitalist system, as farmers were increasingly forced to become wage-earners, they struggled for improved wages and working conditions. They formed trade unions (UK) and labor unions . In the U.S., the National Labor Union was formed in 1866 to fight for an eight-hour day, land for settlers, and against the contract and convict labor system. They also endorsed the still growing cooperatives movement . The Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor both followed as powerful labor unions, exerting influence in many burgeoning industries such as the railroads threading across the country. With predominately French and British counterparts, the International Workers’ Association was formed, eventually encompassing millions of members in nearly every industrialized nation. Reflecting the growing power of labor organizations and their growing critical focus on the capitalist economic system, the IWA was outlawed throughout Europe for its participation in the first workers’ collective/cooperative seizure of state power in Europe, the Paris Commune in 1871.

 

Organized labor was soon operating at the national level through labor and socialist parties, some of which began embracing Marxist platforms. Britain’s Labour Party , Australia’s Labor Party , Germany’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party , several socialist parties in France, and, to an extent, the Socialist Party of America all achieved substantial measures of success at the ballot box after the turn of the century. Many sent sizable delegations of elected socialists to local, regional, and national legislatures. Even when not elected, the Socialists’ pro-worker policies were often adopted into platforms of mainstream parties. Membership and electoral success continued for many Socialist parties until the outbreak of the First World War.

 

In some countries, when the working class was unable to advance its cause in the voting booth and/or suffered heavy repression from employers and governments, it opted instead for armed struggle. Centuries of frustration with serfdom and the ruling tsars culminated in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky , the Bolsheviks organized and mobilized workers to wrest control of the state apparatus from the Russian regime that was an amalgamation of the dying feudal remnants and the rising new capitalist class. Similar revolutions and conflagrations would play out in the ensuing century in Cuba, China, Spain, and several dozen countries throughout the world. While there has been much debate about the effectuality of these conflicts, a common, indisputable denominator has been a level of intolerable inequality (economic, political, and capital) between classes.

The Great Depression & Social Solutions

Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression brought the international capitalist economy to its knees. With the stock market crash and the subsequent nosedive of industrial activity, the spiraling effects of the crisis were felt throughout the world. Without traditional employers to turn to and widespread unemployment, many people began taking matters into their own hands. In the United States, millions of workers joined industrial unions organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the greatest unionization drive in U.S. history. In addition, hundreds of thousands joined Self-Help groups based upon barter and mutual aid. In the mainstream economy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the palliative policies comprising the New Deal to help those suffering through the Depression and to return millions back to work. What is less well-known is that these policies were achieved because of the coordinated pressures of the CIO and the fast-growing Socialist and Communist parties of the time. Through various New Deal programs, cooperatives formed and flourished in electricity, canneries, dairies, and, above all, in agriculture among other trades. By 1939, more than half of U.S. farmers belonged to a cooperative.

 

The outbreak of World War II caused a major disruption to the growth in cooperatives. Traditional capitalist industry gained power while many former members of cooperative movements were fighting overseas. Despite the economic and industrial growth of the post-war boom, a larger discontent with the system began to surface in the late 1960s. Many baby-boomers eschewed the traditional life to join urban and rural collectives, some of which formed an interconnected network never before seen. In a number of countries including France, Mexico, and the United States, protests begun largely by students soon expanded to include everyday workers and incorporated their demands. In many industrialized nations, the emergence of Employee Stock Ownership Plans arose as a response to worker demands. Some smaller operations adopted cooperative purchasing and selling to achieve otherwise elusive economies of scale. While not as cooperatively integrated as WSDEs, the proliferation of various types of cooperatives shows an enduring appeal despite or perhaps because of the capitalist system.

Post-War & The Emergence of a New Approach

Internationally, the post-war years brought the first truly robust emergence of WSDEs, at least in their modern form. Under the leadership of Tito, Yugoslavia experienced sustained growth when central planning was abandoned and workers were given more authority inside enterprises. In France, the LIP factory was seized by workers in the late 1960s and then following the 2001 economic crisis in Argentina, more than 200 businesses were directly run by workers in what came to be known as autogestion. Inspired by this movement, in 2011 a new bankruptcy law was signed in Argentina that facilitated take overs by workers.

 

There has been no greater example of Worker Self-Directed Enterprise than in the Basque region of Spain. In a small town still reeling from the Spanish Civil War, Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta introduced collective cooperative enterprises. These have grown, multiplied, and integrated themselves (now 85,000 members strong) into the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation.

 

Cooperative movements, big and small, have contributed to a modern society in which collectivity is involved in everyday life. From the industrial giant Mondragon to the microfinance organization Grameen Bank, to the local credit union or grocery cooperative, hundreds of millions of people choose to collaborate collectively and cooperatively with one another. From national legislation to grassroots organizing, the local has become global to the extent that the United Nations declared 2012 to be the Year of the Cooperative. If history serves as any guide to the present Economic Crisis, global capital will do what it can to assuage the minimum of working class concerns while preserving the larger capitalist structure. As Mondragon and Argentine factories and Chicago’s New Era Windows have shown, capitalism’s recurring crises provoke workers to remember, revive, and rebuild alternative, non-capitalist enterprises. Now more than ever, the opportunity exists for a major step forward for Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises as a creative, positive alternative to capitalism’s failures and those of governments to prevent or overcome capitalism’s latest deep crisis. Democracy at Work aims to help achieve that forward step.