Worker Participation: Current Research and Future Trends: Volume 16


Table of contents

(18 chapters)

The first cluster of papers in this volume studies the effect of worker participation on individuals, group processes, and organizations. This topic mirrors the predominant emphasis in the literature wherein worker participation, broadly defined, has been regressed against nearly every conceivable outcome in diverse work settings. Quite reasonably, a driving question for social scientists is what happens when worker participation is introduced. What are the consequences of top-down participation schemes and are they meaningful? Do they change the distribution of rewards and opportunities, or reconfigure dynamics between workers? The study of outcomes is significant because it touches on whether worker participation programs genuinely change the nature of work, improve workers’ jobs, strengthen workers’ hand or merely perpetuate traditional power structures.

Despite two decades of discussion and debate, key issues regarding the transformation of work have remained highly uncertain, largely because of the limitations in the theoretical frameworks with which team systems have been approached. In this paper, I draw loosely on my own fieldwork to articulate a series of propositions regarding features of the new managerial regimes that have remained only poorly explored. These center on the structural tensions and contradictions that team systems elicit, the contested and negotiated nature of the new regimes, and the complex interplay between the new work-systems and the identities that workers import from the old-managerial regimes. The paper suggests that the overarching concern with rates of diffusion and the performance effects of team systems should give way to more culturally nuanced approaches that can bring to light the divergent and often inherently contradictory forms the new regimes assume in an era marked by increasing demands for labor market flexibility.

This case study of a union organizing drive at a Whole Foods Market, the world's largest natural and organic foods supermarket chain, considers the impact of the company's employee participation scheme and the accompanying organizational narrative on the outcome of the unionization effort. By relying on the language and symbolism of the existing organizational narrative, union organizers were able to give meaning to their movement, but not without limiting the movement's potential for significant change and success. Ultimately, their efforts served to reinforce the organizational narrative and the existing employee participation scheme, not transform it. Based on this case study, I argue that organizational narratives are an important location of organizational control.

In the last 20 years wage inequality in the United States has grown significantly. At the same time, the increased popularity of employee involvement or the so-called high-performance work practices seems to offer opportunities for more skilled, autonomous, and participatory work. For many, this is a positive alternative to low-wage jobs, though others suggest that such jobs may raise skill requirements sufficiently to leave many workers behind and thereby contribute to growing inequality. Yet others are more critical and view participatory work systems as merely a method of work intensification. This paper examines the impact of participative work systems on workers’ wages and generally finds modest evidence of significant effects.

Organizational literatures stress the empowering effects of worker participation programs. The case of a Mexican garment factory is used to examine the contradictory location of women in self-managed teams. While self-managed teams require independent and assertive workers, women workers are hired specifically for their docility. I argue that managers provide the tools and mechanisms for workers to be autonomous decision-makers, while at the same time they gender teams in ways that assure continued female disadvantage. Placed in this contradictory location, women workers both reproduce and resist gender subordination by carving out spaces of independent action, using the language of traditional womanhood.

Most research on worker participation treats it as an establishment-level phenomenon even though it is seldom used on an establishment-wide basis. This paper, however, examines how three forms of incentive compensation are used at the job level, and it assesses the potential ramifications for inequality. I find that the use of incentive compensation reflects the gender composition, unionization, and functional role of jobs. Jobs with many full-time women, for instance, are less likely to use group incentives and profit sharing because they are less likely to play central or managerial roles in establishments. This suggests that incentive compensation may increase inequality.

Post-fordist production systems emphasize the need to tap workers’ knowledge to enhance productivity and quality. Often overlooked, however, is the potential conflict in expecting workers to contribute to processes that may make their jobs harder. This article compares employee participation schemes at two General Motors assembly plants to illustrate the potency of this dilemma and the range of ways managers focus or limit employee participation to achieve the company's goals. In Silao, Mexico, General Motors carefully constructed a labor relations environment that cultivated broad employee participation. In Janesville, Wisconsin, local managers placed constraints on employee participation to ensure continuous production.

This essay treats both democracy and the market. The essay assesses the condition of modern workplace democracy and reconsiders the potential for genuine and thoroughgoing democratic practices within corporations that find themselves “globalizing” and responding to market forces. To ground my analysis, I draw upon the case of the Mondragón cooperatives in the Basque Country, Spain, a system of worker-owned-and-managed cooperatives that began to engage the European and global markets in the years immediately preceding European Union unification in 1992. I wish to update and widen the scholarly discussions of Mondragón while also using the case to identify some of the most important contours of the intersection of democracy and the market today.

Previous studies of worker-owned firms claimed that participatory democracy only thrives in small, homogeneous groups. This article focuses on a successful 30-year-old worker-owned company with more than 200 employees to explain how broad and deep democratic control, a large workforce, and member diversity are brought together. Drawing attention to its combination of training, infrastructure, compensation for management functions, and workplace culture, I argue that an equitable distribution of power and resources does not require hierarchical management, friendship relations, size limits, or member homogeneity. The article highlights the need for greater scholarly attention to worker ownership possibilities for the current multiracial and multicultural working population.

A division of labor that segregates household labor from capitalist employment and that de-values women's work is ubiquitous in our society. This article examines Twin Oaks, a long-standing intentional community that is intensely focused on overcoming the gender-based inequalities they see in U.S. society. Specifically, they have tried to create a comprehensive alternative to capitalist work relations by developing a work system that values equally all forms of labor – from childcare to income-producing types of labor to pregnancy itself. We describe in this article the specific system they have developed for translating all forms of work into ‘labor credits’ on a one hour equals one credit basis and for encouraging men and women to perform work that in the surrounding society is often assigned to the opposite gender. We consider how they have accomplished this in some detail, and in our conclusion, we draw out some of the tensions or downsides this can create as well.

This study examines the diffusion of 34 innovations among Israel's 240 nonreligious kibbutzim from 1990 through 2001. The changes involve transfers of the authority of the general assembly to independent boards of directors and specialized committees or experts, privatization of consumption, and increasing inequality in compensation. We track year-to-year transitions among six relationships toward each innovation: not considering, rejected, discussing, decided to adopt, implementing, and using. Single-year transitions from “not considering” to “using” are relatively rare. Most innovations go through periods of discussion or implementation before being adopted. Innovations face substantial risks of being rejected at every stage. At each stage, acceptance of innovations by other organizations increases the likelihood of acceptance, implementation, and retention. The effects of organizational size and age on innovations are not what classic theories of the “degeneration” of democratic workplaces predict. Recent changes in the kibbutzim appear instead to be an institutionalized response to market shocks.

Existing research on businesses that are both owned and managed by their workers suggests that these firms have one of two kinds of effects for their participants. They either learn to be better citizens of democratic society through daily democratic practice, or they become better capitalists through the daily practice of business ownership. Drawing on data collected through in-depth interviews and participant observation, I argue that cooperative participants learn both things. Furthermore, participants in cooperatives develop a spirit of Cooperative Entrepreneurialism that allows them to engage in free enterprise, while also adhering to the cooperative values of equality and democracy.

Temporary, part-time, and contract workers face a myriad of challenges as they seek to navigate the complex labor market landscape. Working Partnerships Staffing Service (WPSS), a project initiated by one of the most prominent labor councils in the U.S., sought to create a new type of labor market institution – one that could empower contingent workers by innovatively linking job placement with training, benefits, and membership-based services. However, like other social movement organizations that endeavor to combine advocacy and income generation, structural pressures led WPSS to conform in important ways to the dominant private-sector staffing-industry model. I argue that WPSS's response to these pressures ultimately constrained their ability to successfully innovate. Analyzing the challenges facing new worker-centered institutions, this case study presents important insights on “next generation” union initiatives aimed at better positioning workers in the flexible economy.

This paper examines the experiences of welfare clients on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Indian immigrant information technology (IT) workers on the H-1B visa to analyze how public–private collaborations in the spirit and practice of outsourcing, i.e. systematic fragmentation and decentralization of both corporate and state activities, function as mechanisms for disciplining labor. Through an analysis of these groups’ parallel experiences with exploitative work and employers in the U.S., this paper identifies how outsourcing is not merely a business model for cross-border trade, but also a key principle, component, and outcome of policy-based neo-liberal economic restructuring.

Hunting for jobs is a socially, historically, and institutionally constructed process. Workers must learn how to find jobs and build careers but the ways in which they learn and the tools they have for doing so vary by class, race, gender, and cultural capital. In this paper, we analyze two organizations that teach clients job market behaviors that purportedly enable them to search for work. We argue that job search organizations (JSOs) can reinforce occupational and career inequalities. Focusing on the job market information and skills given to different occupational groups, messages about opportunity and mobility, and resources made available to clients, we show how JSOs prepare people to look for jobs along class-specific lines. These organizations discipline clients’ aspirations and shape their understandings of their occupational competencies and weaknesses. The study highlights the importance of this understudied type of labor market intermediary.

Payal Banerjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Syracuse University and is completing a dissertation on Indian immigrant IT workers in the U.S., which foregrounds the intersecting contexts of gender and race/ethnicity, U.S. immigration and visa policies, global economic restructuring, and transnational mobility of labor.

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Book series
Research in the Sociology of Work
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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