The COVID pandemic has painfully reminded us of the lack of genuine power that most workers have in their working lives. As soon as COVID began to spread, it was immediately obvious that workplaces were very vulnerable to contagion – yet employers and government regulators were very slow to address the threat with adequate and meaningful protective measures. Compelled by economic necessity, and lacking organized voice and bargaining power, workers literally risk their lives to continue performing their duties – often for poverty-level wages, in dangerous conditions. If workers had real say over how their workplaces operate, they could demand and win obvious and important changes to make their jobs safer, fairer, and better.
The Centre for Future Work’s recent PowerShare report on improving work after COVID emphasized this connection between COVID safety and workplace democracy:
“A key ingredient in building a better future for work after the COVID-19 pandemic must be a stronger role for mechanisms of voice, representation, and bargaining power for workers in all industries and all statuses. Only by empowering Canadian workers to recognize the risks (both epidemiological and economic) of working in an infectious world, and then respond to those risks in informed, ambitious, and collective ways, can we ensure those risks will be taken seriously and meaningfully addressed.” (p. 46)
The Centre’s report listed strengthening worker representation and bargaining power as one of ten vital changes needed to rebuild work after the pandemic. Indeed, the report suggested this change is a precondition to making progress on the other nine key changes identified on the list.
In a similar vein, a network of academics and activists in Europe has initiated an exciting new project to highlight the importance of democratizing work and workplaces, if we are to recover from the pandemic safely and sustainably. They have issued a global #DemocratizingWork Manifesto, which has since been signed by thousands of unionists, advocates, and researchers around the world. The Manifesto challenges conventional notions of ‘democracy’ – typically understood to mean voting for a government every few years, with little applicability in the economic realm of life. When workers have democratic power in their work lives, they can demand and win better jobs and a better society.
To discuss the potential of this initiative to inspire further activism and debate around democracy and work, the Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work at l’Université de Montréal (also known as CRIMT) recently hosted a webinar with authors of the Manifesto (including Isabelle Ferreras and Julie Battilana) and several Canadian and U.S. labour experts. Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford participated in the discussion; he emphasized the complementarity between this Manifesto and other initiatives to achieve a better balance of power in Canadian workplaces.
CRIMT has posted a video recording of the webinar, available below.
Thank you to the team at CRIMT for facilitating this conversation, and we look forward to more engagement with the Democratizing Work initiative.