Social Inequality and Crises of Democracy: The Role of Workplace Participation

Monday, 16 July 2018: 17:45
Oral Presentation
Helen DELANEY, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
In a climate of increasing economic and social inequalities, this paper considers the potential for more participatory and democratic ways of working to address such inequalities. The academic debates about social inequality provide a thorough understanding of the macro-economic causes of, and solutions to, inequalities. However, these discussions insufficiently consider the changes in work, employment relations and organizational practices in recent decades. The erosion and dismantlement of former institutions that protected workers and helped to foster democratic sensibilities has brought a considerable social toll. In order to more fully understand social inequalities, we must examine the social relations of production within workplaces, especially with regard to worker voice and influence.

Contemporary academic debates about the function and value of employee participation and involvement rarely connect with concerns about political and social justice. In this paper, we argue that contemporary expressions of organizational democracy are vital resources for redressing workplace and economic inequalities.

We provide evidence from two longitudinal qualitative case studies of companies based in New Zealand, both of which are engaged in a strategic partnership with trade unions to improve employment relations, organizational culture and firm performance. Both partnerships entailed extensive changes to the structure and processes of ER, and required significant training in collaborative decision-making and conflict negotiation. In both organizational sites, employees are more actively involved in identifying, solving and implementing solutions to substantial problems relating to the quality of work life and economic performance.

We identify the main effects and outcomes of the strategic partnerships for management, unions, and employees. Our interest is to capture the contested and delicate nature of the ongoing efforts to accomplish a more progressive form of workplace relations. Ultimately, we offer evidence of socio-cultural innovations that give rise to economic and social benefits both within and beyond the workplace.