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Understanding What Co-Determination Is

The Fight for $15 was once radical but now is the norm. Politicians need to start paying attention to this ideology

Daniel Hinton's picture
Aug 20, 2018

Reforms can be radical one day, then common sense the next. The most popular reforms of the past century, such as collective bargaining rights and Social Security, started that way. How many times have we heard Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) say, “This is not a radical idea” to applause?

If policies are both popular and sensible to most people, though they may be “too radical” for others, then it would stand to reason that more candidates and elected officials should champion them. That would be the small-d democratic thing to do. We’ll see if it’s the big-D Democratic thing to do come November.

Data for Progress, a think tank, made this case in a recent report announcing their New Progressive Agenda Project. “An increasing amount of polling shows that progressive policies are popular and could help reshape American politics,” the report said.

Data for Progress teamed up with Civis Analytics, a data science firm, to poll progressive-left policies. The results were broken down by congressional district and state. They show incredibly widespread support for five policies: federal funding for public housing, family leave, statehood for D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and employee governance (a.k.a. worker co-determination).

The latter policy, co-determination, is arguably the most “radical” among them, yet the numbers show it is also the most popular. In Data for Progress’s summation, every demographic they polled, including Trump voters, supported this policy more than they opposed it.

Now, in order to gauge support for co-determination, respondents had to know what it is, and most importantly, before they heard the “radical” or “progressive” label. So, the hypothetical question defined worker co-determination as “employees at large companies electing representatives to their firm’s board of directors in order to advocate for their interests and point of view to management.”

Simply put, workers could directly influence company-wide decisions. If you haven’t noticed, this would be quite antithetical to how American corporations and large firms do business nowadays.

Yet this is not a radical idea. In fact, it’s already been proposed in the U.S. Senate, hardly a bastion of radicalism. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who is in a re-election year, proposed the Reward Work Act (S.2605), which was co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).

Worker co-determination already exists in other countries, including the majority of the European Union, with Germany’s system of “Mitbestimmung” being the most unique and well-known. German workers, for instance, have work councils on the shop-floor level and representatives on the board of directors. Not surprisingly, this set-up has improved productivity, longevity, and labor-management relations.

On this side of the pond, American workers are not benefitting from recent GDP growth and rising stock prices. Wages are stagnant, as prices and inflation continue their upward trends. Instead of tax cuts, workplace reforms like co-determination could be the solution to the decade-long post-recession rut.

As the data show, these reforms could also break through the political status quo of anti-labor courts and “right to work” legislation by galvanizing voters across all lines -- party, geography, race/ethnicity, etc. That’s all that should matter to unions and their political allies at the moment since their existence depends on it. If that makes them “radical,” then so be it.

If policies are both popular and sensible to most people, though they may be “too radical” for others, then it would stand to reason that more candidates and elected officials should champion them. That would be the small-d democratic thing to do. We’ll see if it’s the big-D Democratic thing to do come November.

Data for Progress, a think tank, made this case in a recent report announcing their New Progressive Agenda Project. “An increasing amount of polling shows that progressive policies are popular and could help reshape American politics,” the report said.

Data for Progress teamed up with Civis Analytics, a data science firm, to poll progressive-left policies. The results were broken down by congressional district and state. They show incredibly widespread support for five policies: federal funding for public housing, family leave, statehood for D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and employee governance (a.k.a. worker co-determination).

The latter policy, co-determination, is arguably the most “radical” among them, yet the numbers show it is also the most popular. In Data for Progress’s summation, every demographic they polled, including Trump voters, supported this policy more than they opposed it.

Now, in order to gauge support for co-determination, respondents had to know what it is, and most importantly, before they heard the “radical” or “progressive” label. So, the hypothetical question defined worker co-determination as “employees at large companies electing representatives to their firm’s board of directors in order to advocate for their interests and point of view to management.”

Simply put, workers could directly influence company-wide decisions. If you haven’t noticed, this would be quite antithetical to how American corporations and large firms do business nowadays.

Yet this is not a radical idea. In fact, it’s already been proposed in the U.S. Senate, hardly a bastion of radicalism. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who is in a re-election year, proposed the Reward Work Act (S.2605), which was co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).

Worker co-determination already exists in other countries, including the majority of the European Union, with Germany’s system of “Mitbestimmung” being the most unique and well-known. German workers, for instance, have work councils on the shop-floor level and representatives on the board of directors. Not surprisingly, this set-up has improved productivity, longevity, and labor-management relations.

On this side of the pond, American workers are not benefitting from recent GDP growth and rising stock prices. Wages are stagnant, as prices and inflation continue their upward trends. Instead of tax cuts, workplace reforms like co-determination could be the solution to the decade-long post-recession rut.

As the data shows, these reforms could also break through the political status quo of anti-labor courts and “right to work” legislation by galvanizing voters across all lines -- party, geography, race/ethnicity, etc. That’s all that should matter to unions and their political allies at the moment since their existence depends on it. If that makes them “radical,” then so be it.

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