A Debate on Philosopher Kings and Philosopher Presidents

Here is a Facebook debate on the merits and de-merits of a philosopher president, which quickly devolved into a discourse on worker rights.

Here is the original article by Robert Skidelsky, who argued that there should be a philosopher president. http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ireland-president-higgins-leadership-by-robert-skidelsky-2014-11

Kareen Movsesyan: Interesting but I’m kind of hesitant to agree that intellectualism necessarily equates to effective and/or enlightened rule. Just to borrow two random examples, Woodrow Wilson and Marcus Aurelius may have been intellectual pioneers but were not necessarily the most ideal of statesman (Aurelius granting Commodus the right of succession comes to mind).

Also, let’s say that the pursuit of intellectualism is both the accruement of knowledge as well as our developing ability to effectively rationalize and argue positions. While I agree that these are good qualities, and admittedly in fields like economics, intellectuals should be given more legitimacy, for the sake of argument, who is to say that being an intellectual necessarily results in good action on average? Mind you I am taking quite an unusual position here but it’s one I think merits attention all the same. If I can philosophically and rationally justify some bizarre ethno-racist view instead of simply acting in a ethno-racist way out of pure emotion and or/convention, does that make me a better ruler or person? It’s kind of like saying that being better read can actually reinforce and justify existing perspectives and values that we wouldn’t necessarily call kosher. Philosophy and Intellectualism (I use them interchangeably here) is not the go-to card for being a good person – in fact it can change oneself into becoming more cynical, disconnected, hostile, idealistic etc. because of its broad nature. I think the question of whether intellectualism fosters good moral character would be a far more interesting and elucidating debate to have. Regardless, I do agree being well read, open-minded, and all are key components of effective governance.

Also, even if being philosophical does make you more competent, etc., an intellectual who descends down his misty ivory tower is likely to have a definitive ideal or perspective of what his region, state, what have you, should be. As a philosophical statesman I think you’re more likely to see Plato’s case of the “benevolent dictator” where the ruler, with great conviction in pursuing “his ideal vision” would subvert the liberties and autonomy of the people in the name of benevolence. So one, an intellectual is likely in his rationality and idealism to be disconnected with the common folk and to the empirical realities of his time and two, they would probably be more prone to paternalistic policies that may be seen as an affront to personal liberty. Plus, I don’t believe history has shown an effective structural way of funneling the good intentions and idealism of a philosophical monarch in a way that ends up benefiting the whole instead of a particular few or elite. Regardless of one’s knowledge and character, their success as a leader plays out more or less like a lottery without these types of structural conditionings. This is and remains a particularly worrisome issue with regards to succession – today being more an issue with legislators, executives, and justices rather than monarchs.

Still, if we are to take the article as simply arguing that being well read, experienced, and open-minded are ideal qualities to rule, I do not disagree but to state that intellectuals are most certainly qualified on these fronts I believe is a shaky assumption. The whole “ivory tower” symbolism in itself represents a disconnection with the common man and their ills. Moreover, save for intellectuals pursuing economics, it is very difficult to apply this argument to individuals of other fields. To truly become an effective ruler, in my opinion, requires extensive experience in all walks of life (poor, rich, white collar, blue collar, etc.) as well as experience to diverse cultures and people. Being well read, articulate, having the capacity to argue rationally and effectively, being charismatic, initiative-taking, open-minded, having moral integrity, as well as being passionate about your work are also necessary qualities. I don’t think intellectualism necessarily fosters the majority of these characteristics given its associated style of living. The majority of the greatest rulers had experiences across various spectrums, not just intellectualism; you’d be hard pressed to find such ideal candidates in the field of academia especially when it has become so competitive, independent and popularly disenchanted in the modern era.

L Larry Liu: Kareen, great response.

It is of course the case that installing an intellectual in power is no panacea, because they can easily become cruel and deranged dictators. I think the author had a very Confucian and Platonic idea in mind, which says that the rulers have to have an upright quality with them before they consider taking the throne. Not everyone will have that disposition of course. I would consider myself fairly intellectual but lack any hunger for power and I presume many intellectuals think the same way.

For us on the left, we still dream about a fair and equal world and our approach is essentially split in two: the authoritarian left believes in the philosopher king approach (including Leninists and Trotskyists). The libertarian left (very different from American libertarians!!) Believes in horizontal hierarchies and all individuals in the community participating in the decision-making process. The former is more realistic but has the kinds of potential risks that you mentioned. The latter is democratic but do we know for sure that democracies are possible on such a large scale? Can we expect an illiterate textile worker in Bangladesh to read financial statements and make decisions relevant for all people?

I prefer the mixed approach: have the populace be active on the streets, offices and factories and have the capable leaders make the big decisions. The leaders may be corrupt but they would have less incentive if they knew people were on the streets in large numbers if they were. A broadly educated public is of course requisite.

Kareen Movsesyan: Isn’t your mixed-solution a simple representation of America today in principle if not in execution? Democratic Representation demands competent, virtuous representatives but also an active voting electorate that provides the necessary checks on their actions. The fundamental issues to this model as it applies today, which I’m sure you can agree with, are political inefficacy, poverty, and the lack of education among the populace.

Two caveats here are that without an able-bodied electorate of modest educational attainment, decentralizing authority to the masses (i.e. letting the masses be “active on the streets, offices and factories”) is more likely to generate riot-politics and bloodthirsty infighting and demands. Secondly, this activity by the masses would realistically have a decreasing marginal effect on various sectors. Some industries are simply too big, specialized or complex to allow flat organizational structures – the only realistic approach to applying horizontal hierarchies and greater control over the means of production. Without such a structural rearrangement across all or even many industries, the type of activism as you touched on with the libertarian left is impossible on an egalitarian scale. Likewise, your mixed position would also require this type of restructuring, assuming that education remains constant, in order to allow workers to engage more closely with their government and work. I am greatly doubtful that such reorganizations will necessarily make people more educated, respectful, and/or altruistic in the sense that their decisions, for example take into account pareto efficient outcomes.

However, if you agree on that premise, that we should restructure corporate organizations in such a way, then you’d be conceding that we must discard optimal economic production in favor of increasing worker autonomy – for which the cliché argument of capitalism and inequality returns in full, glorious force. The worry thus becomes the magnitude of how much economic growth and productivity we lose through the maintenance of such a system. Perhaps Hume is right to say that in a more egalitarian society we’d be living in mutual poverty.

Another major point I want to make is that even with an educated public, we should view the activeness of people within offices and factories as ancillary outcomes of their political or “street” activity. The fact that most employments within a business are specialized in nature makes the prospect of all workers having an active role in an industry’s affairs a worrisome one. Education can only apply so much before specialization results in the natural division of labor, talent, and authority. Allowing a factory handler to influence or at least impede on the progress of a machinist or company accountant seems not only economically inefficient but also dangerous for fruitful working relationships among workers. If you don’t agree with that, then allow me to entertain the notion that all workers can deliberate and decide amongst each other the operations of a firm. In such a scenario the division of labor would occur in the same way as it would in the current condition of corporate hierarchies if the workers are clearly rational.

Suppose that you worked in a factory where the workers had control over production and labor allocation. In this case you are an experienced packer and your fellow workers know this so now let’s address the possible claim that activity in the factor/office equates to moral good and/or liberty. The liberty here to decide amongst other workers to work as a packer is no greater than the liberty you have as a student at Penn to voluntarily apply to be a packer in a particular firm but when my liberty to earn a good living is thwarted by other workers’ free liberty to deliberate and run a company inefficiently, the moral argument becomes more opaque. I simply don’t believe that human nature, as it’s understood in terms of the corollaries of human habit, is compatible with this sort of egalitarian worker perspective. Therefore, as an educated public, the people should not restructure companies in such a way but should rather collectively bargain or appeal to the government for recompense.

Thus, the reason I say that activities in the “office and factories” are ancillary to activity in the street is that a more educated public would be better able to achieve its wants and desires through other means than having having greater worker control over the means of production at work. The reasons for this, aside from the economic problems associated with granting such control, is that a more educated public results in a larger mobilization of support and greater receptiveness from both corporate heads and politicians to our concerns. This would consequently result in better policies and corporate adjustments that benefit a larger number of people. In that case I think activity in the street, office and factory as you describe are one in the same.

While I don’t know your ideals per say, and while we may disagree on the efficacy of the U.S. government I believe that the existing federalist system in its foundational roots is currently the best recourse we have in reconciling the question of liberty and economic growth. Whether the recent increase in the national government’s power since the 20th century is a testimony of something inherently wrong with the country does not concern me here; however, I do believe that poverty reduction, educational progress and more is possible within the bounds of our federal institutions. The best we can do to achieve your vision is to maximize those two components and let the people govern themselves except in the case of ‘intraoffice’ and ‘intrafactory’ labor as I brought up earlier.

L Larry Liu: What I really enjoyed when reading your comment was “democracy is okay except in the workplace”. This is the clearest manifestation of fairly conservative and at most social democratic thinking. The ballot box shall decide and not the factory or office. One can have different views on it for sure. I will be very mindful about human nature with you and make the concession: it will not be possible for all workers to interfere in the work process of another. I have read Max Weber closely enough not to not know it (one of his followers C Wright Mills made the same argument, so I recommend reading the sections titled “bureaucracy” and “social scientists” inhttp://www.faculty.rsu.edu/…/Theorists/Mills/SocMills.htm)

Sociologists call division of labor “bureaucratization”, but it is really the same thing. But we should redesign the work institutions sufficiently such that as much of a participation of workers is granted as is reasonably possible. How could that look like? The creation of works councils, where workers get to have a say about grievance procedures and electing union leaders to sit in corporate boards. Have weekly council panels just like there are weekly corporate board meetings. In those panels all workers are invited to come but no one of course can be forced to speak. They should be able to discuss how to improve work processes, where they could expand, how wages and benefits can be structured etc. None of the content of those decisions will be binding but the labor union boss will get a good insight into what his members want and take it up to the corporate board for consideration. There should also be national level wage bargaining to prevent a race to the bottom in living standards. In that case companies will have to find other ways to stay profitable other than cutting the wage bill. These ideas are not completely utopian and have some European precedents. It is ideological closed mindedness to deny this possibility.

The government will naturally continue to play a role in regulating private industry, taxing the population, and protecting workers.

But we agree that education and poverty reduction are important prerequisites for what we want to see accomplished. The difficulty is with the procedures, as always.

You might also be right in saying that the currently existing democratic institutions can’t get us very far. And if you are steeped in Marxist literature you would not be surprised at all. In essence democratic institutions are designed to be subverted by the rich. And I know some liberal scholars (I mean liberal in the European sense emphasizing rule of law, democracy, separation of power, human rights etc.) Will go crazy when I say this. But let us face it: in any democracy the people who tend to participate the most (also in monetary terms) will have the most say over what happens and these are not working and middle class people, rest assured. In the ideal case we want more democracy, but that only works if we have engaged and educated people.

Kareen Movsesyan: I’d be careful about making hasty generalizations about my statements. Impressions or not, it could be my fault for not making my points clear enough but allow me to demystify some misunderstandings. Also try not to mind any weird sentences, etc. I’m writing this quite late.

Firstly, the statement of “democracy is okay except in the workplace” is fallacious because it completely ignores the point of my ‘ancillary’ argument. By having a majority educated and engaged population which we are both treating as requisite to the fruition of a good society, we must acknowledge in the broader scheme of things that what you described as people being “active on the streets, offices and factories” is not only more likely in conditions of an educated and engaged public but also more likely to be impactful. An educated public means a greater share of people understand the various arenas for dissent; furthermore, they’d be more adept at using resources and existing strategies to optimize their progress towards reaching their respective goals. I believe that a good chunk of the undemocratic, dehumanizing conditions you imply as being evidence for the necessity of our having to revamp the institutional structure is a direct outcome of this educational deficiency. If as you say, the rich or certain selective actors are controlling the system to the detriment of the whole, wouldn’t the existence of a largely educated populace not only increase accountability but also assuredly ensure fairer conditions because of the probability that concerns and claims would be more frequently raised against inhumane or discriminatory conditions?

In that case the likelihood of needing “factory” or “office” engagement in the democratic sense is less important because working and democratic conditions are likely to already be sufficient enough to not require further changes (major or otherwise). Most importantly however is that by isolating democratic activity to the streets, office and factory (this isolation is implied by your democracy doesn’t apply to the workplace comment), you in effect create some kind of exclusivity among them that suggests that democratic progress in one sector is not democratic progress in another. Must it necessarily follow that workers that are violated/exploited by their employers are the only agents capable and/or knowledgeable enough to get their concerns heard and rightfully fixed? Regular, educated people are more than capable of working towards preventing such abuses through their engagement without even having to be affected workers themselves. Thus, we can say that democracy in society and politics is not independent from democracy in the workplace. Politics for instance is but a venue in order to achieve the type of workplace democracy you seek and since most substantive changes occur at the legislative level, it is this federal, legislative activity – this street activity – that gets the most impactful bills and laws passed, including those for the workplace. This argument about magnitude is the primary reason I made the ‘ancillary’ argument in the first place.

I’d also like to briefly touch on a more disconcerting point you made through your assumption that democratic activity is only in the office box and not in the office or factory. Democratic activity is not restricted to ballot initiatives. On the contrary, grassroots activism, union activity, collective bargaining, media appeals, litigation, federal/state lobbying, private or regulatory-born initiatives are just some of the many mediums in which workers’/citizens’ can be both heard and influential in democratic society – although many people today don’t realize the impact of these alternative approaches. To address your no democracy in the workplace claim more empirically, I would first say that wasteful bureaucracy is something we should all avoid. All companies should strive and be pressured – ideally through natural market forces – to minimize vertical hierarchies insofar as they do not at a minimum worsen productivity. Since the 1935 Wagner Act, workers have had the right to democratically protest and demand concessions from the employer as a result of such legislation. Now just because I say factory and office democratic activity fall within the some general sense of street activity (to keep reusing your own terminology), it does not mean that I argue that there is no democracy in the workplace or that there shouldn’t be. Unions (arguably), collective bargaining, etc., would be more powerful and influential with an educated and engaged public thereby increasing democracy in the workplace rather than not. Another interesting aside is that with a more educated and engaged public, employers will have to acknowledge that. Knowing that the average person is more likely to know the system, resources, and venues available to raise concerns against unjust working conditions, employers would be more hesitant to commit to policies that outright violate or suppress the workers.

Now here is what I think is the most important point and the one most relevant to you. You may argue that what I just described is not indicative of democracy in the workplace at all in that it does not represent intra- democratic functions between employees and employers independent of government and other outside agencies and actors. In that case workers councils, like Russian peasant communes (minus the lieges) would act as their own deliberative bodies within corporate firms. However, let’s reconsider all the effects I mentioned about what an educated and engaged people would bring: more careful, accountable, non-exploitative employers, more laws and structures that prevent depreciating worker conditions in firms and elsewhere, a stronger mobilized force whether for collective bargaining or other purposes, and lastly, greater government accountability that allows for greater flexibility in raising demands for changes in any sector or industry.

As you already know, I am a pragmatist and don’t fall under any ideological sphere. I am not opposed to the concept of workers councils at all but if we are talking about America, would it not be best to simply avoid workers councils in the ideal situation that the majority of people are educated and engaged? Aside from the economic pitfalls and inefficiencies that the councils would bring just to be effectively maintained, there are other issues as well. One, inefficiency may arise not only from maintenance costs but also from many people deciding on outcomes that aren’t efficient or particularly rational because of their various skills and experiences – this comes back to my previous argument about the natural division of labor and authority. Even your conception of voluntary council meetings seem slightly extraneous considering the fact that employer receptiveness to a more educated public would allow employees to better raise inquiries directly and independently with the leadership but also because unions fulfill this type of deliberating and informative role themselves (although they can become quite unrestrained and irrationally demanding – resulting in part to the anti-union sentiment today). Two, worker councils would act as an obstacle to joint decision-making via unions and collective bargaining. Only the Canadian model which incorporates statutorily required union representatives in occupational health and safety committees and plant shutdown committees may work yet the question then becomes whether unions, collective bargains, and workers councils are redundant in that many of their purposes intersect – creating a systemic inefficiency that could result in significant economic losses as well as incompetency in getting the type of democratic initiatives one intends to get done. Three, granted all the benefits I kept mentioning about an educated public, the likelihood of great marginal increases in reforms or actual democratic initiatives is very low. Again, an educated public would already influence the workplace in a way that makes conditions, both labor-wise and democratic wise in terms of being able to dissent, bargain, etc. more appealing and reinforced. So not only would it be less likely to witness abuses and violations of workers’ rights but it would more costly than beneficial to maintain such councils. There are more arguments I purposely left out – some additional ones I will address shortly – but these speak for themselves.

In essence, under these ideal conditions of the educated public, we cannot make a pragmatic argument favoring worker councils. You’d have to rely on some ideologically egalitarian democratic view to justify them but even on then you already rejected the possibility that all workers should have the ability to “interfere in the work process of another.” This all connects back to the lovely argument of equity vs. efficiency where a sacrifice has to be made either by democratic rights or economic growth. It is quite interesting for you to support an egalitarian position by principle but not to the full extent in practice. In that case, all workers wouldn’t own the full means of production which would likely create de facto hierarchies if not by contract and/or statute. Additionally it’s a weird notion that worker councils should exist for worker councils’ sake. Is having a more deliberate yet ineffective platform for addressing your concerns better than simply creating opportunities and reinforcing existing methods of democratic worker functions which would be much more effective and conducive to actual democratic change in itself? Regardless, I think the premise of egalitarianism as it applies to worker councils is incompatible with the cultural reality of America today –a point I will touch on very shortly with intra-national identities.

Skipping over that long blob of text, I want to briefly touch on the second misunderstanding I want to clear up. I never indicated that the current democratic institutions can’t get us very far. I simply stated that the federalist model is one of the best reconciliations of liberty and economic growth. If you are technically referring to bills and/or precedents that have altered the powers of certain institutional actors and led to inequality, poverty, etc., I think you are improperly conflating institution with legislation, court and/or corporate decision. Any kind of bill or precedent is amenable to repeal or replacement with the proper degree of mobilization by relevant actors. The American federalist model is by no means incompatible with your vision of society however I must highlight one crucial albeit non-clear obstacle to that vision which is the role of a disjointed intra-national identity. What I mean by this is simple. With respect to America, there is no homogenous identity, patriotic or otherwise that I feel really connects us in such a way as to embody the kind of effective, collective identity that worker councils merit and require (discounting temporary conditions of solidarity which sociologists like Randall Collins have extensively researched). Unlike European countries, our glorification of individualism and self-independence is possibly the greatest cultural argument against worker councils. It would be difficult to imagine effectively selfless, pareto-efficient behavior among employees but most importantly, even with an educated public, it’s unlikely under a voluntary model for most employees to use it in the first place. In fact, Germany’s and America’s borrowed statutory councils after World War I saw small turnouts by workers within the council system. I simply don’t believe the average American has the type of collectivist mentality that is compatible with this more socialized principle that worker councils seek to exemplify. Moreover, the lack of engagement a voluntary system creates would disproportionally create informational imbalances where the active minority give the impression of what is good or of interest to whole whether it be representative or not. This seems contrary to the principles workers councils seem to rely on. Overall, to say that people have no form of recourse in order to address issues brought by their employers is silly when we realize the vast array of tools at their disposal.

For the benefit of time and space I’ll avoid the national wage bargaining topic for now but I will briefly mention that while this proposition sounds morally and democratically okay (although there are obvious violations of the liberty of employers), I worry about the economic feasibility of it. Unless we arrive at a point in time of exorbitant opulence, I think this is an economically unfeasible policy, especially for America.

L Larry Liu: Kareen, should I perhaps say that this is one of the most gratifying Facebook responses that I have ever read, and would like to read more of by many other respondents (even if that is impossible to process time-wise in our very short term and sound-bite oriented society).

Your main thrust of the argument is that worker democracy is not really a feasible strategy, and that we should instead rely on regular democratic processes, especially revolving around elections, and perhaps petitions, media appeals and litigation, which is very much in the spirit of American civic engagement. You cleverly argued that we can not defend worker democracy in the form of works councils, co-determination (which I previously did not mention, but this is about workers and unions being represented among the corporate board of directors), and centralized wage bargaining, not because it is not desirable morally or ethically, but because it is not realistically feasible, since humans as they are, are going to make it (a) either less democratic thanks to the voluntary aspect, or (b) less efficient, which makes it economically unviable. So (c) we should not have such a complex structure of works councils, unions, corporate board representation and central bargaining. And (d) we can’t pursue central bargaining, because we are too poor for that to happen. Your own solution is that all we need to do is to have a more educated public, and much of our headache of injustice and inequality will be hastily resolved.

On (a), I will admit that there can be no organization which will bring about the “more perfect union” that one of the founding fathers of America spoke of. I am very cognizant about the possibility that a few workers, who speak the loudest and have the best organizational skills and intellectual capacity will be able to practically rise through the ranks and dominate any council meeting that happens. As long as we are humans, we are created somewhat differently, and I have never seen human nature vary on that aspect, even in my country (Austria), which has works councils as a matter of law and practice. But I think the criticism misses out on a bigger point, which is that workers should use any means at their disposal in order to defend their rights and interests. Even if some workers turn out to line their own pockets once seizing control over union or council meetings, having the council in itself will confer benefits to the workers which would otherwise not exist if the employers hire their workers completely “at-will” as is common in many American workplaces.

On a separate note, you have also made the point that American culture can not appreciate union power to the extent of the council because our thinking is too individualistic. And some astute observers might point to the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee which voted in majority against unionization and creating a works council as example of that. But there really was a big propaganda campaign that happened in Tennessee organized by state Republicans which unnecessarily and quite criminally scared workers away. “We will cut subsidies for the plant.” “VW is going to outsource your plant to Mexico.” And all these other lies were told to the workers by their own politicians, who are supposed to represent the interests of the people, but have instead opted to represent the interests of their powerful donors among the other car manufacturers. (Notice that VW management was very open to a works council, and the German VW works council members were vociferously in favor of unionizing the US plant.) What this tells me is not so much that US culture is unripe for a works council, but that the capitalists here control greater ideological power and dominance. The workers do indicate in polls that they would strongly prefer unionization, though the question on works council is never posed, because you are right in that such an idea never falls in the purview of American discourse- to the detriment of all the workers! It is complete ideological nonsense to suggest that American culture is not ripe for massive increases in employee rights.

On (b), works councils does not demonstrably diminish efficiency. I have looked at comparative studies in Germany and I never found any solid evidence for works councils massively slowing down operations. In Germany, the works councils are not just another union that bargains for wages and working conditions, but more broadly helps streamline workers activities and allowing them input to improve production processes, which actually have the capacity for raising rather than diminishing worker productivity. That more worker power is going to radically diminish plant productivity is subject to empirical testing, and can not be blindly assumed to be true. But even if we assume that works councils diminish efficiency, I would find it questionable why a small tradeoff for equality can not be made. In the contemporary corporate world, we have plenty of policies in place, which have an efficiency diminishing aspect without that ever becoming a major concern in public discourse. Some examples are outrageously high executive compensation packages, outrageously high shareholder dividend payouts. These are things that are great if you are an executive or a big shareholder, but that says nothing about the company’s efficiency. And no, exploiting workers to the hilt to create huge profits is not what I consider to be an ‘efficient’ operation.

On (c), I would argue on the contrary that we need as many methods to advocate in the interest of the workers as possible. It all sounds like creating unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, but it is a necessary line of defense against employers, who are much more powerful and much more concentrated otherwise. Think of worker-friendly institutions as legs of a big table. Could a table stand with just one leg in the middle? Of course, it can. But will it stand stably and effectively? As an employer I can just cut that one leg, and the table will collapse. If my table has several different legs then it will stand more stably and has a better fighting chance to compete with the more powerful employer interests.

On (d), centralized wage bargaining is a phenomenon that becomes ever rarer and weaker even in the European countries, where this has been a hallmark of policymaking for many decades. The neoliberal reforms that started in America are biting deep into Europe, and their recent economic stagnation builds up enormous pressure to cut down on labor expenditures, which to me is the biggest form of redistribution from the bottom to the top and is the worst kind of political-economic configuration that one can think of. But that was simply a positivistic description of what is likely going to happen (except my comment on the poli/econ configuration). What would normatively be desirable is to have the restoration of centralized wage bargaining, which tends to be easier in countries where there is more cooperation between employer and worker groups. Can you imagine that in some European countries the employers, employees and the government sit together to hash out wages and working conditions that are applied across all different sectors of industry? In the US there has been no tradition of it, but that does not make it less desirable in any way. I would rather speak about policy ideas that people consider ‘utopian’ rather than give in to the default conservatism (“we will never get there”), which makes the ‘utopian’ policy even more ‘utopian’ and unlikely to be attainable. (I added the apostrophe to show my dislike of the label ‘utopian’, since that depicts something that has not happened anywhere, but centralized bargaining is deeply rooted in the tradition of some European countries.) How to encourage the growth of centralized wage bargaining is a real mystery to me right now, but we have to keep the progressive ideas alive (which I by no means will force upon you to take up).

On your final point on the importance of education: I wholeheartedly agree with you and would like to see more education if possible in any way. That would make it more likely for the workers to stand up for each other rather than uncritically accept the view of others. But notice too that even among the most educated people you will notice that there is deep stratification going on. Amid a group of elite university students that congregate for political debates (e.g. PPU) you might have 70 students that show up and 10 students that speak up. Now it is impossible to accommodate everyone on the microphone, and stratification might make work simpler, because too many cooks make the food go bad, as the famous saying goes. But I am just pointing out the tall order task that we have in front of us in terms of educating the broader public.

Kareen Movsesyan Haha If we ever get that far, I’ll simply face palm myself whenever looking back at this conversation. It would make for quite a fun James Joycian type of book though – stream of consciousness ftw.

Any who, before I attempt to answer your conveniently divided points, I want to make a major note of caution.

We seem to not be on the same chronological page on this debate. If you noticed, my argument addressed both the idealistic and contemporary circumstances of workers councils: the former referring to the condition that we finally have a broad, educated electorate. Thus far all your arguments apply to the contemporary condition of a non-educated majority, never trying to refute my positions on why an educated public would not mitigate the need for worker councils. I can accept some of your arguments for councils though for the modern era but I still think that my previous arguments on worker councils still stand in this long-term scenario. So when I address your particular points here be wary that I address them with respect to the applicability of workers councils in the modern era – without the ideal requisite of a widely educated public.

To address points (a) and (b) together, a viable workers council system would require mitigating for institutional defects like imperfect information, rent redistribution between the union leaders, enterprise management and the council itself; moreover, other externalities (e.g. legal issues, the question of voluntarism, etc.) present significant issues as well. Based off of my non-exhaustive research on the manner I think that worker councils are most effective in the way Richard Freeman and Edward Lazear argue – as having limited but definite power. The majority of the research does not present an irrefutable case that voluntary councils are particularly effective. More pressing however are the legal barriers I’m sure you’re familiar with. How does one efficiently implement worker councils in America where centralized wage setting is non-existent and where it is banned by U.S. law for companies to grant council’s money for their own internal affairs? Unless workers invested resources into their own councils, it is unlikely to see councils gain any traction at all, echoing the failings of their role in the post-World War I era. I do not argue that co-determination and other forms of ‘social surplus’ are not attainable by councils but if I was to argue on their applicability in America, voluntarism is not the way to go. For councils to work in America, I think a variant similar to the ones in place in Canada must be used. So to answer (a) directly, having voluntary councils for the sake of councils makes no sense. You can’t apply such an ethos to a proposal when it is simply ineffective at exemplifying it in the first place. My response for (c) will illuminate this a little bit more. As for (b), my previous comments on voluntarism speak for themselves.

Regarding your Tennessee example, I question the representativeness of this sample. Firstly, we must also consider reports such as those by Reuters describing the following: “in addition, four plant workers filed charges this month with U.S. labor officials alleging German VW officials are coercing them to agree to UAW representation.” Remember, a majority is having at least above 50% in favor of a resolution. I wouldn’t rush to conclusions to say that an overwhelming mass of people are ready for worker councils across the board. Secondly, we are talking about a European brand with extensive international outreach. Although I could not find the data, it may be that the worker composition of this branch is particularly Euro-centric. Even if is not while I do agree that the reaction by conservative forces was overblown, we must not assume that this potential worker council would have been effective certe certo. America is not Germany and what works for Germany is not guaranteed to work here, much like how apprenticeships have not gained major traction after all this time. Thirdly, when referring to the American culture I am referring to it en mass. Just because one European firm with European connections managed to mobilize a movement for worker councils, it does not by any means presents valid counterevidence against the claim that a domestically American public does not have this cultural requirement for councils. Had the firm been entirely American with no direct connections with affiliates already incorporating worker councils, I would find it more convincing but again we must consider the context before making judgments for an entire country. To your delight though I agree that it was unfair that the workers did not get to try implementing the council. I suppose the ferocity of the anti-council forces only reinforces my cultural argument in the first place.

With respect to (c), we may be attaching one leg of a table here but when that leg begins to dangerously affect the sturdiness of the other supports, wouldn’t the carpenter’s best response be to saw the attachment into a more appropriate shape or better yet to withhold attaching it in the first place – perhaps even cutting the other supports to make room for the new one? If it follows that the carpenter saws the other legs to make room for the new one, is there a demonstrable quality difference; is the new leg clearly more durable than those it replaces?

Reconciling unions and councils amidst America’s unique cultural and legal atmosphere is one reason why you cannot simply institute councils like some corner piece on a puzzle board. If we rely on historical precedent alone, unions were the result of a failing council system which suffered from not having adequate influence and informational accessibility within the firm. In consideration of that what makes America today more receptive to councils – what legal changes for instance now make councils both practical and compatible within the existing union structure? As I kept bringing up, issues like rent distribution and imperfect information will create inefficiencies that completely nullify having councils in the first place. Why have more options when the consequence is that none of the options allows for the effective mobilization of resources and time to get workers’ concerns addressed in the first place? Is it better to simply let workers speak out more often instead of providing them the tools and resources needed to actually pressure management into action – would this latter strategy not be giving the workers a greater voice in the first place? Even if we are to adopt my recommendation of the Canadian model, we would still not have resolved the deficiency in centralized wage bargaining. Its effects on industries would best be describable as mercurial and inconclusive. Also, if we ignore the wave of criticisms of union excesses today, what arguments may we pose to suggest that this leg of the table would fit comfortably within the table or that is it is qualitatively better than its alternatives?

On (d), the clearest answer comes in two flavors. One, the cultural tradition of American entrepreneurial independence goes against the entire mentality of centralized bargaining. As I hope you will agree a tad bit more by this point, the cultural component is highly significant here and is arguably the primary reason why it won’t be implemented any time soon. Secondly, in consideration of different sociopolitical, cultural, and legal factors in America today, what makes you so confident that centralized wage bargaining is the optimal path for America to take – just because Germany and Austria do it to a productive degree? Perhaps the hybrid system I keep referring to will best resolve the issues centralized wage bargaining sought to remedy. I’d be interested in knowing why you think there can’t be a uniquely ‘American’ solution to this issue rather than having to replicate a system from a country that is vastly different from our own and which may actually prove to be less efficient in resolving the issues we address?

On your final point we can both argue that one’s classification as an ‘educated individual’ is nothing more than an arbitrary, subjective term. I fear that using the ‘educated public’ as some catch-all category for some incomprehensible ‘good’ is being a little bit disingenuous. Yes the educated of today are divided much like our wonderful PPU membership but there is a difference between being educated on Weber, Marx, Mills, Foucault and being educated on real world economic activity, institutions and interpersonal relationships. It tends to be the ideological that divide us, not the practical. If most people are practically knowledgeable on most economic and political matters (add on a dose of history as well), ideological divisions or not, I believe we’d have reached the peak in which worker councils would be unnecessary. Alas, it will be a long journey till we reach that point but we should never stop aiming towards that ideal.

L Larry Liu  “never trying to refute my positions on why an educated public would not mitigate the need for worker councils “
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I will disagree with this position. The educated public will still need a workers’ council, because of one important proviso: we still live in a capitalist economy. You have to defeat the premise that we live in a capitalist economic system to make your claim credible in my eyes. In our economic system (a) a few people make a lot of profit and accumulate capital, and (b) do so at the expense of other people, i.e. workers. In such a system workers are obliged to defend their own economic position even if they are highly educated, e.g. college professors or doctors working for hospitals. Now if you say that if we lived in a more educated society, we will have gotten rid of capitalism, then I am listening. If you say, however, that if we lived in an educated society we would re-structure capitalism in a more rational and fair manner that accords to feelings and desires in the community for more equality (which even my conservative and libertarian friends at PPU will at the very least concede to, since they seem to enjoy a debate among equals with each caucus receiving an equal amount of speaking time and each resolution vote given the one man, one vote principle), that would still be a worthwhile outcome. But I presume that is overall a premise you will not tackle, or prefer to leave unaddressed.
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“To address points (a) and (b) together, a viable workers council system would require mitigating for institutional defects like imperfect information, rent redistribution between the union leaders, enterprise management and the council itself; moreover, other externalities (e.g. legal issues, the question of voluntarism, etc.) present significant issues as well.”
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With regard to the institutional defects, I will not re-hash my argument here, but sufficient to say that we can accept and try to mitigate those defects without having to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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“How does one efficiently implement worker councils in America where centralized wage setting is non-existent and where it is banned by U.S. law for companies to grant council’s money for their own internal affairs?”
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The real answer is I don’t know. But here is another thing: Tennessee and VW could have posed the precedent, because VW would have carried out the unionization vote, which has been common practice in the US since the National Labor Relations Act of the 1930s. After union certification, the union would have organized within itself the works council with pre-defined functions. Whether we call this thing a ‘union’ or ‘works council’ would probably not have mattered, as long as workers have their needs and interests heard. Here is what the Wikipedia entry tells us, “One of the most commonly examined (and arguably most successful) implementations of these institutions is found in Germany. The model is basically as follows: general labour agreements are made at the national level by national unions (e.g. IG Metall) and national employer associations (e.g. Gesamtmetall), and local plants and firms then meet with works councils to adjust these national agreements to local circumstances. Works council members are elected by the company workforce for a four year term. They don’t have to be union members; works councils can also be formed in companies where neither the employer nor the employees are organized [in unions].” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_council

So you can have the works council within the union, or without the union. In the US case, it has to be the former solution. If you scroll down the same article, you can read works council in the US, which I will simply quote for your convenience, “In the United States, the NLRB has held that works councils in the absence of a recognized labor union are a form of company union prohibited under section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act This theory has been upheld in the courts; the controlling case is Electromation, Inc. v. NLRB (1994).”
Let me give you my modest opinion on US court and NLRB ruling: it, of course, makes the attainment of works councils much harder in the US than in Europe. In the ideal case, the ruling needs to be scraped, and we need policymakers and activists to agitate around this issue. In Austria, my brother works part-time as bartender and security guard. These are low-wage crap jobs like here, no doubt. He is not a union member, but he is automatically a member of the Austrian Chamber of Labor, where he can settle labor disputes on work hour violations, and things like that. In addition, his company has a Betriebsrat (works council), where he can file complaints too. And the Betriebsrat has the duty to negotiate annual collective bargaining agreements.

I am sorry, I think you will have to educate me briefly about the Canadian industrial system, because cursory internet research did not give me information on this.
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“Regarding your Tennessee example, I question the representativeness of this sample. Firstly, we must also consider reports such as those by Reuters describing the following: “in addition, four plant workers filed charges this month with U.S. labor officials alleging German VW officials are coercing them to agree to UAW representation.” Remember, a majority is having at least above 50% in favor of a resolution. I wouldn’t rush to conclusions to say that an overwhelming mass of people are ready for worker councils across the board.”
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I have two responses to that, and they will contradict each other, but since I know that you are a fellow intellectual, I am sure you will at least appreciate the merit of the thought: (1) the libertarian left in me would say that workers are simply misinformed, and if they knew better they would favor the union and the council. They don’t seem to grasp what is really in their interest, and they were giving up long-term power attainment in exchange for some alleged concessions from the state. (Remember that the Republican state politicians were running a propaganda campaign threatening to pull tax incentives out of the plant and the lie that VW will relocate to Mexico if they voted for unionization. That certainly scared the hell out of the workers, who are in a state where there has been no tradition of a union in the car manufacturing sector.)
(2) the autocratic left in me would say that if the workers don’t want to “choose” their happiness (higher wages, more benefits, more rights), we might as well force them to pursue it. In the name of the common good, societal coercion would be acceptable, though I did not say that this is practically feasible now, because the state officials side with the capitalists, and the autocratic solution definitely needs to have the state side with the workers to work out. My calculation is that the workers will eventually grow to embrace it, but only after they have seen and experienced it. In America in 2014 (and soon 2015), you still see people, who rail against “socialized medicine”, yet they really like Medicare. “I like it when I see it”, as the saying goes.
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“we must not assume that this potential worker council would have been effective certe certo. America is not Germany and what works for Germany is not guaranteed to work here”
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Okay, that statement makes me crave even more for a works council in the US just to prove you wrong, but it is hard to cook up a precedent when all the conservative forces seek to undermine it, and there is a lack of working class consciousness in here.
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“If we rely on historical precedent alone, unions were the result of a failing council system which suffered from not having adequate influence and informational accessibility within the firm.”
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Let us be more precise here: there never was a council system in the US, and neither was it attempted except the Tennessee example recently. I read the comparative US-German industrial relations literature. The best US article on codetermination and the peculiar labor relations structure emerging out of the labor laws in the 1930s, mandating division between employer and employee is offered by Summers (1982, pp. 158-160):https://www.law.upenn.edu/…/Summers4J.Comp.Corp.L…
It is hard to compare two things, if the one has never been contemplated.
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“Is it better to simply let workers speak out more often instead of providing them the tools and resources needed to actually pressure management into action – would this latter strategy not be giving the workers a greater voice in the first place?”
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What are those tools and resources? If you are a worker, you need an institution that channels your demands whether it be works councils or unions, or preferably both.
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“what arguments may we pose to suggest that this leg of the table would fit comfortably within the table or that is it is qualitatively better than its alternatives? ”
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Great, except I don’t see what your alternative is.
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“I’d be interested in knowing why you think there can’t be a uniquely ‘American’ solution to this issue rather than having to replicate a system from a country that is vastly different from our own and which may actually prove to be less efficient in resolving the issues we address?”
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We hear the same argument about a “uniquely” American solution when it comes to health care. Why can’t we have a privatized health care system which still delivers quality health care at affordable cost to most Americans? Because it doesn’t work. The opponents of a single-payer health care system fail to point out
(1) how they are going to create a market-based system with those aforementioned outcomes (despite the insurance literature very clearly stating the problems of adverse selection, moral hazard and other problems. I suggest reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concurrence on the health care reform lawsuit, which specifies the pillars of Obama’s Affordable Care Act- which I don’t superbly like, but is better than the previous system:http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/11-393…), and
(2) pointing out examples of other countries where this market-based system has remotely worked. While I am no expert in health care in other countries, Switzerland appears to have had a private-only health insurance system, but the government specifies what treatment has to be covered for all insurance companies and requires them by law to operate as non-profit. So even the Swiss eschew a market-based health insurance system. Quite frankly, I think the Swiss could save more money by switching to a single-payer system, and get rid of the extra bureaucracy of having multiple private organizations who do the same bullshit paperwork.

Let me return from my excursus of health care to the topic at hand. I don’t think that we have to stick to the confines of a uniquely American system, though for the sake of legislating compromise, I would be willing to embrace those outcomes too, as long as the workers of this country can finally claim a bigger piece of the social surplus. I would not argue works council in terms of efficiency, because I think the likely relationship between the two is probably really small contrary to what the employer associations and their spokespeople (including you) might argue.
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“If most people are practically knowledgeable on most economic and political matters (add on a dose of history as well), ideological divisions or not, I believe we’d have reached the peak in which worker councils would be unnecessary.”
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Are very knowledgeable people going to agree in practice? I doubt that. I tend to think that the more educated and the more knowledgeable we are, the more we have reason to disagree. Let me tell you from first-hand personal experience. Most people I talk to are naturally not very well educated in politics. I can’t expect them to, because they also do not harbor any doubts about my lack of knowledge about baseball or current fashion trends (the former for my male and the latter for my female friends and relatives, in most cases). So what happens when I bring to them some political problems? They will nod. They will agree. They will get bored and switch topic. If I am on a roll, then I go off on a little lecture, but retreat since I don’t get a feedback. I might get a pat in the back, “Larry for president” or something like that (not that it happens very often, but I did hear it before).

Now, we could philosophically question this Nietzschean problem: the Ubermensch vs. the followers. Now, I am a left-leaning populist, so he might get lucky with my policies if they were ever implemented (unless he does belong to the 1%). But what if I am a selfish, fascist dictator, who wants to dominate the country and line my own bank accounts with public money, but have a propaganda campaign to keep the docile and obedient masses cheering for me? But the positive of the Ubermensch/follower dichotomy is clearly that I could get things done quickly and without any dispute.

My brother explained to me how university politics works over there: they have different student parties that represent students according to different political ideologies (not that it really matters, because the real resources are, of course, controlled by the education ministry and the university leadership, but that is a separate topic now). They have discussion groups every once in a while, where they vote on resolutions in a democratic fashion (with majority vote and what have you). But these sessions are only attended by no more than one or two dozen students, because let’s face it: students have other things to worry about than campus politics, unless you want to become a professional politician later on, then the networks and credentials you get there are, of course, important. What you can do technically is bring in a dozen friends of yours, provided if you have Jesus-like charisma, and then have the student faction vote for all your resolutions. I am sure in the US, in some localities you will have the same thing. In big cities like in Philadelphia, it, of course, won’t work, because we have too many people here.

But what about discussions among more knowledgeable people? They tend to be lengthy and information-intensive on both sides. Well, if I spoke only as an intellectual and define my goal as knowledge and wisdom-seeking in the old Greek sense of the word, and not some kind of public policy outcome, then it is of course very satisfying to me. But since at the center of our discussion, we do have public policy and getting things done, the picture becomes more complicated. Look at how many words (some of it quite useless to be quite frank) we have already produced on this site! We could say that lengthy discussions can bring us to consider policy outcomes that are better for the public, and to that degree we can sell our academic credentials to the wider public, which of course is only concerned about public policy and not intellectual small talk. That is the optimistic view.

We could also say that we intellectuals bring up more deep-seated disagreements the longer the discussion wears on. As you say we might have many points of agreement, but because of each of us brings up a small new piece of wisdom and a tack of new insight into the issue, where there is either confusion or lack of clarity in understanding or some genuine disagreement, we then have to blow up these small actual viewpoint differences, and get lost in the trees instead of looking at the forest as a whole. Well, in that case, we might better stay in our Oxford debate club, and leave the real issues to other people.

I actually had one more anecdote to share with you with respect to two intellectuals having a conversation. Last year, I went to conference of left-wing academics in New York, and they had this one guy, working for a Trotskyist organization and handing out his communist newspapers. You would think we will get along well with each other, since we have similar philosophical commitments, but we ended up debating for 15 minutes on why Leninism in Russia has been a failure. I don’t know the content of our position anymore, but we parted ways close to a shouting match.

Kareen Movsesyan “But I presume that is overall a premise you will not tackle, or prefer to leave unaddressed.”

I only prefer to avoid this question because it would require us to take the pompous and pretentious position of thinking we know exactly which outcome is better for everyone else which is a position we simply cannot take. Whether an ideally educated public will settle for Socialism or a more equitable form of Capitalism is not possible for us to judge given that we know so little about the effects of either on contemporary American society, hence the reason we’re having this debate in the first place. Also, by saying that you’d find a more egalitarian capitalism acceptable, doesn’t that mean that works councils are not necessary in this ideal condition, unlike what you said in your first two sentences? I am still not convinced by this disillusionment Marxist argument for works councils. Why have them when they yield costs an educated public would avoid in the first place (refer back to my previous arguments)?

“So you can have the works council within the union, or without the union. In the US case, it has to be the former solution.”

This has never been in question. We can most certainly implement works councils but whether they belong here as efficient institutions is the real question – would the creation of works council within the union be in itself a problem of efficiency? We have to ask ourselves why Section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act exists in the first place. If a firm has the capacity to influence the interworking and financing of union and council structures within it, it would have full discretion to manipulate, coerce, and weaken councils and unions through the withdrawal of resources and structural arrangements. In Electromation, Inc. v. NLRB (1994), the answer was simple – yes the firm violated the section by directly providing for the structure of the worker committees. By saying the ruling was incorrect you ignore the simple textual and legal question, opting instead for an idealistic critique that has no relevance in the realm of the rule of law. Only by debating the legitimacy of the section itself would your argument have legal merit but you appear to stray away from explicitly taking that route.

Further, had this ruling not been made, consequently creating an implicit exception for works councils, Electromation represents a rather optimistic view of council implementation. While Ectromation’s creation of worker committees was done in good faith, other companies may be more manipulative or coercive, creating the illusion of worker democracy while still maintaining plenary power over labor relations. This is but one negative outcome of having works councils as an exception to Section 8(a)(2).

I also wish your brother well. While I can sympathize with him (I had a substantial amount of blue collar experience myself), I don’t think Americans are so helpless here. Even without unions, litigation acts as a go-to source for many lower to middle income workers who may suffer abuses and violations from their employers. Aside from issues of benefits and wages, most violation are readily remediable under the legal sphere. True, membership within the Chamber of Labor and the work council may be more accessible and cost-efficient for workers but the looming threat of litigation already acts as a subconscious deterrent against employer abuses. Also, the worker violations that you seem to detest the most appear to the stem from the fact that workers are simply not getting paid enough. I agree that inequality is a pressing concern that should be mended to a degree, not absolutely. This is where I think the argument becomes quite interesting.

To echo my previous points, we can view the resolution of workers’ concerns in two non-comprehensive lights: shifting the means of production into workers’ hands and/or increasing wages to allow for commodious living. I am curious of what you think of this proposition. If we are to assume agents are rational we can assume that labor assignment and distribution will be optimized in such a way where each individual’s output is maximized – so workers deciding amongst themselves will assign the accountant to remain an accountant and the person skilled in cooking to remain the cook. This natural, rational division of labor occurs both in the current system and in the ideal worker-controlled industry if we take this rational assumption to be true.

Now you’ve presenting the Marxist disillusionment argument – Capitalism creates illusions to placate workers from the truth – from conditions of invariably superior and natural worth. If I am to play with that idea, if the physical outcomes of labor relations, assignments, etc. are equal in both the contemporary and worker-dominated society under the natural division of labor and the assumption of rational-choice decision-making, have you not just chosen one form of illusion over another? I don’t see how rational workers deciding amongst themselves for example would grant a janitor equal pay, suppose $25 an hour while granting the same wage to the senior Architect of that particular IT firm. The natural division of labor would create a naturalistic inequality by metrics of natural talent, education, etc. Therefore, the physical, material outcomes under the assumption of rational agents are equivalent in the current, capitalist system and in the ideal socialist model. Now what makes the illusion presented in Capitalism any less different or deplorable than the illusion under socialism where you think you have legal and physical control over the means of production yet the collective’s efforts result in policies and work-related decisions that are materially no less different than those under Capitalism? Does this not perhaps speak volumes about our very human character? Is true rationality anathema to the socialist ideals? How do we reconcile the illusion of social surplus with the reality of materially equivalent outcomes under both settings? I wonder what your opinion is here.

“I am sorry, I think you will have to educate me briefly about the Canadian industrial system, because cursory internet research did not give me information on this.”

Roy Adams elucidates it quite well. I’ve attached the link below.http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1985/07/art4full.pdf
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“Although not called works councils, recent initiatives have characteristics very similar to European works councils. Several Canadian provinces introduced mandatory occupational health and safety committees during the 1970’s. Typically, committees are required in all establishments with a certain number of employees. For example, in Ontario, committees must be set up in establishments with 20 or more employees and in Saskatchewan, the figure is 10 employees or more. 13 In unionized firms, the union appoints committee representatives and in nonunion firms, employee members are usually elected. The committees have a mandate to oversee safety regulations and jointly to develop and monitor safety and health policy at the enterprise level. They must meet regularly and keep records of their meetings. The intent of the legislation is that decisionmaking within the committees be cooperative rather than adversarial…”

“Several dispute resolution devices are available to these committees. Typically, if labor and management representatives disagree about their interpretation of a government regulation, they may ask a government safety officer to resolve the issue. If the parties disagree about the wisdom of initiating a requirement over and above government regulations, then the employer decides. However, in Saskatchewan during the 1970’s, employers had to consider the fact that the administration was publicly committed to ensuring the joint development and application of enterprise-level safety and health policy. According to Manga and others, the government insisted that “all business be conducted through the committee,” and that “all agreements between management and the labour department occur subject to committee approval.” is largely because of this policy, the committees achieved “increased legitimacy and enlarged authority…”
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“My calculation is that the workers will eventually grow to embrace it, but only after they have seen and experienced it.”

If we try it and see it as widely successful, sure but this is all conjecture. You’re dead set on believing that works councils would undoubtedly be efficient or at least beneficial but I am yet to be wholly convinced of that. I agree that the Tennessee plant should have had at least a chance to experiment with councils here but again, until we get a more recent case study of works councils in America, I think flirting with dangerous ideas like full state coercion is something out of the realm of possibilities as I’m sure you agree. I would even think it unnecessary to consider such a rash position given that we can simply make the public ideally educated, reducing the need for works councils in the first place. I still await a good counterargument on why this wouldn’t be the best option.

“Okay, that statement makes me crave even more for a works council in the US just to prove you wrong, but it is hard to cook up a precedent when all the conservative forces seek to undermine it, and there is a lack of working class consciousness in here.”

I’m glad you finally conceded that the cultural identity component is simply lacking en mass in America. I do hope you realize by now from our increasingly in-depth discussion of works councils that whatever council system we may implement in the near or distant future would be significantly different from what Germany has. Centralized wage bargaining will likely not be here for a very long time. Thus, any works council system that we may implement here cannot by definition be a German institution. Certain major adjustments will necessarily have to be made in order to make works councils workable here in the absence of a centralized bargaining system – thus creating an ‘American solution’ to the problem.

“Let us be more precise here: there never was a council system in the US, and neither was it attempted except the Tennessee example recently.”

In that case your mention of Electromation, Inc. v. NLRB is without purpose given that it wasn’t representative of works councils but also because you avoided challenging Section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act.

More importantly, if you apply the definition of works councils to refer to the system in place in Germany today, with its affiliated centralized wage bargaining and other relevant components, then sure. However, I will simply rely on the wiki’s simple definition of it here. “A works council is a ‘shop-floor’ organization representing workers, which functions as local/firm-level complement to national labour negotiations.” During the 1930s there was a mix of the infamously failing shopping committees and the rise of union organizations. Furthermore, organizations like the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB) acted as makeshift national representatives of workers by proxy, seeking to find solutions to the vicious labor debates of the time. Thus we can state that shopping committees acted as complements to the NICB and the rising union presence, regardless of their particular efficacy. That is why I believe we can still refer to them as works councils and why I think they serve as noteworthy examples in our debate on the feasibility of works councils in America today.

“What are those tools and resources? If you are a worker, you need an institution that channels your demands whether it be works councils or unions, or preferably both… Great, except I don’t see what your alternative is”

If I or anyone else knew, we would have solved the worker issue long before. The point is that we don’t know how best to implement works councils here given that it would definitely conflict with unions and other institutional and legal structures. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t try or that works councils are definitely impractical; my purpose here is to ‘unromanticize’ works councils and point out its flaws. The analogy of the table makes the question quite clear; is it perhaps better to fix unions or other existing labor relation arrangements to optimize social surplus rather than implementing works councils which would likely conflict with those institutions in the first place? I think we have piqued on the legal argument already but we have yet to conclude on whether unions could work in synergy with works councils. Even if they could, would this be better than simply improving unions – maybe even perfecting on previous attempts at efficient shop committee system could work best?

“We hear the same argument about a “uniquely” American solution when it comes to health care.”

There is a distinction between having an American solution out of necessity like in works councils and having it for the sake of it being ‘uniquely American.’ There are no institutional or crippling legal barriers to the implementation of a single payer system – only rhetorical fear, a xenophobia where people bark on the sentiment of anti-socialism. You really can’t make the comparison between the two here given that they are so fundamentally different and while the health care literature is disparate, I will not digress on that topic here.

“Are very knowledgeable people going to agree in practice? I doubt that. I tend to think that the more educated and the more knowledgeable we are, the more we have reason to disagree.”

Which is why I believe that we conflate education with the assimilation of ideological thought. I agree that ideology defines practicality significantly but imagine if economics, interpersonal relationships and history was taught in a practical manner – much like you’d learn a profession at a trade school. The ideally educated world is surely not one of countless intellectuals running about. I’d imagine that would be a pretty depressing world to live in, hehe. Rather, I view an ideally educated world in a somewhat thought-experiment setting. Suppose we educate generations on the sciences and humanities in the absence of significant thought-changing ideologies (I agree that removing ideology completely is impossible). Should people who now have an understanding of economics, psychology, etc. and who operate under what we can modestly assume to be a utilitarian approach to life (utilitarian not in the ethical sense per se), what outcomes can we expect when they all come together? This is an abstract question that I don’t even think I’m capable of articulating too well at this point in the day.

Perhaps we can avoid that thought experiment all together. Suppose our definition of practicality is not one of practicality in terms of something appearing to be logically the best outcome; instead, assume practicality to designate knowledge of true economic and social processes coupled with an aptitude for understanding and optimally using all available institutions. Maybe the more holistic term here would be an ideally activist public – one that knows what it wants politically and economically and also one that has the motivation, knowledge of institutions, and understanding of optimal strategies to get those needs addressed. Ideological influence or not, massively greater activism will assuredly result in great historical change.

L Larry Liu “Also, by saying that you’d find a more egalitarian capitalism acceptable, doesn’t that mean that works councils are not necessary in this ideal condition, unlike what you said in your first two sentences? “

Quite the contrary: egalitarian capitalism would work even better with the works council. In a socialist society, we presumably don’t need works councils, because the workers are in charge anyway.
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“I am still not convinced by this disillusionment Marxist argument for works councils. Why have them when they yield costs an educated public would avoid in the first place (refer back to my previous arguments)? ”

The educated public might conclude that the works council is precisely the kind of outcome they seek to attain. Here is the reasoning: the majority of the public are workers. The majority of the public will, therefore, seek to promote workers’ interests, and if they are educated they will certainly want that outcome. Your little petition writing is not going to cut it. We need reliable institutions that advocate on behalf of the workers on a permanent basis, and that for that reason a works council would turn out to be a desirable outcome. Education itself if we restrain ourselves to understanding Plato and Aristotle is not going to get us really far as individuals. We will have productive philosophy club discusssions, but we won’t be able to do important political things. (Though one can use the skills learned in the philosophical training to advocate for real issues later on.)
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“would the creation of works council within the union be in itself a problem of efficiency?”

Okay, let me respond one more time on this issue of efficiency. Any kind of organized worker effort to protect themselves from the encroachment by their employers is denounced as reducing the efficiency of the entire plant. By reducing the ability of employers to make their workers work harder at lower wages, we are apparently reducing the efficiency of the entire firm. There are two lines of defense here: (1) humaitarian and (2) long-term efficiency. In (1) approach, we could argue that efficiency does not matter as much as the well-being of the workers, which is already a valid reason for me. (2) argues that we can’t only look at the short-term efficiency that is incurred by screwing workers with lower wages and mistreatment practices, but also have to look at what happens in the long run, when many workers are simply too exhausted, and carry out work at lowered amount of efficiency. After 50 hours of work per week, the marginal return of employing the worker shrinks dramatically and then turns even negative. By lowering the wages, the ability of the firm to attract the best talent for the job also decreases, so employers end up with the least reliable and low-productivity workers, which diminishes efficiency too. These are all outcomes that should be thought about when it comes to disempowering the workers at their job.
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” By saying the ruling was incorrect you ignore the simple textual and legal question, opting instead for an idealistic critique that has no relevance in the realm of the rule of law. Only by debating the legitimacy of the section itself would your argument have legal merit but you appear to stray away from explicitly taking that route. ”

Okay, let me say something about ‘legalese’. I have read quite a few opinions of Supreme Court rulings, and you seem to make the argument that all of the rulings come from “the legitimacy of the section” and that we can not make idealistic, i.e. arbitrary, judgments. But when I read the majority and dissenting views of the Supreme Court the idealistic judgments are precisely what informs the choice of words and conclusions of the respective justices, no matter how much they want to cloak it in existing precedent or the “meaning” of the constitution or the statute at hand. We should start with our ideological premise, and then we will use any good reasoning that we like in order to support and defend our case. I would abstain from making strawman attacks of me taking an unwarranted ideological swipe, while you are maintaining the “proper” interpretation of the statute. I know that is not something that lawyers and judges will want to admit in public, but that is what it all boils down to. And we as non-lawyers and non-judges should be able to speak our opinions even without the high-mindedness of a Supreme Court justice.

I read the summary of the Electromation case, and apparently the employer wanted to provide some inititiatives to “elicit” the views of workers, so they can better influence the work process. The law is set up in such a way that worker and employer interests are directly antagonistic to each other, which makes America a rather extreme Marxist class struggle-type country. The fear at the very most was that the works councils would lead to the creation of company unions that are beholden to employer interests without much benefit accruing to the workers. According to US law, the works council has to be set up under the premises of a labor union, which is certified by the NLRB. It can not be a works council without a union and with company support. But quite frankly, there is a third possibility: have a works council without a union but without the direct involvement of the employer. That would be a legitimate legal loophole, though no one is contemplating that option.

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“While Ectromation’s creation of worker committees was done in good faith, other companies may be more manipulative or coercive, creating the illusion of worker democracy while still maintaining plenary power over labor relations. ”

Works council carry such a risk, but if the employer uses and abuses the works councils to make the workers worse off, then they will sooner or later realize it, and organize in unions or establish works councils that are more independent from the employers. There are many bullshit employer initiatives, and they are not really works councils. In corporate speak, they are called human resource departments. The goal of human resource departments is to prevent union organizing by giving them really cheap things like free company lunches or stars on their name tags or something like that, which don’t diminish the employer bottom line but make workers “feel” better about themselves. What you are simply saying with your critique is that an institution like the works council itself will do nothing to help the workers unless the workers are vigilant. And you are right, the workers always need to be vigilant.
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“Even without unions, litigation acts as a go-to source for many lower to middle income workers who may suffer abuses and violations from their employers. Aside from issues of benefits and wages, most violation are readily remediable under the legal sphere.”

If I break my leg and employer negligence is clearly to blame, then it is great, because US law and legal practice give me enough leeway to make myself a millionaire and basically never have to work again. But for me this is a very superficial (albeit important) measure of workers rights. What we really have to do is to raise wages and benefits and increase worker input into how the workplace is structured. Notice that works councils are a very moderate political proposal, which are social democratic and not socialist, because in the latter regime, the workers are taking over completely.
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” If we are to assume agents are rational we can assume that labor assignment and distribution will be optimized in such a way where each individual’s output is maximized – so workers deciding amongst themselves will assign the accountant to remain an accountant and the person skilled in cooking to remain the cook. This natural, rational division of labor occurs both in the current system and in the ideal worker-controlled industry if we take this rational assumption to be true.”

I am not blind to the division of labor. But in the Mondragon cooperative in Spain, they do have a system of distributing labor by allowing workers to switch their jobs every week, so they don’t go crazy on the job. Of course, the janitor will not likely become a teacher, because you have to know the subject matter to teach it well. So division of labor will remain, but we still have to resolve the power question. The few managers control all of the resources, and then defend themselves by claiming that they have a comparative advantage over others to do that kind of managerial work. But where precisely is the justification to stuff their own pockets with company money, which was generated by the totality of the workforce?
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” I don’t see how rational workers deciding amongst themselves for example would grant a janitor equal pay, suppose $25 an hour while granting the same wage to the senior Architect of that particular IT firm. The natural division of labor would create a naturalistic inequality by metrics of natural talent, education, etc. Therefore, the physical, material outcomes under the assumption of rational agents are equivalent in the current, capitalist system and in the ideal socialist model.”

There are a few socialists, who believe that everyone should earn exactly the same amount of money, but you might want to call me a “socialist realist”, and I don’t think that everyone should earn the same amount of money. The architect will get paid $30 and the janitor will get $20. We still have to compensate people higher whose skills are scarce but very necessary for society. A doctor should be paid twice the median wage, at least $40 an hour to compensate him/her for the many years of training and education. But the architect, doctors and janitors have never been the problem when it comes to earning inequality. The problem have always been the top managers and a few top shareholders, who are appropriating a huge share of the income. The top 1% captures 25% of the national income and 50% of the national wealth. The Walton family earns more wealth than the poorest 40% of Americans. 95% of all income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the richest 1%. There are good papers by Piketty and Saez on this topic. Let us not get confused about what type of inequality is the real problem in the contemporary capitalist economy.

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“Now what makes the illusion presented in Capitalism any less different or deplorable than the illusion under socialism where you think you have legal and physical control over the means of production yet the collective’s efforts result in policies and work-related decisions that are materially no less different than those under Capitalism?”

Yes, the outcome is going to be very different. The capitalist economy has an internal tendency to increase inequality, see Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. The only reason why it would decrease is because of institutional arrangements, a tri-partite regime between employers, workers and governments, Keynesian demand management (state fiscal and monetary policy intervention), national-level capital controls, strong labor unions and high-levels of investment and economic growth. When those institutions disappear, then the inherent tendency toward growing inequality will persist. To judge the outcome of socialism is harder, because we don’t have the kinds of historical examples that have yielded in desirable outcomes. In the most ideal case, by orienting society toward the democratic control of company surpluses, we also reduce the ability to create inequality.

A brief comment on Canada: I am glad that they chose the more civilized solution, just as they have witht he single-payer health care system. Adams points out that works councils may encourage unionization and collective bargaining- perhaps because they raise class consciousness among workers, who are given the tools of participation, and that works councils tend to be more effective in conjunction with unions (p.28). Absolutely!
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“until we get a more recent case study of works councils in America, I think flirting with dangerous ideas like full state coercion is something out of the realm of possibilities as I’m sure you agree. I would even think it unnecessary to consider such a rash position given that we can simply make the public ideally educated, reducing the need for works councils in the first place. I still await a good counterargument on why this wouldn’t be the best option. ”

Your statement is, “It could be a good idea, but we don’t have a precedent. But…no it is really a bad idea.” The problem is that unless we experiment with works councils we can not know whether it is good/bad, effective/ineffective, efficient/inefficient for us. In the ideal case, we don’t need any kind of state coercion, but understand that the state often has to provide leadership. But the state itself will not provide leadership because it listens only to business special interests. So, yes, at the end you need the overall educated population and the organized labor movement to push through the kinds of government legislation that we want. Again, education is essential, but if you don’t consider the kinds of institutions that serve the mass of educated (and uneducated) people, then we just create a class of underpaid but overindebted college graduates, who are pissed at their economic situation, but have no institutional means to change it. But I suppose if you are educated enough you will want institutions like a works council to help you.
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“Centralized wage bargaining will likely not be here for a very long time. ”

Yes, workers in America are basically more screwed than in Europe. But your response is to put your head on the table and forget about it and mine is to pull up my sleeves and think about ways how to bring it about.
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“organizations like the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB) acted as makeshift national representatives of workers by proxy, seeking to find solutions to the vicious labor debates of the time. Thus we can state that shopping committees acted as complements to the NICB and the rising union presence, regardless of their particular efficacy. That is why I believe we can still refer to them as works councils and why I think they serve as noteworthy examples in our debate on the feasibility of works councils in America today.”

I don’t know much about NICB. But the thing we really want to know is who added the provision into NLRA to prevent “company unions”? Maybe these were labor-hostile employers since they do not want those things anyway (if we assume that company unions are only started by labor-accommodating employers). They could also have been union workers, who were suspicious about the intent of their employers. In any case, both of them have it wrong, and there is a possibility for a works council to work out favorably for both sides. Ideally, a works council should be organized in a statute such that no employer can willfully disband it.
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” I think we have piqued on the legal argument already but we have yet to conclude on whether unions could work in synergy with works councils. Even if they could, would this be better than simply improving unions – maybe even perfecting on previous attempts at efficient shop committee system could work best? ”

Yes, I hope that unions and councils are complementing, and they should be. I have never said we should not strengthen unions, and I strongly advocate the employee free choice act, which has been killed by conservatives in Congress, but it would make union elections much easier to organize rather than have so many bureaucratic barriers toward certification.
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“Suppose we educate generations on the sciences and humanities in the absence of significant thought-changing ideologies (I agree that removing ideology completely is impossible). ”

You said it right there. We can’t get rid of ideologies. The current ideology is “efficiency”, “capitalism”, “economic growth”, “time is money”, “work hard”. If you have not seen that, then you have a huge blind spot. We on the left are always accused of peddling our ideology to other people with our insistence on worker ownership, state control, revolution and redistribution of wealth or any number of things you can think of. But our response is usually, yes, we are ideologists, but so are you and so is everyone else. What we need to do is to put our ideologies out there with all of its assumptions, premises and goals, and then debate, defend and modify them openly in public rather than make our high-priest prescriptions under the cloak of “objectivity”, “neutrality” and “fair-mindedness”. But as far as education is concerned, I prefer the Deweyite approach, where we encourage our children to learn, expose them to various viewpoints (even those that we or the teachers personally disagree with), and then let them figure out what to believe in.

Kareen Movsesyan:

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“The educated public might conclude that the works council is precisely the kind of outcome they seek to attain. Here is the reasoning: the majority of the public are workers. The majority of the public will, therefore, seek to promote workers’ interests, and if they are educated they will certainly want that outcome. Your little petition writing is not going to cut it. We need reliable institutions that advocate on behalf of the workers on a permanent basis, and that for that reason a works council would turn out to be a desirable outcome. Education itself if we restrain ourselves to understanding Plato and Aristotle is not going to get us really far as individuals. We will have productive philosophy club discusssions, but we won’t be able to do important political things. (Though one can use the skills learned in the philosophical training to advocate for real issues later on.)”

But again, that reasoning presumes that works councils are the appropriate and best institutional channel in which to advocate workers’ interests. The majority of people/workers are more interested in a commodious living which presumes high wages and overall affordability of life’s basic necessities, not some innate interest in owning the means of production through communal administrative structures. Personal differences and natural divisions of labor will nonetheless ensure that only certain committed workers maintain control over works councils functions and decision-making, raising the possibility that personal greed and ambition can trump their dedication to their fellow workers once most others in a firm are placated through the excessive trust imbued onto the main drivers of the works council.

Additionally, look at democracies today – they are flawed, the educated and uneducated alike express political apathy and disinterest in political activism although such activities may be essential to their well-being. What I’ve refuted and still remain doubtful of is the essential goodness of works councils as the effective means of achieving your purported outcomes. Again, I am all for at least trying them in America but to presume that they would undoubtedly be the best way to empower the workers through reform and increased education, versus say, empowering unions and ensuring they live to their intended purpose without overreaching or corruption, is what I have been arguing against this entire time. Why marginally improve both works councils and unions when you can get a likely greater outcome by investing exclusively on unions?

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“.. Any kind of organized worker effort to protect themselves from the encroachment by their employers is denounced as reducing the efficiency of the entire plant. By reducing the ability of employers to make their workers work harder at lower wages, we are apparently reducing the efficiency of the entire firm. There are two lines of defense here: (1) humaitarian and (2) long-term efficiency. In (1) approach, we could argue that efficiency does not matter as much as the well-being of the workers, which is already a valid reason for me. (2) argues that we can’t only look at the short-term efficiency that is incurred by screwing workers with lower wages and mistreatment practices, but also have to look at what happens in the long run, when many workers are simply too exhausted, and carry out work at lowered amount of efficiency. After 50 hours of work per week, the marginal return of employing the worker shrinks dramatically and then turns even negative. By lowering the wages, the ability of the firm to attract the best talent for the job also decreases, so employers end up with the least reliable and low-productivity workers, which diminishes efficiency too. These are all outcomes that should be thought about when it comes to disempowering the workers at their job.”

Fair points although two main caveats remain. Firstly, leaving firm functionality to a bunch of workers in a works council or whatever administrative surrogate there may be will likely result in democratic decision making that is economically imprudent. Whether this would be embodied by unsustainably high wages, excess benefits, awful business manufacturing and distribution decisions, etc. we cannot predict but when the largely uneducated masses dictate overall policies, pareto efficiency is more frequently lost and therefore the humanitarian and long-term efficiency principles you outlined above could be compromised. A largely educated public, wherein every worker is competent in macro and microeconomic structures and principles, while also possessing a minimally significant level of interest and participation in works councils functions and decision making is a rather extreme ideal of education that is far more difficult than say, putting everyone through high school and college, leaving them to choose their own educational specializations.

Secondly, this still does not confirm that works councils = humanitarian and long term efficiency. Your confidence in the applicability and success of this institution has yet to be effectively conveyed; instead, you’ve only stated that it’s worth trying out more in the US which I do not disagree with. However, you’ve also thus far implied that alternatives (e.g., unions – labor and trade, etc.) would do worse – not even acknowledging how works councils would work under our current litigation and wage regime (ignoring the question of relative performance).

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“…But when I read the majority and dissenting views of the Supreme Court the idealistic judgments are precisely what informs the choice of words and conclusions of the respective justices, no matter how much they want to cloak it in existing precedent or the “meaning” of the constitution or the statute at hand. We should start with our ideological premise, and then we will use any good reasoning that we like in order to support and defend our case. I would abstain from making strawman attacks of me taking an unwarranted ideological swipe, while you are maintaining the “proper” interpretation of the statute… “

Apologies if my comment appeared excessively accusatory. While it’s true that ideology influences all decision-making, including law at all levels, understand that as a centrist my interpretation of law is different and less ideologically clouded. For instance, when a doctrinal issue claims whether a law explicitly violated a provision stating that such behavior is prohibited, I would not rule on that case as “no, not because of question A, but because of points B, C.” Instead I’d say, if the law says don’t do X but you did X anyway, I don’t care how you justify it, the fact is that X was indeed violated. Now it’s true, as an unsullied in this profession my own values and philosophies will be tested and so that statement may be marred by a certain scent of ignorance but when the Electromation case argued whether the employer interfered in the works councils creation, the evidence is overwhelmingly held in the affirmative.

In this respect, I am less an advocate of judicial activism than are those described in the literature by figures like Rosenberg (1991) and Keck (2004). The law may be unfair in this case but when someone violates A when it’s expressly forbidden, unless the prohibition is a blatantly unconstitutional provision (of which I don’t see adequate evidence as such questions aren’t even implied in the constitution textually), then the law must be upheld and the case subsequently ruled as it had been. Sure, my claim of no evidence is arguably subjective, and others may claim the right to assembly is sufficient in this regard but again, no one is stopping workers from meeting other workers in their private time to deliberate on their working conditions. Should the latter argument be plausible though, what would stop a potential precedent of seeping into the education system for instance, thereby removing the hierarchical structure there – creating a Fourier-type mutual educational exchange system? In all, if the law is unfair, I think the most appropriate alternative is to change the law when evidence of the law’s unconstitutional is paltry or absent. In that case, the Electromation case must reluctantly be upheld given its context. —————————–
“… There are many bullshit employer initiatives, and they are not really works councils. In corporate speak, they are called human resource departments. The goal of human resource departments is to prevent union organizing by giving them really cheap things like free company lunches or stars on their name tags or something like that, which don’t diminish the employer bottom line but make workers “feel” better about themselves. What you are simply saying with your critique is that an institution like the works council itself will do nothing to help the workers unless the workers are vigilant. And you are right, the workers always need to be vigilant.”

Happiness is an extremely subjective and complex topic – the main reason being the absence of causational findings. Should these workers ignore these superficial gestures and instead resort towards greater worker control, what guarantee is there that the means justify the ends? Will the suffering of derision, decreased wages, potential firings during this period of advocacy for greater wages, etc. justify the end result of works councils and other platforms for worker participation, especially when only a select number of politically-savvy and ambitious workers will dominate these institutions’ affairs? Will the end happiness surpass the suffering and sacrifice that must precede it? Most people are not interested in administratively control; instead they worry about their kids, futures, income, leisure time – factors that would not necessarily be achieved in this worker-ownership ideal state and especially when natural divisions of labor and corruptible individuals exploit these institutions to their own interest. A constantly vigilant, politically activist and open-minded electorate is needed – one that persists even in time of prosperity and peace with as much vigilance and careful observation as during critical events. Our tendencies towards placation under comfort and the greater desensitization over politics assures me that this kind of education is merely fantastical, leaving this workers’ ownership argument as a frivolous one – one overly idealistic and unjustified.
—————————– “If I break my leg and employer negligence is clearly to blame, then it is great, because US law and legal practice give me enough leeway to make myself a millionaire and basically never have to work again. But for me this is a very superficial (albeit important) measure of workers rights. What we really have to do is to raise wages and benefits and increase worker input into how the workplace is structured. Notice that works councils are a very moderate political proposal, which are social democratic and not socialist, because in the latter regime, the workers are taking over completely.”

To this point I must ask, why do the means necessarily matter to you? Under this litigation framework, your individual capacity to gain reparation is likely greater than it would be under a theoretical works council regime in America. What purpose does maintaining a more explicitly democratic means of achieving similar (likely less effective) outcomes for reparation serve aside from satiating our idealism and intellectually egoistical standards (not a characterization directed at you but academics in general)? As I’ve stated, in this end-state of worker ownership over the means of production, public political apathy, natural divisions of labor and our tendencies towards placation under peaceful/stable conditions would mean that this ideal is not so ideal after all as only the truly dedicated would utilize their rights to a firm’s production.

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“I am not blind to the division of labor. But in the Mondragon cooperative in Spain, they do have a system of distributing labor by allowing workers to switch their jobs every week, so they don’t go crazy on the job. Of course, the janitor will not likely become a teacher, because you have to know the subject matter to teach it well. So division of labor will remain, but we still have to resolve the power question. The few managers control all of the resources, and then defend themselves by claiming that they have a comparative advantage over others to do that kind of managerial work. But where precisely is the justification to stuff their own pockets with company money, which was generated by the totality of the workforce? “

I understand the sentiment here but I as I’ve stressed, I do not see the ideal of workers owning the means of production as a long-term sustainable option to avoid corporate excesses. I don’t like to babble on about the cliché human nature argument against true socialism but psychological, human fact, not normative theories, highly suggest that these institutional arrangements would be unsustainable, exploited by select dedicated peoples, and would be easily open to corruption. No matter how democratic law and convention can be arranged to avoid such excesses, when the few dedicated accumulate enough power and wealth to trump those laws, not much can be done.

Thus to mitigate corporate excesses like rising inequality, measures can be taken to avoid loop holes and other factors to better attain the ends you seek.
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“…The problem have always been the top managers and a few top shareholders, who are appropriating a huge share of the income. The top 1% captures 25% of the national income and 50% of the national wealth. The Walton family earns more wealth than the poorest 40% of Americans. 95% of all income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the richest 1%. There are good papers by Piketty and Saez on this topic. Let us not get confused about what type of inequality is the real problem in the contemporary capitalist economy.”

Latin America is a blatantly clear example of excess income inequality – that topic is not new to me. Nonetheless, as you may certainly agree these socialist structures in no way suggest the ends you seek. With increasingly alarming climate change, technological advancement and its replacement of low and middle class jobs, fragile financial markets and untethered globalization coupled with exponential population growth, the sustainability of any such policy is capped to a few generations at best and likely is impossible in a huge country like the U.S. I’m more interested in whether works councils can essentially (definitively) improve on workers economic conditions in the US but thus far I have not been convinced that investing and fixing other worker platforms is any less preferably to them.
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“A brief comment on Canada: I am glad that they chose the more civilized solution, just as they have witht he single-payer health care system. Adams points out that works councils may encourage unionization and collective bargaining- perhaps because they raise class consciousness among workers, who are given the tools of participation, and that works councils tend to be more effective in conjunction with unions (p.28). Absolutely!”

Brief question since I cannot gain access to Adams’ excerpt at home. Aren’t these outcomes of previously non-unionized industries? If so, it does not answer whether they or unions are the preferably choice in improving worker conditions.

“’Centralized wage bargaining will likely not be here for a very long time. ‘

Yes, workers in America are basically more screwed than in Europe. But your response is to put your head on the table and forget about it and mine is to pull up my sleeves and think about ways how to bring it about.”

It’s easy to come up with ideas like that but when the implements of said idea is forcing everyone into submission to accept these terms, especially when it will likely result in massive instability, both politically and economically, then to say I am simply forgetting about an issue is disingenuous. I prefer incremental over extreme change and I found your confidence in such state-coerced based strategies worrisome. You cannot change the cultural and economic climate of a country overnight without major repercussions and more importantly, the means of coercive force suggested for this purpose seem antithetical to the America’s constitutional principles on individual liberty. Personal beliefs or not, all reforms must be done in accordance with those principles in this country.
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“…Yes, I hope that unions and councils are complementing, and they should be. I have never said we should not strengthen unions, and I strongly advocate the employee free choice act, which has been killed by conservatives in Congress, but it would make union elections much easier to organize rather than have so many bureaucratic barriers toward certification.”

On this point we agree.
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“You said it right there. We can’t get rid of ideologies. The current ideology is ‘efficiency’, ‘capitalism’, ‘economic growth’, ‘time is money’, ‘work hard’. If you have not seen that, then you have a huge blind spot. We on the left are always accused of peddling our ideology to other people with our insistence on worker ownership, state control, revolution and redistribution of wealth or any number of things you can think of. But our response is usually, yes, we are ideologists, but so are you and so is everyone else. What we need to do is to put our ideologies out there with all of its assumptions, premises and goals, and then debate, defend and modify them openly in public rather than make our high-priest prescriptions under the cloak of ‘objectivity’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘fair-mindedness’. But as far as education is concerned, I prefer the Deweyite approach, where we encourage our children to learn, expose them to various viewpoints (even those that we or the teachers personally disagree with), and then let them figure out what to believe in.”

I don’t have an issue with the Deweyite approach but what I was getting at with that recommendation was that aside from imbibing on the youth a longing for learning, they should be educated in economics in the ideological principals you aptly described. Why? Because in the scenario that workers maintain the means of production, they would understand business economics, comparative advantage, opportunity cost, supply-demand and other such concepts, such that they can maximize their own collective profits. I don’t believe economics as a discipline is innately zero-sum and capitalist but should the workers not understand the fundamentals, then the excesses of certain workers trying to recreate class distinctions and hierarchies within the firm would be harder to identify and stop. Economics and democratic worker relations are not mutually exclusive in my opinion.

L Larry Liu:

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“But again, that reasoning presumes that works councils are the appropriate and best institutional channel in which to advocate workers’ interests. The majority of people/workers are more interested in a commodious living which presumes high wages and overall affordability of life’s basic necessities, not some innate interest in owning the means of production through communal administrative structures.”
I think I might have addressed this point previously, but I am too lazy now to reread my old statements. The workers on average might not be interested in active policymaking, but they will support the institution in which this policymaking is taking place. Not every worker will be part of the works council, but only some, and they tend to be the most socially intelligent workers. Let’s take another example. We might argue that all pensioners are not really interested to talk intelligently about good retirement policies, but if I did a survey and I asked them whether I should cut their Medicare and Social Security, I would be interested to see how many pensioners still remain so apathetic, as we once thought they were.

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” Personal differences and natural divisions of labor will nonetheless ensure that only certain committed workers maintain control over works councils functions and decision-making, raising the possibility that personal greed and ambition can trump their dedication to their fellow workers once most others in a firm are placated through the excessive trust imbued onto the main drivers of the works council.”
Yeah, that is a risk, but I addressed this point by saying that the worker can only protect himself by being vigilant, but of course, the first point speaks to the contray that only few people are itnerested in policymaking to begin with. In the old days, we had Plato pronouncing the importance of having philsopher kings, wise rulers, who make good decisions for their people. If you look at somebody like Confucius, he has talked about the same things. A benevolent ruler relies on the Mandate of Heaven, and if he is corrupt he shall be overthrown by another more benevolent ruler.
Of course, we can go back and forth and debate whether such a world is feasible or not, but I think it distracts from the issue at hand, which is whether introducing works council is an institutional improvement to the status quo. I would say yes. Let me put it more provocatively: I would rather have a corrupt system with a works council than a corrupt system without a works council, since we both agree that human corruption is a natural state in all social situations.
I was reminded of the veracity of this statement, when I heard my mother complain about very different situations, once when working in Austria with the union and works council (postal service) and once when working in the US at Walmart without either of these two. In the former, she would complain about the corruption of her union bosses, and in the latter she would complain about the exploitation of the capitalist bosses, and there can be no doubt that the latter is objectively worse than the former.
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“Why marginally improve both works councils and unions when you can get a likely greater outcome by investing exclusively on unions?”
I find the premise of your statement very disturbing, namely that there is a limited amount of political capital that workers can spend. Why should we strategize in a self-limiting way? Why can workers not demand more political and economic rights on all fronts? If you practically look at the VW strategy in Tennessee, they wanted to accomplish the works council, but to get there you legally need to establish a union first, so that is why they went through the union certification election. My right-wing friends say that we should respect the democratic outcome as a tiny majority of the workers voted against the union, but I wonder whether these right-wingers are so democratic in their instinct had the workers voted yes. But the point is that if you are a worker, you are best served by improving the conditions of work on all fronts.
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“Firstly, leaving firm functionality to a bunch of workers in a works council or whatever administrative surrogate there may be will likely result in democratic decision making that is economically imprudent.”
Am I concerned about the lack of economic prudence of the workers? Not really. If the workers were to make demands which are too excessive, then the firm will try to pass the costs to the consumers in the form of higher prices. Given that some firms will have a more disciplined workforce than other firms offering the same product, we would see how quickly the firm would become uncompetitive, and some workers will lose their jobs. The union negotiator knows this, and will push for prudent worker demands. But this is more of a union issue than of a works council issue, because the works council limits itself to prosecuting employer wage theft, or incorporating worker input into the production process. These are more administrative duties, while the wage bargaining issue is left to the union leadership.
——————–
” However, you’ve also thus far implied that alternatives (e.g., unions – labor and trade, etc.) would do worse – not even acknowledging how works councils would work under our current litigation and wage regime (ignoring the question of relative performance).”
When have I ever said that the alternatives are worse? My point is that the workers have to advance their interests on all fronts, which includes trade unions as well as works councils. In the Austrian case, we know that virtually all workers are covered with works councils and collective bargaining coverage, but not trade unions. France has universal collective bargaining by legislation, but an ever smaller trade union coverage. The US would do well to absorb elements which are good for the workers, so someone like Bernie Sanders, who raves about Scandinavia, is absolutely necessary to reframe US discourse and expand horizons of imagination. We urgently need it, because even members of the intelligentsia like yourself, refuse to entertain ideas like works councils.
Your accusation against me is that I cannot prove that works councils are good for the workers, but I only need to prove how it could be better for workers, while the real evaluation of its effects can only come once we have implemented it. So let’s implement it!
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” Instead I’d say, if the law says don’t do X but you did X anyway, I don’t care how you justify it, the fact is that X was indeed violated. ”
Yes, but who determines X? Is X justifiable based on our values of social stability, social justice or equality?

——————–
“Should these workers ignore these superficial gestures and instead resort towards greater worker control, what guarantee is there that the means justify the ends? Will the suffering of derision, decreased wages, potential firings during this period of advocacy for greater wages, etc. justify the end result of works councils and other platforms for worker participation, especially when only a select number of politically-savvy and ambitious workers will dominate these institutions’ affairs? Will the end happiness surpass the suffering and sacrifice that must precede it? ”
Why should the workers not try it? Martin Luther King said that the oppressor never voluntarily concedes ground, but responds to the action of the oppressed. It will always be a somewhat individual decision whether workers should sacrifice their existence to attain long-term improvement in their working conditions. But your fearful formulation would have been devastating for the civil rights movement. If all balck people in the south were so afraid, how could they gain their voting and civil rights? Is it justifiable for black people to go to prison and risk their freedom for opposing segregation in buses, restaurants, schools and workplaces? Looking back at it, we can say yes of course, because of what they have accomplished. But if you were a black activist in the 1950s and 1960s, you might have shivered in fear and had self-doubt which is normal as an activist. It is hard to predict what any of us would have done in their shoes, but luckily there is a certain movement dynamics. Once it gets started it is only natural to participate more and gain self-confidence, which in turn motivates your neighbors to participate too. The first step toward reducing oppression is to recognize that (1) other people are in the same situation as you and that (2) if you stick together you can get what you want.
——————–
“To this point I must ask, why do the means necessarily matter to you? Under this litigation framework, your individual capacity to gain reparation is likely greater than it would be under a theoretical works council regime in America. What purpose does maintaining a more explicitly democratic means of achieving similar (likely less effective) outcomes for reparation serve aside from satiating our idealism and intellectually egoistical standards (not a characterization directed at you but academics in general)”
What I can read from your statement is a dedication toward individualism and individual justice, which is different from the collectivist framework that is natural to my argument. In my view, individual justice works out well if you desire to bring such a case forward, but if you are a more shy person, you don’t want to speak up and get no reparations. I would rather have a union and a works council ready with a formal grievance procedure to establish justice for individual workers. What we accomplish is the following: (1) workers are more devoted to collective organizations like the union or the works council as they witness first hand how they do things for you, which is not a self-serving objective but strengthens the common resolve and legitimacy of an organization that best knows how to advance the interest of the working class. (2) Even shy workers, who are not so likely to demand justice, have less inhibition to air their grievances. So on both counts we not only have idealism, but we have real economic benefits for grieved workers.
——————–
“Nonetheless, as you may certainly agree these socialist structures in no way suggest the ends you seek. With increasingly alarming climate change, technological advancement and its replacement of low and middle class jobs, fragile financial markets and untethered globalization coupled with exponential population growth, the sustainability of any such policy is capped to a few generations at best and likely is impossible in a huge country like the U.S. ”
Yes, there are other issues that we have to worry about as well, but I don’t see my case undermined. I don’t have to show that works councils solve all problems. That would be as absurd as saying that works councils can cure cancer, make us immortal and kill all Klingons who will come to earth and pillage us. All I have to show is that workers are better off with works councils. They have better ways to advance their interests. Given the other problems you have written about, it is even more important that we can adjust to any of these challenges by having worker organizations in place.
——————–
“Aren’t these outcomes of previously non-unionized industries? If so, it does not answer whether they or unions are the preferably choice in improving worker conditions.”
Why is your case reliant on A or B? Why not A and B? Why not have strong trade unions and strong works councils? there is no doubt that workers with works councils are better off than had they no works council, but they would be even better off if they had a strong union backing them as well.
——————–
” Because in the scenario that workers maintain the means of production, they would understand business economics, comparative advantage, opportunity cost, supply-demand and other such concepts, such that they can maximize their own collective profits. I don’t believe economics as a discipline is innately zero-sum and capitalist but should the workers not understand the fundamentals, then the excesses of certain workers trying to recreate class distinctions and hierarchies within the firm would be harder to identify and stop. Economics and democratic worker relations are not mutually exclusive in my opinion.”
Will workers once they own the means of production still be interested to maintain a profit-driven system? Unfortunately, the current reality is yes, because whether you are privately owned or worker owned, you have to maintain firm principles which are consistent with self-maintenance, competitive prices and growth. I would say that as intellectuals we should at least have the freedom to debate whether this principle is the right one to pursue or not. I would say that we have to move the economy to a zero-growth model, where we produce as much as necessary but not much more for the sake of our environment. The reason why I think that worker or private ownership matters here is that it would be easier to bring about a zero growth economy under worker ownership. But we can debate that. It could also be better under private ownership because of centralized control, but under private ownership it will be more difficult to push for more social rather than private objectives.
Again, all workers are rather unlikely to know everything about economic principles, but all they need to know is that there are some people, who carry more responsibility than others, and that the people who make decisions are constantly held accountable to return to my earlier pension/ social security example.

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