II.Contextualizing Follett: The Workplace Democracy Movement 

In this section we explore our contention that at this fin de siecle we are replicating in different language the empowerment-disempowerment debates of the last fin de siecle. There were a number of late 19th century movements ranging from Robert Owens work to establish cooperatives (Lawrence, 1988), to a reintroduction of craft guilds, the trade union movement, and union and non-union workers' councils. More recent manifestations of these movements include Quality of Work life efforts and cooperatives like Mondragon. It is in this historical context of a contest over various solutions to worker participation and ownership, that Mary Parker Follett did her consulting. The majority of cooperative and democratic capitalism programs of that time were composed of elected worker representatives and management appointees who came together to discuss and decide workplace problems ranging from wages, hours, safety conditions, productivity, efficiency, and employee health. The cooperative movement insisted upon workers making decisions that had been the exclusive prerogative of managers and owners including hiring, firing, property management, and technology. Marxist worker's councils wanted even more control than trade unions. Debord (1967: #116) (1) describes councils as:

revolutionary workers' Councils which concentrate in themselves all the functions of decision and execution, and federate with each other by means of delegates responsible to the base and revocable at any moment.


Guild Movement and Trade Unions. Cole (1919a,b) writes that the guild systems of the Middle Ages were enjoying a revival since 1906. In a reference to Marx, Cole (1919a: 214) writes "Modern industry is built up on a denial - a denial to the mass of the workers of the attributes of humanity. In the factory of to-day, the workman counts not as a man, but as an employee, not as a human being, but as the material embodiment of so much labor power." When the firm owner buys the workers' embodiment in labor power, "the worker is not regarded as having any right to share in the control of the factory in which he works" (Cole, 1919a: 215). To Cole, the lesson of the Guild was that medieval guilds presented a form of workplace democracy where "every workman can feel that he has a real share in controlling the conditions of his life and work" (p. 216). Cole (1919b) called for a socialist guild system in which workers self-governed industries in a system of national guilds within a democratic state. Such a system had existed for several years in Great Britain. While Marxist Industrial Unionists were focused on blue-collar workers, the guild system, which sought to organize technical and professional personnel, was denounced as a bourgeois counter-revolution. Marxists criticized the movement because the intellectuals and professional class took over guild management, leaving workers in the same marginal position as in managerial corporations. Yet, for Cole and others, the new guild movement was a supplement to the trade union movement, but with more focus on industrial self-government. Both the guild and trade union movement contended that when workers sell their labor power in return for a wage, they surrender their control over their own profit (something the Greeks viewed as worse than a slave, because the slave had no choice, but the wage slave willingly gave up his or her profit to another). (2) Trade unions would give labor partial control over how their labor was used, but the guilds would give full control. The guild movement wanted the wage system to collapse. Ironically, in the current economy of down sizing and outsourcing, workers are being encouraged to give up wages to become subcontracting entrepreneurs. Guilds also wanted the right to choose one of the guild members to serve as foremen or supervisor.

Non-union Joint Councils. In the late 1800s there was another popular movement for industrial democracy organized by employers (and the State) to counter trade unionism. Employers organized non-union joint councils of workers and managers, governing departments, and divisions. Within the movement there was a wide diversity of plans. For example, the GE Lynn works plant consisted of "a works council, composed of representatives of the men in a whole works or plant, called the House of Representatives; a Senate elected by and from the foremen; and a Cabinet, composed of the officials of the company" (Miller, 1922: 59). On the other hand, the Elgin National Watch Company had a works council "composed of nineteen employees, one elected from each department in the factory. The joint works council is composed of the members of the works council and management representatives" (p. 58). Disputes could be settled in four ways: by a management committee, a joint committee, a joint works council, or by arbitration. Most committees decided issues of wages, hours, and factory problems and regulations. Proctor and Gamble considered items that pertained to the welfare of employees, while others dealt also with issues of greater efficiency, justice, and good will (Miller, 1922: 65-66). There were special committees in some organizations to focus on sanitation, safety, and recreation. Management kept control, in most cases, of hiring, firing and property management.

The growth of non-union joint councils was slow up to the end of 1917 (Miller, 1922: 43): "The year 1918 marks the beginning of a period of rapid expansion in this movement, which rapid growth has continued up to the present time." Councils were seen as a way for employers to voluntarily settle the strikes (that were on the rise), improve industrial relations, contain unionism, lower turnover, and imitate what other successful firms were doing. There were similar joint management-worker governance arrangements with unionized firms. Unionists argued the councils were a less effective alternative to collective bargaining. However, some unions supported the non-union council effort as a way to spread trade unionism. Many of the non-union committees eventually became union structures.

With the end of the war, while the war industry employers and some unions abandoned some council plans, the majority were retained. Follett consulted in the historical context of a council movement that still had momentum. Many consultants viewed the joint management labor committees as a viable democratic alternative to collective bargaining. The number of councils expanded from 225 to over 725 between 1919 and 1922 (Miller, 1922: 49) and included over one million workers (Gold, 1986: 5). "The management in the vast majority of [sampled] firms having these plans has been found enthusiastic in its praise of the council system" (p. 49).

In non-union joint committees, "decisions were often subject to executive approval, committee membership restricted by a number of qualifications, and employee members reluctant to take a stand because of possible reprisals" (Gold, 1986: 6). And, "there is no doubt concerning the fact that the non-union council movement in the United States has been largely an anti-union movement" (Gold, 1986: 51). The move from autocratic to seemingly participatory and even democratic forms of governance and empowerment was also a strategic move to increase efficiency. "Arguments for democratic industrial management, as a means to greater efficiency, are generally based upon the proposition that to gain increased efficiency the workers' good will and desire to cooperate must first be gained" (Miller, 1922: 73).

Union-endorsed Joint Committees. In the depression of 1921, cooperative management-labor committees were embraced by unions in the textile and railroad industries "to establish better relations with management, while increasing output, reducing costs, and ensuring their members employment in the face of nonunion competition" (Gold, 1986: 6). The joint management-labor committee movement surged once again in popularity in the 1940s to meet World War II needs for war production. Gold (1986: 6) records that there were five thousand committees employing almost seven million workers. Critics (de Schweinitz, 1949; Golden in Derber, 1970: 380-1) argued that only a few hundred committees improved productivity, while many substituted for regular grievance committees, did not protect workers displaced by new technology, and did not equitably distribute proceeds of increases in productivity. Unlike post-WWI, post-WWII saw a drastic decrease in the number of joint committees, a trend that continued through the early 1970s. An exception was the Scanlon Plan for sharing cost savings achieved in a problem solving committee system and suggestion program. The plan was first developed in the late 1930s, and was named after Joseph Scanlon, an accountant, steelworker, labor official, and later a faculty member at MIT. The plan gained in popularity after WWII (Gold, 1986: 17), and it called for cooperation between management, unions and workers.

Worker Participation Programs. The quality of work life (QWL) programs focused on improvements in work environment and productivity through participation in decisions about job design and problem solving. These programs went by various names, including quality circles, employee-participation groups, employee-involvement teams, and problem solving teams. While used more frequently in non-union companies, union firms such as GM, UAW, and AT&T and the CWA (Communications Workers of America) implemented QWL programs. Firms such as HP, Westinghouse Electric, Inland Steel, Honeywell, Pillsbury, IBM, 3M, and Harley-Davidson also embarked on QWL programs. Others, like TRW, experimented with a wide variety of cooperative programs ranging from profit sharing from cost-saving suggestions (Scanlon), QWL teams, quality circle teams, to Greenfield plants, where workers in self-managed teams participatively managed facilities with a minimum of formal supervisors (Gold, 1986: 16).

The 1980s saw a reemergence of joint management-labor committees. Ford Motor Company had 86 and GM 151 worker participation programs by the mid-1980s. Similar programs occurred in Xerox, Bell Labs, Bethlehem Steel, and a number of rail and transportation companies. Even the state of Delaware established such committees for its employees, as did the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police and the Professional Fire Fighters Union. In most of the union firms, such as Xerox or Bethlehem Steel, committees were prohibited from discussing economic or business problems or collective bargaining issues. The focus was on quality, safety, improving work methods, and savings in inventory and rework costs. The QWL movement declined in popularity as the total quality management (TQM) movement focused more on the quality of productivity than on QWL issues. With the reengineering fad of the 1990s, joint management-labor committees became self-management teams, managing more functions with fewer employees, and fewer middle managers. With the recent popularity of outsourcing, empowerment means temporary and contractual employment within a global division of labor.

Cooperative Programs. The Mondragon cooperative movement in Spain is an example of workers' control over the firm as a whole. It stresses worker ownership as the basis for cooperative governance. Managers are elected and can be de-elected by worker-vote. Kasmir's (1996) study reveals that even Mondragon cooperatives have sticky issues of empowerment as well as disempowerment that do not go away with the implementation of democratic governance models, even those involving co-ownership. Mondragon systems are still political, not apolitical, and economic justice is still a struggle of social classes (Kasmir, 1996: 18).

In sum, there are and have been a variety of participation plans to involve employees in limited and more encompassing forms of industrial democracy. In the HR approach to empowerment, it is the sole right of management to control the entire free enterprise system, limiting participation to more narrow concerns. Unions in the US have, since the time of Samuel Gompers in 1920, opted to limit employee participation to health, safety, QWL, and productivity, leaving managers and owners to focus on financial management, strategy, and policy, with unions in control of grievances. At the other end of the spectrum, the Owens cooperative movement, of which the Mondragon is the most contemporary example, insists that worker representatives make finance, marketing, outsourcing, and technical decisions.

In general, we agree with Gold (1986: 50) that "crisis spawns an interest in cooperation." At one extreme, empowerment is a restricted concept in which bosses make unilateral decisions. In the mid-range, empowerment is just work area and personnel decisions. At the other extreme, empowered workers manage and control the entire enterprise. Critics of empowerment share the union concern, that empowerment is oftentimes a way to contain, weaken, or avoid unionism; and as such, is fundamentally disempowering. While some critics are more optimistic about empowerment, critical postmodernists look at the potential for both empowerment and disempowerment. With empowerment efforts now placed in the historical context of workplace democracy, we turn now to examine Mary Parker Follett's relevance to this issue.


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This paper proceeds From Title/Abstract  through 7 steps: (1) briefly reviewing the current empowerment-disempowerment debate; (2) contextualizing Mary Parker Follett's work with a review of the democratic workplace movements of Marxist socialism, trade unionism, guilds, cooperatives, and non-union workers' councils; (3) discussing Follett's theory of co-active power circularity, with its roots in Hegel's and Dewey's philosophy; (4) summarizing Clegg's circuits of power theory; (5) combining Follett's power-as-capacity concept with Clegg's circuits of power in an assimilative reading we term "co-power," which can move us beyond today's empowerment-disempowerment duality; (6) drawing implications for organizational development and change practices regarding co-power as a way of linking micro and macro issues; and (7) offering conclusions regarding co-power as a way of increasing the effectiveness of organizational change efforts. (And References).