Worker Control and Workplace Democracy. An Alternative Labour History

Over the past 135 years, in all kinds of historical situations and during various political and economic crises and in different political systems, workers have taken control of their workplaces. Yet this story of workers self-administered production is rarely told. Capitalists, bourgeois governments and administrators of systems based on the exploitation of workers usually have little interest in disseminating the history of self-organized workers; those who have successfully run factories without bosses. In the early 20th century workers tried to gain control over production in social and socialist revolutions, like those in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Russia and Spain, and under state socialism, as in Yugoslavia, Poland or Hungary; they did so as well in anti- colonial struggles and democratic revolutions in Argentina, Algeria, Indonesia and Portugal, to just name a few examples. Factory take-overs by workers and the perspective of workers’ control was also present in labor struggles against capitalist restructuring in the last third of the 20th century in France, Self-Administration, Autonomy, State Socialism, Union, Council Democracy, Crisis, Cooperatives
the UK, Italy, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Company occupations and workers’ self-administration have again manifested themselves strongly since the 1990s in Argentina and in many parts of South America, as well as in India and some European countries. Workers and communities have recuperated hundreds of factories and companies contending against the consequences of global capitalist crises (Ness & Azzellini 2011). What can be seen from all these examples is a common struggle of workers for the democratic control of production. They show how, even without knowledge of previous worker control initiatives or an explicit socialist consciousness, the collective administration of workplaces has frequently emerged as an inherent tendency among the rank and file. Workers’ councils and assemblies discuss, decide and work in a horizontal and directly democratic way. In the long run workers’ control has not been able to impose itself on a large scale. Media and expert discourses often suggest that the many problems worker-controlled companies faced internally were the reason for their failure. But despite all claims that workers’ control is not viable or the supposed loss of enthusiasm of workers and the adverse conditions of the capitalist context surrounding them, workers’ control almost always failed because of the threat or use of violent repression.
This illustrates that workers’ control in production is only one necessary step for transforming society and moving towards overcoming capitalism and »the exploitation of men by men« (as Marx said: today we would say »men and women«). In order to create a perspective for overcoming capitalism it
is indispensable to gain control of production. But revolutionary organization and self- administration must be extended to all areas of society to be able to consolidate the transformation process needed. […]

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