University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Journal of Applied Communication, vol. 23 (1995), pp. 167-200


Democracy in the Workplace:
Theory and Practice from the Perspective of Communication

George Cheney


George Cheney is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies, University of Montana-Missoula, Missoula, MT 59812. This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Albuquerque, May 1995. The author expresses gratitude to these researchers knowledgeable about the Mondragon cooperatives for helpful discussions and written correspondence: Sue Eicher, Fred Freundlich, Sally Klingel, Terry Martin, Sheila Turnpin-Foster and William Foote Whyte. Also, I thank the late W. Charles Redding, Cynthia Stohl, Hollis Glaser, and Mike Miller, in addition to the reviews and the editor of this journal, for offering their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper; and Bill Gorden and Ann Westenholz for providing some valuable references. Ina addition, I acknowledge support from the Council on Creative Work of the University of Colorado at Boulder for a grant-in-aid to conduct research in Mondragon, Spain, from February through June, 1994. I am very grateful to Jurgen Denk for lending me his car during my stay in the Basque Country. And above all, I give profound thanks to everyone at the Otalora Training Center for the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation and to numerous persons in specific coops of Mondragon and ULMA for allowing me to experience, explore, converse and debate, all in one of the world's most beautiful and inviting places.



ABSTRACT: This essay considers a range of issues related to workplace democracy in the contemporary industrialized world. Although drawing from a broad multi-disciplinary literature, the essay emphasizes topics that can be usefully explored from the perspective of communication and sound contributions that can be made to theory and practice from such an engagement of the field. The essay essentially argues for the widespread democratization of work but not without considering realistic limitations to that ideal. The case of the Mondragon worker cooperatives, in the Basque region of Spain, is offered to demonstrate both the promise and problems of workplace democracy.
 

"Many visitors come here and ask us why we have such an unusual business. But, I say to them: Don't you think it's strange that more or organizations in the world aren't like this one?'
 
- from the author's interview with a worker-member, the Mondragon cooperatives, the Basque Country, Spain, May 1994.

Surely one of the great ironies of the modern world is that democracy, imperfect as it is in the political realm, seldom extends to the workplace. In fact, most U.S. citizens do not even question the fact that they are required to "check their voice at the door" of the shop or office. Fortunately, some scholars and practitioners have responded to Carole Pateman's (1970) call to examine carefully how our democratic ideals apply to the workplace. David Ewing (1977) has observed the prevalence of undemocratic organizations within what we commonly consider to be a political democracy. Marshall Sashkin (1984) has insisted that participative management is an ethical imperative, not only because it is consistent with democratic principles but also because it satisfies basic needs, enhances health and increases productivity. And, Bachrach and Botwinick have (1992) asserted workers' rights from a political perspective, arguing that employees ought to share equally "in decision making at all levels of the enterprises in which they work" (p. 163). Finally, Susan Whalen (in progress) shows convincingly that workers' voices have been systematically excluded from public discourse about the present and future American workplace, surprisingly even in many discussions about "employee participation."

    A searching consideration of workplace democracy—in the U.S., and for that matter, around the world—could not be more timely. The "globalization" of markets through the reduction of trade barriers here and elsewhere, the push for greater productivity in all sectors, the implementation of new programs such as Total Quality Management and Total Participative Management, rampant "downsizing" and "rightsizing" (with the sheer popularity of those euphemisms pointing to the commonness of such cutbacks—we used to call them firings and layoffs), and the acceleration of technological advances are some of the trends that are, for better and for worse, changing the face of the workplace and affecting the lives of millions if not billions of people. Pointedly, employee "empowerment" is now seen is a double-edged sword: the employee with increased responsibility may also be the employee with 1~/2 or 2 jobs to do. The brief but potent General Motors strike of September, 1994, beginning in Detroit but spreading to other plants, represented perhaps the first widely publicized objection by a large contingent of workers in the U.S. to the norms of the New Workplace: greater responsibility within certain parameters, more self-monitoring, and enlarged participation in a range of practices and topics, but with longer hours, more stress and inevitably more frequent injuries and illness. It is not surprising, then, that observers speak of "the end of organizational loyalty" (Bennett, 1990) or "getting not just a job but a life" (Edmondson, 1991). And, estimates of the percentage of U.S. workers happy or very satisfied with their jobs often are at or below one-quarter of the workforce (see, e.g., Moravec, 1994). "Lean production" and "reengineering," representing a bare-bones approach to overhead costs and staffing, are touted as the 1990s solutions to lack of U.S. "competitiveness." But, what is often overlooked is people. Fortunately, in the pages of our journals a number of articles have already appeared that challenge the short-sighted dominant views on productivity, efficiency and competition (see, e.g., Barker & Cheney, 1994; Deetz, 1992; Fairhurst & Wendt, 1993; Mumby & Stohl, 1992). And, studies are beginning to explore the actuality of and potential for worker resistance to new workplace systems in a U.S. environment where labor unions no longer speak for a large segment of employees (see, e.g., Murphy, 1993; Tompkins & Diamant, in progress).

    Working from any one of a variety of humanistic perspectives (broadly speaking), we must ask, "For whom are we designing or redesigning the workplace? For whom is this accelerated pace? For whom are jobs and products and services and the market, in the first place? For whom is increased competitiveness, worldwide?" In a penetrating, broad-based critique of the current form of the market economy, Andrew Bard Schmookler (1993) shows how our economic system has lost sight of higher goals in an endless pattern of unquestioned consumption and the refashioning of the citizen as consumer. Communication scholars can and should have much to say about some of the metaphors, images and values that dominate current discussions of the New Workplace. Moreover, they should look inside as well as outside the workplace itself to assess guiding discourses, structural imperatives, and everyday patterns of talk. For example, there is much work to be done to challenge and offer sensible, humane alternatives to the rhetoric of competition, recognizing such problems and contradictions as: the implicit or sometimes explicit end (or goal) of competition is in fact the end (or termination) of competition (see also Krugman's, 1994, critique of the notion of a nation as economically competitive).

    While I am no economist and my concerns here are more focused on the internal workings of modern organizations, big and small, I must attend to the larger economic, political and social contexts for organizational change today (see, e.g., Deetz, 1994). Therefore, in examining what is possible for a political reordering of the workplace, one consistent with the very principles that are enshrined by the sacred documents of the U.S. and many other democracies around the world, we must understand broad trends and forces at the same time that we look "inside" the organization. (For a comprehensive economic treatment of the role of the democratic firm in various societies, see Ellerman, 1990.)

    The simple but profound question, "How do we implement democratic practices in work organizations?" leads us to think about the goals of organizations, the goals of the individuals who inhabit them, and the goals of the larger society, recognizing that those sets of aspirations can and perhaps should overlap even if not coincide perfectly. What is democracy, speaking specifically and practically, in terms of worklife? Other questions quickly follow: To what extent and in what situations is workplace democracy desirable or beneficial? To what extent is it possible or realistic as a goal? To what extent is it realizable or sustainable over the long term? What are the effects of participative practice on employees and on the organization? How far do particular participative systems go toward fostering a truly democratic workplace? What, if anything, should be done when avenues of workplace participation exist but are not pursued by individuals? And, to what extent is democracy in the workplace connected with broader political and social practices (that is, to activities beyond the organization)? These are the kinds of questions that inspire this essay, in which I reflect on the questions and trace their pragmatic versions through a case study of one large organization that is committed to democracy. Above all, I wish to promote the ideal of a humane workplace, a workplace not just for work but also for people, especially at a time when a simplistic form of the market principle and a crude impulse for greater productivity seem to preoccupy our factories, offices, schools, hospitals and universities.

    Although full consideration of the issues listed above is beyond the scope of a single article, I will in these pages consider some of the basic communication related issues implicated in a theoretical-practical exploration of organizational democracy. As such, this essay is open to a variety of theoretical positions and interpretations, in seeking to provoke further thought, discussion, empirical research and social action.

THE IDEA(L) OF WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY

    Workplace democracy comes in many forms, including localized efforts at offering employees greater control such as quality circles and semi-autonomous work teams (which themselves often are strikingly different in character) and more thoroughgoing efforts at establishing "alternative" organizations or transforming existing, traditional organizations. Workplace democracy has been structured and formalized in, for example, the co-determination models of Germany, Sweden and Denmark, where labor, management and government are legally obliged to cooperate in the formulation of economic policy (see, e.g., Gorden, Holmberg & Heisey, 1994). At the other end of the continuum of institutionalization are informal movements to alter existing authoritarian or hierarchical or patriarchal structures. Of course, such ad hoc efforts frequently find themselves or define themselves in marginal positions with respect to the established institutions of society (see, e.g., Sennett, 1980). Somewhere in the middle of this continuum are many worker owned and/or worker-managed cooperatives in the private or for-profit sector. (See Dachler & Wilpert, 1978, for a thorough consideration of different rationales for and concepts of workplace democracy.)

    In all cases, however, the nature and authenticity of workplace democracy is at issue. Neither democracy nor participation are unitary concepts, in that with each we may speak of types and degrees (see, e.g., Harrison, 1994). Moreover, while sheer participation is a necessary condition for democracy, it is certainly not sufficient. As has often been noted with respect to U.S. politics during the last half of the twentieth century, democratic structures may exist and yet invite only a low to medium level of actual participation (hence, the plethora of voting-behavior studies). Further, the nature of democracy itself is continually contested, as political shifts on the late 1980s and early 1990s in various parts of the world have powerfully shown (see, e.g., Barber, 1992, on "strong democracy"; and Deetz, 1992, on "corporate colonization"). In the context of work, the active pursuit of a democratic arrangement by, say, a majority group in a worker cooperative often engenders paradox: To what extent can democracy be forced, pushed, or mandated, even by a benevolent and value-motivated majority (see, e.g., Westenholz, 1993)? Similarly, the relationship between economic control and participation in actual decision making must be considered, especially in for-profit firms. This relationship is complex and important; for, as Edward Greenberg (1986) concludes from his extensive research on U.S. worker-owned firms, individual alienation and estrangement from the body social can persist even in an organization where economic ownership truly is shared. Thus, most Marxist positions on the matter are too narrow in not giving sufficient attention to the social "logic" and dynamics of the organization; however, such critiques do direct our attention to the self-promoting aspects of the market, to the structures which divorce workers from control over the products and processes of their labor, and to genuine differences in wealth and power between groups (see, e.g., Burawoy, 1979, for a noteworthy exception).

    This essay considers some of the communication-related issues of democracy in the workplace, where workplace democracy is defined broadly as a system of governance which truly values individual goals and feelings (e.g., equitable remuneration, the pursuit of enriching work and the right to express oneself as well as typically organizational objectives (e.g., effectiveness and efficiency, reflectively conceived), which actively fosters the connection between those two sets of concerns by encouraging individual contributions to important organizational choices, and which allows for the ongoing modification of the organization's activities and policies by the group. Thus, I work from the perspective that sees merit in preserving some of the Enlightenment celebration of individual rights and responsibilities but within the context of collective pursuits. Moreover, I recognize that some organizational goals—for example, pursuit of the common good or social betterment—may indeed incorporate what I am here referring to as individual goals. Ultimately, of course, there ought to be substantial, though not complete, overlap between individual and collective pursuits.] Along the way in this discussion, I treat some relevant economic issues. Crucial to my conception of workplace democracy is a strong notion of process: specifically, the celebration of self-reflection, collective development and individual opportunity.

    To keep this essay both manageable and focused, I mention but do not emphasize the promotion of workplace democracy within the structurally adversarial labor-management model, while recognizing the important contributions of many unions and labor-management arrangements toward fostering true worker participation and the continuing role of labor in seeking and protecting a variety of benefits for workers (see Freeman & Medoff, 1984). Further, I must for now exclude state-sponsored and highly institutionalized systems such as codetermination models that exist on a society-wide basis, whether they be in capitalist, plan-based or mixed economies. Too, I am not exploring here the possibilities that exist for workplace democratization through the revolution in communications technologies, although I acknowledge that technical advances do offer avenues toward new forms of organization and community even as they allow for new forms of control and represent a loosening of some traditional social bonds. Also, I do not deal explicitly with issues of multi-cultural or multi-ethnic diversity, although many of my points are relevant to "diversity" in those and in other senses (see Allen, in press, for a detailed treatment of racial and ethnic diversity in organizations). My stress here is on so-called "alternative" organizations—particularly, employing organizations that define themselves at least somewhat in opposition to the "mainstream" and are established and maintained with the principle of worker control as primary. Specifically, I describe and explore briefly the case of Mondragon, the largest system of worker-owned and worker-governed cooperatives in the world, located in the Basque region of Spain. However, many of the points I treat are relevant as well to other coops, to volunteer groups, to traditional corporations, and even to other more hierarchical organizations.

    In fact, as Hollis Glaser (1994) observes, much can be learned about the strengths, limits and possibilities of mainstream organizations from a close and critical examination of organizations that consciously construct and style themselves as "different." After all, even in some of the most tradition-bound multinational corporations, there are emerging trends toward the decentralization of operations and the empowerment of employees (although specific instances may vary considerably in kind and degree of democracy). Levering and Moskowitz (l993). in their survey of the "best companies to work for" in the U.S., find them characterized to varying degrees by some form of participation and/or democracy. Take. for example, the case of W. L. Gore and Associates, with its flexible structure, emphases on responsibility and participation, and an Employee Stock Ownership Program (or ESOP): it aims for a comparatively high level of employee satisfaction and sense of empowerment (see Pacanowsky, 1988).
 

PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES OF WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY

 
    I have not the space to detail a history, even a selective and interpretive one, for the appearance of workplace democracy in various parts of the world over the millennia. In fact, as Malcom Warner (1984) observes, the history of the idea of workplace democracy is difficult to chronicle precisely because most of its "history" predates the professionalization of knowledge. Besides, the objective of developing a reasonably comprehensive history of the concept and practice has been achieved elsewhere, especially by historians of labor, but also by economists, political scientists and sociologists (see, e.g., reviews by Blumberg, 1968; Deane, 1978; Horvat, 1972; Kendall, 1975; Vanek, 1972; and Warner, 1984). A detailed and relatively comprehensive review of the current scholarly and popular literatures on workplace democracy, with special attention to its implications for communication research, will appear elsewhere (Cheney & Hirsch, in progress). However, I must observe that neither the philosophy nor the practice of democracy at work are new. The ideal of a democratic workplace, however formerly restricted to white male elites, can certainly be traced at least as far back as ancient Athens. Specific concerns about how to democratize factories, for example, were addressed by German, French and British philosophers in the mid- to late-nineteenth century (see, e.g., Warner, 1984). And sometimes radical experiments, such as the French worker-priest movement of the middle of this century, where priests entered the workplace to work shoulder-to-shoulder with laborers, have attracted interest far beyond their locales. And, of course, many representatives of the Human Relations Movement, which heavily influenced the U.S. workplace between 1930 and 1965, were genuinely committed to at least some measures of workplace democracy— albeit often in conjunction with interests in productivity (see, e.g., the review by Redding, 1972; see also Trist & Murray, 1993, on socio-technical systems).

    Perhaps the examples best known in the popular consciousness of workplace democracy are the so-called Utopian communities of Great Britain and the United States during the early to mid-l800s. British industrialist Robert Owen, for instance, responded to the alienation of factory workers in England by creating worker-owned and worker-managed enterprises in the 1830s. While Owen by no means eliminated alienating practices from his factories—he, for example, maintained a strict, over-the-shoulder monitoring system—he did make shared ownership and structural control by workers to be pillars of the enterprise (see, e.g., Weisbord, 1991). Eventually, these experiments disappeared or were coopted, in part because of outside influence in the form of absentee stock ownership. Once Owen and others sought to expand the capital base of the organizations by selling shares to persons other than employees, the companies were pressured by their new "absentee landlords" toward becoming just like the traditional corporations of the time: both autonomy and distinctiveness were lost.

 
Interaction with External Systems
 
    Thus, an important principle for the maintenance of an alternative organization is the need to buffer the organization significantly from outside pressures to alter its core values and practices. This is a substantial challenge for profit-making organizations that also must engage and to some extent succeed in the market, especially a market that is fast becoming global. One way to handle this problem is through the creation or inclusion of support organizations. Tierra Wools (or "Ganados del Valle") of north-central New Mexico heeds this lesson through the establishment of a network of organizations, groups and individuals that all belong to the cooperative. Shepherds, landowners, weavers, shopkeepers and salespersons all support one another in an elaborately cooperative enterprise.

    In terms of communication, the principle means that the organization must try to sustain a special identity while also doing business with other types of organizations. Considered as a social system, the organization must not be so open as to lose its cohesiveness and distinctiveness (see Luhmann's, 1990, insightful philosophical formulation of this problem). "Openness" and "closedness" with respect to an organization are two conditions or orientations that are dialectically interdependent: each depends upon the other for its meaning, and neither can be overemphasized in practice. In the terms of religious organizations, this means that the organization must maintain something of a "sectarian" posture, engaging but not becoming completely absorbed in the larger society. The "alternative" organization cannot be a predominantly open system that simply absorbs outside influences (see the five diverse case examples in Rothschild & Whitt, 1986). It should establish and maintain as "sacred" certain values, principles and practices (perhaps even some rituals) that help to remind members of where their organization "stands" with respect to the rest of the organizational world.

    However, we must remember that the relationship between an alternative, highly democratic organization and its environment can be partially or wholly supportive. For example, some coops are fostered and encouraged by external groups. In the Farmworker Power Project (FPP) of Colorado (1989-1992), a support structure was established to assist migrant and non-migrant farmworkers in developing worker owned-and-managed cooperatives, in an effort to replace the corrupt and authoritarian crew-leader system which dominates and oppresses many farm laborers in various parts of the U.S. The FPP encouraged workers in each coop to rotate through the position of manager; offered training in English, negotiation skills and decision making; and provided valuable financial assistance. In this case, the support of an outside organization made possible an extraordinary experiment in workplace democracy in one of the most unlikely contexts. Unfortunately, grave problems developed within the supporting organization itself which required some of us on the board to shut it down. Fortunately, this happened after one farmworker coop had become established and relatively self-sufficient.
 

Size, Structure and Patterns of Interaction
 
    Size is another important issue and, I maintain, an underrated factor in communication research. Students of small-group communication or group dynamics in psychology understand well that when a group's membership exceeds a certain number, say 15, it becomes very difficult for the group to work consistently as a whole. The temptation and indeed the necessity with growth is to form committees or subgroups to do at least some of the business of the organization. The simple constraints on talk time in a large group mean that it is impossible for every member to participate fully. The simple formula n(n - 1)/2, where 'n" indicates the number of persons in the social system, reveals the number of possible dyadic or two-person linkages. Thus, with a group of five persons, the number of possible linkages is 10; but for a group of 10, the number jumps to 45. In addition, limitations of human cognitive-processing capacity make it difficult for an individual to keep track of a great number of relationships simultaneously. This general finding about human information processing supports conventional wisdom about span of control (e.g., Fayol, 1949) in that one supervisor cannot function well with more than ten or so employees. So we find several areas of social science research converging on a single principle: that the intense, face-to-face interaction required by real, direct democratic participation cannot be maintained in something larger than what we call a small group. Larger groups must therefore create subunits or spin off new organizations. This reality is understood deeply by all who have observed the growth of an organization beyond its few initial members: whether in a student club, a faculty, a high-tech firm, a congress, or a religious congregation. In this way, the practical reality of growth confronts us with the distinction between direct and representative democracy and with the need to create subunits where, in many instances, the spirit of direct democracy may be preserved within the larger context of representative decision making.

    For example, size is an important concern in the University of Colorado's INVST (International and National Voluntary Service Training) program. The program involves special courses in the analysis of social problems, leadership-oriented internships in Denver metro agencies, innovative summer experiences locally and internationally, and intense student participation in the policy-making functions of the organization. To further secure the place of the organization within the university, more students than the current number of 30 need to participate. But, growth can threaten the intimate, communal and democratic aspects of the organization. Thus, the group is contemplating the creation of subunits that would sometimes join together in larger meetings while creating mechanisms of representation. But, such a change in structure and size must be handled with care lest the organization lose not only a measure of intimacy in relations but also something of its essentially innovative character.

    Jane Mansbridge (1983), from her extensive political-anthropological investigations of organizations as diverse as town meetings and crisis-line support groups, argues that a vision of unitary democracy in which value consensus is constitutive of the organization is best pursued by smallish organizations (cf. Hansmann's, 1990, argument that workplace democracy is only feasible in small homogeneous organizations). Even in those cases, though, tensions can arise over, say, how to define an appropriate political stance. The value consensus of the majority can sometimes become a source of oppression for the minority of persons who adopt dissenting views: in the interest of building consensus, the organization can intentionally or unwittingly obstruct the development of diversity. At a larger level an adversarial model of democracy in which competing interests are institutionalized and have proportional representation and influence is most fitting for an organization or political unit. Mansbridge's overarching point is that the pursuit of genuine democracy, at work or elsewhere, must take into account the reality of size and its implications for social structure and communication practice.

    In a well-known article, Mansbridge (1973) explains that there are three significant challenges to any participative group: these are managing time, handling the frequent and intense expression of emotion, and coping with the reality of certain inequalities. Inequality, for instance, is likely to be perceived because of different types and levels of expertise on the part of group members. These real differences should be celebrated in such a way as to draw upon the full range of members' resources while maintaining the personal equality of members. All of Mansbridge's challenges are manifested in and must be handled through communication. And, as observed in a recent dissertation that reframes Mansbridge's factors in explicitly communicative terms, time, emotion and inequality are in fact interdependent sets of issues (Glaser, 1994). Further, Mulder and Wilke (1970) report experimental findings that inequality will always appear in a decision-making group because of differences in the skills of communication and persuasion. Each of Mansbridge's challenges is intensified with the increased size of the organization, even when the organization maintains the small-group decision-making unit.2

    Based on the observation of participatory groups, one can add to Mansbridge's list of challenges the threat of mutual monitoring. That is, in comparatively leaderless groups, where the role of an outside "boss," administrator, supervisor, or overseer, is eliminated or reduced in importance, group members can develop an internal system of discipline that involves a great deal of monitoring of one another and a corresponding loss of individual autonomy. This is precisely what Barker and his colleagues (Barker, 1993; Barker & Cheney, 1994; Barker & Tompkins, 1994) found in a recent study of the limits of participation in the semi-autonomous work teams of a high-tech firm. In an intensely participative environment that developed as a planned organizational change, most teams took on control functions previously held and performed at higher levels of the organization: their talk gradually became laced with references to "looking over each other's shoulders" and social control. Similarly, Mumby and Stohl (1991) report that team members themselves sometimes develop systematic and rigid interpretations of such things as worker absences and lateness.

    Robert Michels (e.g., 1962), the early-twentieth-century political theorist, took a very dim view of the prospects for any meaningful democratic participation being maintained in a large organization. From his thorough examinations of European political parties across the political spectrum (even some that were avowedly committed to equal access and participation), Michels articulated his famous Iron Rule of Oligarchy: that all large organizations (at or beyond the 3,000-5,000 member range) inevitably move toward control by a few. No matter how strong the initial commitment to democracy and participation, said Michels, any large organization inclines toward the increased concentration of power.

    Although Michels' "law" has been heavily criticized in some circles, little empirical evidence has been mounted to dispute it. One of the most well-known and articulate rebuttals, however, is Victor Thompson's Modern Organization (1961), in which he argues that hierarchy as we know it is a relative and not an absolute or universal cultural phenomenon. We are so biased in this regard, says Thompson, that we usually view any non-hierarchical organization as "disorganized" and sometimes even unworthy of the title "organization" (cf. Iannello, t992). In her studies of numerous and diverse egalitarian organizations, including some for-profit business collectives, Katherine Newman (t980) is sympathetic with Thompson but finds that the temptation to bureaucratize and to restructure hierarchically is almost irresistible for some organizations, especially when they must position themselves to obtain outside funding or recognition or clients. In discussions over if and when to bureaucratize, those who advocate the preservation of 'flat hierarchies" are frequently portrayed as naive and unrealistic.
 

Maintaining Integrity
 
    The Iron Rule of Oligarchy, however seriously it is taken, throws down a gauntlet to those who wish to maintain widespread and intense participation in decision making in organizations that grow beyond the small-group level. In fact, Michels' hypothesis calls into question the possibility of longevity for a truly democratic organization. The issue is taken up by Rothschild and Whitt (1988) in their five case studies of alternative organizations, including a newspaper, a food coop, a free clinic, a law collective and an innovative high school. The authors observe that some alternative enterprises are founded so as to be short-lived. That is, some organizations actually decide on going out of existence after a certain time, rather than find themselves coopted by outside forces (e.g., competitors or monitoring agencies) or falling back on traditional, hierarchical practice. Extraordinarily, some organizations plan for their own demise rather than becoming rigidly permanent or finding themselves drifting away from their basic goals. In this sense, institutionalization and growth can pose direct threats to organizational integrity. Sheer longevity is thus an issue in efforts to establish and maintain organizational democracy. It may be, for example, that the spontaneous and spirited elements in the life of a newly-formed organization cannot be enjoyed over the long haul.

    Certainly, Max Weber (1978) raised this precise question with respect to charismatic authority in the form of organizations (such as religious sects) that are born and grow up around the passion and character of a powerful leader. The "routinization of charisma," as Weber called it, represents an organization's attempt to preserve its singular aspects beyond the involvement of its founding member(s). This is why the problem of succession is so vexing for relatively new organizations (e.g., "What do we do now that our leader is gone?"). All organizations are founded through special instances of informal communication because formal structure cannot spontaneously come into existence (see Barnard, 1938/1968). Further, many organizations develop through the inspirational guidance of a person or a small group. Preserving or institutionalizing inspiration is an enormous and paradoxical challenge, particularly for organizations that define themselves in contrast to the "mainstream." The problem of succession can be exceptionally trying when the founders are those perceived to be the embodiment of special values or the holders of particular knowledge.

    More generally, of course, Weber (1978) feared what he saw as the inevitable "march of rationalization": that society as a whole as well as particular organizations would move toward bureaucratic order. In one sense, the bureaucratic impulse is deeply democratic: in the widespread development of civil-service systems in North America and Europe of the late nineteenth century, a serious effort was made to grant equal—or relatively equal—opportunity through merit. In this way, bureaucracy embodies the ideal of equality. But, as Weber (1978) rightly feared, bureaucracy also tends to overconcentrate power, depersonalize participation, and remove people from the consideration of transcendent goals. The tendency of many initially creative and flexible social-movement organizations and high-tech companies to experience creeping bureaucratization is living testimony to Weber's prophecy about the sweep of bureaucracy. But, a question remains about the possibilities for bureaucracy being overtaken by other models of organization, especially as prompted by the appearance of hierarchically net and operationally flexible small firms. Tompkins and Cheney (1985), for example, observe the persistence of bureaucratic pressures on and within organizations that rely on control of a "concertive" type: contemporary organizations that are structured around interdependence, horizontal monitoring, flexible roles, strong expertise and a common mission (such as some energetic high-tech firms and team-based organizations). And a question persists about what if anything a specific organization can do over time to resist the temptation to formalize, centralize, standardize and otherwise reduce the spontaneous and dynamic aspects of life within it (see, e.g., Hummel, 1993). From a feminist standpoint, of course, the rationalistic bureaucratic model can be seen to rule out essential dimensions of our humanness (see, e.g., Ferguson, 1984; Mumby & Putnam, 1992). Ironically, a self-conscious organization might occasionally restructure itself so as to preserve spontaneous aspects: for example, by creating new types of groups within the larger organization. What this would mean for meetings is that the status quo could be granted only a moderate amount of presumption in deliberations. In any event, collective and careful reflection on the goals and practices of non-traditional, democratic organization must be a regular part of an organization's decision-making process.

    While I was a new assistant professor at the University of Illinois in 1984-86, I was asked to assist a student-run social-change group called SMART: Students for Mutual Arms Reduction Talks. This organization, dedicated to mounting political pressure on the U.S. government to negotiate with the Soviet Union to reduce sharply their nuclear arsenals, consisted of 12 core members and about 20 other loosely connected students. From the informal talk that preceded the formal meeting, it was clear to me that the students perceived themselves as being outside the range of prevailing political opinions on the campus and as being "different from the system." In the two-hour meeting I attended, the self-appointed leader of this small, supposedly "alternative" group explained in the form of a strict monologue the structure of the organization. Incredibly, he diagrammed on the blackboard three "levels" of hierarchy, six "departments," and a number of highly specialized roles (including a "Xeroxer" who would do all of the photocopying for the group!).

    At the time, I was stunned by the extent to which the familiar bureaucratic model was being adopted wholesale for use in an organization for which it was clearly inappropriate; I understood at that moment just how easily a presumably "different" and participative organization can slide into centralization, formalization and regularization of its activities. After all, the bureaucratic model does present significant advantages in minimizing arbitrariness and in making possible the organization of giant, far-flung enterprises. And, bureaucracy is indeed more "rational" than the charismatic and traditional structures of authority that Weber charted. Bureaucracy also happens to be the most visible model around in business, government, education and nearly every other sector or organized activity even in an age where we are supposedly transcending bureaucracy (e.g., Drucker, 1988, 1992). As mentioned above, bureaucracy is not inherently undemocratic, but its rigid implementation and stultifying effects in many settings effectively minimize the potential for both individual expression (in something beyond Barnard's, 1968, notion of "partial inclusion") and collective pursuit (in something beyond fragmented and narrow concerns of the moment). Moreover, bureaucracy is too often experienced as isolating and alienating (cf. Denhardt, 1989, and Hummel, 1993, on this point).

    As already suggested, organizations can drift away from their original goals: a quality product, or good service, or safety, or positive social transformation. Even the conservative organizational theorist Herbert A. Simon (e.g., 1976) cautions that sheer survival and growth can come to overshadow any other collective goals, such as being of benefit to society and maintaining a humane work environment. This is why cases of "organizational suicide" are relatively rare. Some organizations lose their market niche or competitive edge; some collapse out of ineffectiveness, inefficiency or attrition; and still others are eliminated by outside controllers of their fate (e.g., by a legislative body or a regulatory agency or a court). But few vote to eliminate themselves, even when they are seen to depart significantly from their original and announced goals. Facing potential demise, some organizations alter their declared goals so as to maintain themselves. For instance, the March of Dimes responded to the development of the polio vaccine in 1956-5 7 by widening its focus to include a whole range of birth defects and congenital disorders; in this case, remarkably, the organization actually witnessed the achievement of its initial goal.
 

Self-reflection and Self-regeneration
 
    In some cases, to see the organization itself as an end rather than as means to the accomplishment of lofty objectives is very seductive. Radical critics, such as Petro Georgiou (1981), go so far as to suggest that organizations do not even have goals; rather, they muddle through as loose collections of various individual pursuits and are preoccupied with self-maintenance and power. Such a position militates against any effort to create and cultivate an organization grounded in a deep value consensus. In any case, the prospect for goal displacement in an organization that privileges certain values such as democratic participation and equality is an ever-present threat. The fact of this tendency is often used to criticize labor unions today, especially in the U.S., although the complaint tends to be rather indiscriminate. Some big unions, like some big corporations, some big universities, etc., can devolve so that they serve only their masters, but this danger is no more inherent in labor organizations than in other institutions. In any case, collective self-reflection and engagement in discussion about the value consensus becomes extremely important for sustaining workplace democracy. In other words, the values of the organization and their pursuit must be available to both members and outside observers for critique and debate. In particular, sacred notions of democracy and participation must themselves be open to criticism.

    Such a commitment is evident in the regular practices of the Rocky Mountain Peace Center of Boulder, on whose board I served for four years. The Peace Center pursues a wide away of projects, locally and nationally, while periodically reexamining what peace, non-violence and sustainable development mean for different people and at different moments. The organization consists of eight paid staff members and a larger "Spokescouncil" that is comprised of liaisons to various community organizations (dealing with, e.g., the concerns of Native Americans, reform of the U.S. penal system, and conversion of nuclear weapons plants to peaceful uses). Even the formal symbols and principles of the organization come under periodic reflection and questioning. And, the range of meanings for a term such as "non-violent social change" becomes part of the group's self-examination. An ongoing process of reflection and discussion not only makes individual members aware of real differences within the organization but also helps to make the value consensus more profound and less simply presumed. As a result, both the structure and some of the practices of the organization are distinctly different now from what they were ten years ago: today, for instance, the organization has a radial design with working groups that involve numerous citizens and that elect representatives to a core group.
 

Consistency between Goals and Process
 
    Range. This brings us to the interrelated matters of the thoroughness and the authenticity of democratic efforts in organizations. Bernstein (1976), Strauss (1982), and Monge and Miller (1988), in their relatively comprehensive reviews of certain dimensions of workplace democracy, explain that at least three major factors must be considered: (1) the range of issues treated in a particular program, (2) the extent of actual influence by employees, and (3) the highest levels at which influence is exercised. The range of issues within the domain of democratic decision making is important because in some systems of participation certain topics (e.g., salary and wages) are excluded from consideration. And, in some avowedly democratic systems, participants justifiably fear that their speaking out on certain issues will lead to punishment or attack. Imagine the effect on trust and confidence in a system when a group is told that it can discuss and make recommendations about "any matter except . . .". Likewise, many a new member of a supposedly egalitarian group has been dismayed to find patriarchy, traditional hierarchy and centralized control. On the other hand, some organizations go so far in the democratic direction as to allow employees to decide on the type of ownership structure. And in some circumstances—say, in the drastic economic transition of Eastern Europe today—such a level of participation may be seen as essential to productivity as well as to worker commitment (Mygind, 1992).

    In my own experience I have encountered student groups and social-movement organizations that have startled me in their degree of reliance on direct orders, non-participative meetings, and the centralized control of information—organizations which have permitted democratic activity only within a narrowly circumscribed domain of activity. One large and highly visible peace-movement organization dedicated to ending the nuclear-arms race during the 1980s conducted its meetings as virtual monologues, with the director barking orders, dictating entirely the flow and specific nature of work, unilaterally assigning all roles and tasks, and pressuring members (both paid staff and volunteers) to work unreasonably long hours. This I interpreted as a kind of "organizational violence." But, the director was impervious to critique and refused to recognize the painful contradiction between the organization's external pursuits and internal practices. On those few occasions when the director did offer a defense of his actions, he would simply argue that the worthy ends of the organization justified a non-democratic internal process. When he was rebutted with demands that "we collectively should decide the nature of governance within the organization," the director and founder simply shrugged, asserted the supremacy of his own expertise and judgment, and declared the matter of decision-making procedures to be non-negotiable. "Besides," he said, pointing to the rising membership of the organization and to the latest tally of contributions but ignoring the very high turnover among volunteers, 'we're very effective this way."

    This argument, of course, is frequently advanced in favor of authoritarian structures in all sectors of society. And, it has great force, considering the successes of many different types of organizations that implicitly or explicitly adhere to a military model of top-down decision making and communication. What such a point of view overlooks, besides obvious differences between the battlefield and the boardroom, is that effectiveness, or the achievement of the organizational goals, cannot be divorced from efficiency, or the sum of all other effects, both intended and accidental. Preeminent among those effects, as the theorist and executive Chester Barnard (1968) explained, is the satisfaction of individual motives. Barnard thus offers us a novel interpretation of efficiency, one quite different from the usual U.S.-style calculation of "the biggest bang for the buck" (see Cheney & Brancato, 1992). With the partial exception of total institutions such as prisons, steep declines in the satisfaction of individual members may not only make for unhappy workers but also jeopardize the effectiveness of the organization. (This is not to say, of course, that the relationship between job satisfaction and other factors—notably, productivity—is straightforward or uncomplicated by other matters, such as reward structure.) As Kurt Lewin (e.g., 1947) illustrated so well in his extensive research in small-group contexts, participation and investment in the decisions of the group influence profoundly individual members' commitments to executing those decisions and to the group as a whole.

    Actuality. The extent of actual influence by employees is a second criterion for assessing the nature and authenticity of participation. That is, questions should be put to any avowedly democratic or egalitarian organization about the true extent of influence on the part of employees who own and/or contribute voice to the organization. "Participation" can indeed mean many different things and in some cases may actually be a misleading term. ESOPs (or Employee Stock Ownership Programs) are now common in the U.S. But very few of these programs allow employees at all levels of the organization to have a shaping influence on policy and, as a result, often lose the enthusiasm of employees after being in place for just a few years (Rooney, 1992; Turpin-Forster, 1992). Also, we know that many organizations use widespread and frequent voting in fact to cover up deeply ingrained patterns of authoritarian leadership. Likewise, Guillermo Grenier (1988) found through his initially supportive assessment of quality circles and similar programs that they are often used to pacify employees and defuse potential resistance to harsh employment practices (e.g., in the form of unionization). At times, leaders are externally imposed on presumably self-directed or semiautonomous teams, reinforcing the teams' sense that leadership cannot emerge from within their groups (see, e.g., Manz & Sims, 1984). Some presumably efficient and democratic systems of workplace reorganization—for example, Total Quality Management—in fact, lead to greater surveillance of the employee (Sewell & Wilkinson, 1992). Some leaders of presumably and apparently collegial academic departments will stage votes only to make the "real" decision behind closed doors, thereby keeping up only an illusion of democracy. Some anarchical social-movement organizations confidently proclaim that they are "beyond power," even though certain members assume dominant positions in discussions and in decision making (Hickey, 1990). Some members become de facto leaders if not always effective persuaders.

    Thus, with any practices of majority rule or consensus decision making arises a question of how those practices are used to guide the organization. The assertion of democracy is by no means proof of it; in fact, in many cases, it represents a way of silencing or suppressing potential opposition. In other cases, we find organizations with deeply embedded values that guide them in inspiring, maintaining and revising a democratic order.

    The Religious Society of Friends, or the Quakers, for example, is strongly committed to reflective and thoroughgoing consensus decision making (see, e.g., Sheeran, 1983). Friends' meetings often provide remarkable instances of mutual sensitivity, respect for group process, and the emergence of something approaching real consensus. Still, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a partially affiliated but non-denominational service and social-change association, tends to practice consensus on the local office level while maintaining a relatively traditional reporting structure at the regional and national levels. This tension is an almost constant concern in the organization. In my consultation with a local and a regional office of AFSC in 1992-93, I found that this conflict surfaced in a number of ways, especially during a hiring process. Because of differences in presumptions about the extent of reliance on consensus, the negotiation of conflicting opinions was difficult. Members' different definitions of appropriate decision-making practice were at issue.

    In such a case, at the very least, the organization must establish clearly the domains of decision making within which consensus is paramount (e.g., in basic policy matters), allowing then for the practices of majority rule, committee control, or unilateral direction in other types of decisions.

    Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1982), for instance, identifies a number of situations in which highly participative decision making is appropriate and other circumstances in which it is not. For example, where complex decisions are to be made and the expertise of particular organizational members is relevant, those members should be granted strong voices in the discussion. However, even in cases like these, the matter is not as simple as it first appears because "expertise" is sometimes used as a way of deliberately mystifying policy-making procedures and excluding the opinions of the so-called "non-experts," such was frequently the case during Cold-War debates over U.S. nuclear-deterrence policy (see, e.g., Russett, 1983).

    Level. The third criterion is tied to the highest level(s) of the organization in which democracy is practiced. This has two interrelated senses: the first pertains to the locus of participative activity, and the second relates to the extent to which regular employees are empowered to deal with higher-level issues. Here again, things are not always as they may appear: presumably democratic change can yield some surprisingly and disturbingly undemocratic results. Many organizations that have reorganized themselves around semi-autonomous work teams and that allow for a great deal of participation at the production levels of the hierarchy in fact maintain traditional relationships at the upper-management levels (see, e.g., Barker, 1993). Such a division can undermine the confidence and trust of lower-level employees in the participative program. This message is implicit: "We're going to implement a new program; be committed to it; it'll be good for you as well as for the company; but, by the way, don't expect all of us to participate." Moreover, when workplace democracy is imposed but not practiced by top managers or administrators, the entire system can be called into question. There is thus a dual problem in the establishment of many quality-circle and other participation programs: the avowedly democratic programs are mandated and implemented from "the top" even as they exclude policy makers from the regular practices (see, e.g., Grenier, 1988). In such instances the privilege to make policy and structural decisions also is retained at the top.

    As Daniele Linhart (1992) observes with respect to the evolution of French firms, even in cases of announced "organizational revolutions," where participative management is employed throughout corporations, the persistence of reactionary and somewhat dehumanizing Tayloristic principles at the level of the work can undermine the larger democratic goals. Thus, any announced claim of "industrial or workplace democracy" needs to be examined very carefully in terms of the day-to-day practices and the whole set of experiences that constitute life in the organization.

    However, there are other cases—for example, those described by Kathy Iannello (1992) in her accounts of feminist groups—where the entire organization is committed to and practices a form of egalitarianism. In Iannello's view, the source and strength of the organization's commitment to democratic participation and related practices are crucial in determining how "upward-reaching" non-traditional efforts are. In her case studies of non-profit women's groups, she found that organizations which are grounded in democratic and egalitarian principles and which consistently and rather uncompromisingly evaluate their performance against those standards can be successful in preserving their highly democratic arrangements, particularly if their pursuit of consensus is tempered by realism. Iannello thus speaks of "modified consensus" in egalitarian-type organizations, where the group agrees on the domains where consensus decision making is in fact the most vital and arenas where other forms of decision (e.g., simple voting or committee empowerment) are generally considered acceptable. In terms of communication practice, modified consensus means that the group must reach or approximate a consensus about its central and constitutive concerns (i.e., those features that are seen to "make the organization what it is") versus those that are peripheral, secondary, or non-essential.

    In my own experience as a board member of the Rocky Mountain Peace Center, I found a remarkable, sustained commitment to shared leadership. Consensus decision making was celebrated and pursued; the role of group facilitator was rotated; techniques such as "go-arounds" were used to insure full participation; and expertise and equality were kept remarkably in balance. An attitude of mutual respect existed side-by-side with a recognition of the special abilities and contributions of each member. Even "organizational" divorce" emerged, where dissenting groups were allowed to leave the organization (see Westenholz's, 1991, "postmodernist" conception of organizational democracy, 1993; see also Billig, Condor, Edwards, Gane, Middleton, & Radley, 1987 on the importance of managing effectively the tension between expertise and equality).

Democracy as Process

    These three criteria—the range of issues, the extent of influence, and the highest levels involved in participation—remind us that democracy, participation and equality are continually contested terms. That is, one person's vision of a democratic order in the workplace may be another person's idea of an oppressive or limited arrangement. (In this light, consider Habermas's, 1981, "ideal speech situation" in terms not only of its approachability in practice but also in its capacity for self-adjustment.) For example, more radical observers of presumably democratic organizations can often point to the persistence of hierarchy and domination in subtle and concealed forms: in the forcefulness of speech, in the monopolization of talk time, and in "the tactical uses of passion" (e.g., emotional threats and outbursts; see Bailey, 1983). On the other hand, other observers of the same organizations may see the heavy reliance on consensus and democratic process as a form of constraint on their own autonomy and desire to control their work time. As one of my colleagues sometimes reminds me, democracy can be both exhausting and imposing. Thus, the interpretation of "true democracy" or "authentic participation" or the "ethical equality" of organizational members is persistently problematic.

    For this reason, Michel Foucault (e.g., 1984) was loathe to align himself with any particular political party or any particular organized vision of a just society. He argued vigorously that any presumably "just" system would necessarily suppress or exclude the interests of some persons and some groups. (Of course, some critics reject this posture as a cop-out and a de facto endorsement of the status quo.) Those in the minorities would then be faced with the options of silence, covert opposition from "the margins," revolution or flight (cf. Hirschman's, 1976, economic-political options of "exit," "voice," or "loyalty"). This viewpoints us toward an understanding of democracy as a self-critical, self-regenerating and self-correcting process, as opposed to a conception that emphasizes a specific type of structural arrangement. For example, Yohanan Stryjan (1989) uses Anthony Giddens' (1984) Theory of Structuration to show how delicate are the cyclical processes of interaction in the "self-managed" organization. Still, he argues that such organizations are potentially equipped to modify their own ways of doing things and thereby adapt to their changing environments.

Communicative Dimensions of Organizational Democracy

    Democracy and Participation as Special Forms of Communication. Clearly, participation and democracy must be defined largely in terms of communication in that the pattern of communication in an organization, however formally or informally structured, tells the observer a great deal about the true extent of democracy in the workplace. For example, as researchers we would look for communicative evidence of these aspects of W. Charles Redding's (1972) Ideal Managerial Climate: participative decision making, openness, trust and supportiveness. (The fifth element of Redding's model is an emphasis on high-performance goals, a factor which should not be overlooked in attempts to sustain member involvement in and commitment to a organization, democratic or other.) Here we must consider both how intentionally structured patterns of communication contribute to a climate of real participation and how a pre-existing climate can foster particular kinds of communication.

    At the same time, we should take note of the absence of communication, recognizing that many "texts"—for example, voices of dissent—may not be readily accessible in public meetings or even during interviews or normal observation (see Scott, 1990). As is dramatically the case for many subordinated groups throughout history (from slaves to secretaries), the disempowered often develop a parallel but largely invisible system of symbols and communication practices. Such "alternative discourses" can be functional, expressive, ironic, and sometimes subversive or rebellious; they are always instructive (see, e.g., Murphy, 1993).
 
    Power, Persuasion and Socialization. And, even more difficult is the assessment of what Steven Lukes (1974) calls the "third dimension" of power: the extent to which the true interests of minorities have been so suppressed through socialization that their interests do not even come to the minds of those for whom structural or policy changes would be beneficial. John Gaventa's (1980) critical-historical study of power and powerless in an Appalachian area of eastern Tennessee is poignant, showing that various socio-political factors can lead people to non-participation and even to non-awareness. This critical perspective on power implies that the observer-researcher must endeavor to prove "the counterfactual" in the effort to support democracy: he or she must try to show that "things would be different in this system if only the suppressed or oppressed members had come to realize and express what was in their own best interests." In other words, can we prove or strongly support the idea that if certain groups were in a different situation they would in fact be able to act upon their interests in a way that they cannot or will not do with the status quo in place? Such a challenge entails an enormous burden of proof; nevertheless, it reminds us to be vigilant and circumspect in labeling any organization or social system "democratic." This is precisely why assertions that "We have a consensus here!?!" should be advanced and received with great care. Also, Lukes' critical perspective points the researcher toward the careful examination of communication patterns. Lukes' "third dimension" of power can be explained in more concrete terms with attention to the rhetorical aspects organizational life: for example, with respect to how dominant, organizationally approved value premises (e.g., "Don't rock the boat") are inculcated in the minds of organizational members through ongoing and perhaps unnoticed socialization processes (see Tompkins & Cheney, 1985). However, the internalization of certain values—say, when members take seriously the idea of "responsibility" in their own positions—can actually limit the extent of organizational control in that the employees become more loyal to the values than to the organization (see Bullis', 1991, case study of the U.S. Forest Service).

    Structuring Participation. Assessing communication patterns within democratic or participative organizations, regardless of where they lie on a continuum of governance types, means considering an array of factors. In her extensive research on quality circles, for example, Cynthia Stohl (in press) has found that the creation of level-spanning groups within the organization can open up communication channels more generally in the organization while enhancing employees' awareness of the "big picture" of the organization and its various activities. Thus, restructuring may not only afford new opportunities for participation; sometimes, it can also change in a positive way the employees' consciousness or perception of what an organization is. Likewise, more radical structural innovations, such as role-switching, can bring about fuller involvement of employees in the organization and increase the appreciation of others' points of view (see Sennett, 1980). On the other hand, as a some observers have noted (e.g., Cheney & Stohl, in progress; Stohl, 1994; and Westenholz, 1993), organizational transformations in presumably democratic directions can lead to troubling and paradoxical communication patterns, such as elaborate attempts to mandate participation, quasi-coercive efforts to bring wavering or minority groups into the majority or the "consensus" of opinion, and self-conscious anticipation of "leaders who will come to make us democratic."

Obviously, many "alternative" organizations are born out of a deep commitment to doing things differently: to avoiding mundane bureaucratic practice and familiar authoritarian rule and replacing them with flexibility, deep cooperation, and full participation even in some cases when the organization is a money-making enterprise (see Rothschild & Whitt, 1986). The Burley Design Cooperative of Eugene, Oregon is one example. Even with a workforce of about 100 persons, this producer of now-familiar red-and-yellow and red-and-blue bicycle carts (to pull small children or to carry groceries) uses a fluid system of mostly lateral job transfers such that a manager may be seen working next year on a sewing machine. The same organization pays all member-owners the same good salary and maintains a dynamic team and committee structure for decision making.

    Efficiency Reexamined But, one of the central issues in for-profit firms is competitiveness. Thus, a firm that is strongly committed to cooperation inside finds itself behaving rather aggressively and non-cooperatively toward "outsiders." And, this challenge is heightened in an increasingly globalized economy, where market pressures are continuously shifting and intensifying. Today, "globalization" is the call by many large companies to open up markets so they can extend their domains. For smaller firms, such pushes toward "market liberalization" are understandably unsettling and in some cases frightening. Scholars of communication and organizations must therefore deal with these pressing economic concerns when they are investigating both traditional and non-traditional organizations (see the review of economic aspects of cooperative management in Bonin & Putterman, 1987; see also the treatment of economic factors' relevance to communication in Harrison, 1994). From the standpoint of communication, perhaps the most interesting facets of economic competition are (1) the relationships between economic and non-economic aspects of organizational functioning and (2) the ways in which people talk about economic concerns such as competition. Allow me to take up the first matter here, saving the second for a bit later in this discussion.

    From her extensive investigations of worked-owned and worker-managed companies in various parts of Europe, comparative economist Laura Tyson (e.g., 1979) suggests that the development and progress of a cooperative can be summarized in terms of one basic disadvantage and one basic advantage with respect to traditional corporations: A cooperative suffers some inefficiency because of heavy reliance on democratic process, but a cooperative enjoys the collective energy and commitment that derive from substantial value consensus and the activity of participation itself. This complicated circle of relationships can help to explain why the research results on the linkage of participation to productivity have been mixed (see, e.g., Locke & Schweiger, 1979). Thus, Tyson's and parallel research by others underscores the importance of maintaining core values (such as equality) and high levels of involvement in the participative processes of the organization. The maintenance of core values in an alternative organization (such as a worker-owned coop) thus emerges as a crucial question for both practitioners and scholars, especially in light of the other issues addressed in this discussion: autonomy, size, longevity, goal displacement, bureaucratization, authenticity and communication patterns.

    Arnold Tannenbaum (1983) echoes this point from a somewhat different analytical angle. Rather than treating such things as organizational identification and commitment to core values as preceding or necessary factors, Tannenbaum considers them as valuable outcome variables. In other words, he argues that worker-owned-and-managed organizations are beneficial in part because they tend to yield greater job satisfaction, identification with the organization, and commitment to core values (such as the general philosophy of "cooperativism"). Putting together Tyson's (e.g., 1979) and Tannenbaum's (1983) arguments we can describe a circular pattern of reinforcement of basic values in the case of a successful cooperative system: Active participation in and deep commitment to a coop can allow the organization to overcome a tendency toward economic inefficiency; this vitality in turn encourages the organization to maintain its democratic order; and that in turn strengthens individual members' commitments to core values. The fact that this cycle of influence can easily be broken or reversed—say, in times of cutbacks in personnel or in financial resources—means that a great deal of vigilance is needed.

    In fact, it is common in many different types of organizations (large public universities, for example) to view democracy and other socio-political goals as mere luxuries to be enjoyed or indulged only in "fat" times. The scholarly literature and my personal experience point me to a drastically different conclusion, however: that the social life of the organization deserves perhaps extra attention during tough economic times—when individual financial rewards may be few, when organizational cohesion may ,be threatened, and when the "social side" of the organization may in fact be the key to continuance and future success. In my view, then, organizational democracy is both an ethical and a pragmatic imperative.

 

Adaptation: Organization to Environment, Environment to Organization

    A final issue to mention here is the nature and strength of the relationship between democratic values within an organization and those held in the larger, "host" society. To be sure, U.S. experience attests to the fact that a societal commitment to democracy does not necessarily translate into democratic ideals in the workplace, just as it does not necessarily translate into democratic political practices in the broader public sphere. The consistent support of the U.S. Supreme Court for the "at-will" employment doctrine assures that the rights of employers are elevated far above those of their employees (see, e.g., Ewing, 1983). Practically speaking, this doctrine preserves the rights of employers to fire employees for a host of reasons and to dictate virtually the conditions of employment. And, there are many other ways in which employee rights are typically limited, including especially restrictions on the expression of dissenting views (see Gorden, Infante, Wilson, & Clarke, 1984; Graham, 1986). The expression of voice, in the form of criticism that seeks to improve the organization, is central to a principled vision of true organizational democracy and is seen by employees in many different organizations in just that way (see Gorden, 1988). So too is protection for "whistle-blowers" and others who speak out in challenge of organizational practices.

    Can influence flow in the other direction? That is, do democratic organizations "spread the word" to the larger society by fostering a wide-ranging participative consciousness? On this matter, the evidence, at least in the U.S., is limited and disappointing. Successful cases of workplace democracy, such as the long-standing instance of employee ownership and significant control at Weirton Steel of West Virginia, still cause many observers in the U.S. to skeptically ask: "Why are the monkeys running the zoo?" (Boselovic, 1994). And, in the case of United Airlines' partial employee buy-out in the summer of 1994,-the managerial expertise of even the elite pilots has been widely questioned by those outside the firm. In his longitudinal studies of worker-owned plywood coops in the Pacific Northwest. Greenberg (1986) has found little to suggest that the democratic structure of the organizations has a "ripple effect" or even that workers become intensely committed to the principles of participation on which their organizations are based. Huspek and Kendall (1991) offer further support for this conclusion in the study of similar firms. They find that the political consciousness of the workers is often circumscribed by their own language and that they experience a definition of political life that is quite different and separate from that of the larger society. Clearly, though, there is great need for further research on the relationship between participation inside and outside the workplace, especially in light of how electronic and computer-mediated communications are transforming both domains and their boundaries.

A CASE STUDY WITH BOTH PECULIARTIES AND GENERALIZABILlTY

    With the array of questions raised in this essay in mind, I am investigating perhaps the largest and certainly one of the now-oldest systems of worker cooperatives in the world: Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain. There, I participated in a ten-day intensive tour in March of 1992. In 1994 I spent five months interviewing, observing, participating in meetings, conducting archival work and developing a questionnaire instrument.

    Together with a few other instances of extensive workplace democracy today— notably, Israeli Kibbutzim and various agricultural cooperatives throughout the world—Mondrag6n is one of the most famous examples of an intentionally and largely democratic firm. Yet, as William Foote Whyte (see, e.g., Whyte & Whyte, 1991) explained to me, the day-to-day internal dynamics of the cooperative system have been little researched. Especially, there has been almost no attention to the patterns and character of communication throughout the organization, given the emphases of extant studies on financial performance, leadership and structure.

Background on Mondragon

    The Mondragon system in fact grew out of fifteen years of small-group discussion and analysis (1941-1956), with the guidance of a Basque priest, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, and the active involvement of five young engineers. "Arizmendi" envisioned the coops as a "third way" between the options of unbridled capitalism and centralized socialism that preserved individual economic incentive while emphasizing collective commitment and goals. A small technical school, that treated not only engineering and science but also principles of cooperativism, was created in 1943. The first coop, ULGOR, now part of FAGOR and the largest refrigerator manufacturer in Spain, was opened in 1956. Today the system includes more than 150 cooperative organizations and employs over 23,000 people. Together, in the form of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, the coops make up the 15th largest private firm in Spain.

    Each socio-trabajador (or worker-owner-associate-member) is an economic owner of his/her coop through a complex system of investment and return. A substantial portion of profits, often up to 70 percent. go to owner-members in the form of individual capital accounts and direct benefits; approximately 20% of the profits is socialized as reinvestment in the coops; and 10% is contributed to community projects (especially to Basque-language schools but also to drug-education and AlDS-related programs).

    Besides industrial coops (which comprise the core and the historic strength of the system), there are coops in agriculture, education, research and development, and consumer services. The central bank, with both organizational and individual members, is crucial to the vitality and autonomy of the system; today the bank is expanding its capital base beyond the cooperatives by investing in some traditional capitalist ventures. The bank is the most important "superstructural" coop in which both individuals and entire cooperatives are members; other coops of this type are schools (representing all educational levels through the baccalaureate degree), an elaborate social-security and health-care system, and a research-and-development laboratory (which takes on projects from both within and beyond the coops). Important, too, is the consulting organization, formerly the entrepreneurial division of the bank, which investigates and assesses brand new cooperative ventures as well as conversions of traditional capitalist firms in other parts of Spain. There is no question that this group of "second-order" coops has been instrumental to the success of the system as a whole, granting the coops capital, stability, security, and some measures of autonomy and independence from the fluctuations of the larger market.

    The coops range in size from Eroski (meaning essentially "group buying" in the Basque language, Euskera), a large supermarket chain, with more than 7,500 worker-members, to an association of translators with eight members. Among the other diverse coops are machine tool manufacturers, an electronics firm, and a catering service.

    The cooperative system is governed at the highest level by a Cooperative Congress, which now meets once a year, with proportional representation from each coop. Each individual coop has its own general assembly which must approve general policy decisions and changes in policies (one person, one vote), an elected governing or guiding council (typically the most powerful group in determining the strategic decisions of the coop), an elected social council (that deals with issues of personnel and human resources), an elected watchdog council (that safeguards accounting procedures), and an operating management with a top manager (appointed by the governing council). In larger coops, there is also a management council, with membership determined in part through election and in part through appointment. Thus, each coop practices a complex system of both direct and representative democracy, in addition to pursuing traditional managerial functions. In practice, as I have learned, the exact functioning of these various organs varies somewhat across coops: for example, in some coops I visited, the social council lacked a clear charge, definition and direction. In some coops, the governing council was dominated by top-level managers (or directors); in others, rank-and-file workers were largely in control. (See Whyte & Whyte, 1991, for a detailed historical and social-structural analysis of the Mondragon coops through the 1980s.)

    Before moving to a brief discussion of specific challenges facing the Mondragon system now, particularly in relation to the themes of this essay, I must mention one more important set of characteristics: the multiple levels of "solidarity" within the coops. The term itself is important in Basque culture for denoting camaraderie and interdependence, seen as complementary to self-sufficiency, another important cultural value. Within the coops, solidarity is institutionalized in several ways. First, is wage solidarity: the index of highest to lowest salaries has always been kept narrow (more on this a bit later). Second, there is tremendous job security, with extensive use of lateral transfers between coops and very few layoffs or early retirements. Third, intercooperative solidarity means that both benefits (or profits) and losses are socialized within a group of coops that comprise one industrial sector (say, automotive parts). A bad year by one of the coops in the group is compensated for directly by contributions from others that are doing better. Finally, solidarity with the environment means both the protection of jobs in a locale and assistance to the wider community and to the world.

Challenges Facing Mondragon

    Cultural Transformation. Today, there are important external pressures and internal changes that challenge the traditions of the Mondragon system; some of these are related to the larger cultural changes evident within Basque and Spanish societies, and others are not. For example, as women have made their presence known in the Spanish and Basque workforces during the past two decades, so they have come to comprise about 35Yo of all employee-members in the coops. However, the fact that many men at Mondragon still point to the existence of a special women's coop as a sign of progress and are somewhat defensive about the comparatively small numbers of women in top-level managerial positions suggests a need for further efforts in this area. Also, the noticeable decline in religiosity in predominantly Catholic Spain in the period since Francisco Franco's death in 1975 characterizes life in the Basque Country. But, while the founding principles of the coops do parallel liberal 20th-century Catholic social teaching (as well as being derived to some extent from the cooperatives of Robert Owen and some of his disciples in mid-19th-century Britain, the "Rochdale Pioneers"), the principles are now comfortably but forcefully seen in a secular context. However, the much discussed increase in the pace of life felt keenly by everyone on the street—seems tightly connected with pressures to be more productive and competitive and with temptations to be more materialistic and individualistic. In fact, so prevalent were such comments to me in both formal interviews and informal conversations that it became clear that this entire set of issues was an important part of the popular consciousness and the sense of "what's happening to us."

    Competition and Expansion. The challenges mentioned above and those mentioned below form the backdrop for my study there. Increased competition due to (European Community) EC unification in 1992 leads some coop members I have interviewed to say, "We must grow or die." Noteworthy, too, are frequent ("reifying") references to "The Market" as if it were a wholly external, determinant force, well beyond human hands. Clearly, there is a powerfully felt need to expand the cooperatives and to broaden their capital base, although a number of my interviewees see the pressure as an exaggerated excuse for greater centralization of control. Worker-members talk regularly and openly about "the realities of competition: that 'we are just not competitive enough"; and that "like it or not—we need to be more like the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans." This pressure has recently led, for example, to the expansion of the supermarket chain beyond the Basque Country, with the assistance of a group of public corporations (especially banks). In this case, however, no effort is being made to configure the new supermarkets as cooperatives; thus, their employees are neither owners nor voting members. In a sense, the organization is departing from its "evangelical" stance, a position embodied in one of its ten cooperative principles. Thus, the matter of how the cooperatives communicate their identities and values to both "insiders" and "outsiders" becomes extremely important. Interesting in this regard is that the cooperatives are doing more to develop their public-relations and internal communications functions, areas that were in the past largely ignored because in many ways they were not needed.

    Wage Solidarity. Another debate is even more intense in its capacity to produce division within the coops: it centers on the meaning and practice of another one of Mondrag6n's ten basic principles, wage solidarity. This refers to the commitment of the coops to maintaining a comparatively narrow range between the highest and lowest paid worker-members. When the first coop was founded in 1956, the ratio between "top" and "bottom" was set constitutionally at 3:1, meaning that the highest paid employees could make no more than three times that of the lowest paid ones. (This is in marked contrast to the ratio in most large U.S. corporations, where it ranges between 200:1 and 300:1. Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream of Vermont is considered radical in the American context because its ratio has been set at 7:1.) Gradually, Mondrag6n's pay-solidarity ratio was widened to 4.5:1 and then to 6:1 (although when taxes are taken into account, the last index becomes more like 4:1 in actuality). In 1991 the Cooperative Congress permitted individual coops as well as the corporate superstructure to peg salaries to a level of up to 70% of the market rate. Even though the real salaries of the top managers implicated by this new policy actually make today only about 50% of their outside market counterparts, the fact of the change and the new mystery surrounding salaries of 25 or so persons in the "cupula" (as some worker-members call top corporate management), is very divisive. The symbolic aspects of the policy change were disheartening for many persons and seemed to overshadow the question of real salaries. The reality of the change in salary structure, as well as the speculation about it, has divided the members of the coops between those who seek change and point to the realities of the larger economic environment (e.g., "We have to be realistic") and those who seek to preserve tradition and point to the distinctive commitments and practices of the coops (e.g., "Our confidence in each other has been broken"). The ways in which coop members interpret and discuss this transformation reveal much about their conceptions of what is essential to or constitutive of the coops and indicate also what wage solidarity will mean in the future.   

    Centralization and Reorganization. S till another area of change at Mondragon is the current restructuring toward greater centralization and the formation of new industrial sectors. Until 1984, there was no Cooperative Congress; before that year, the bank did most of the coordinating activity. Until 1991, there was no corporate head; there was only a cooperative "group." But, recent changes in the complex Basque and Spanish laws which govern cooperatives allowed the Mondrag6n system to centralize itself more, speak to the market with one voice, and consolidate its strategic functions. Part of that change, internally, was a move away from the 15 traditional regional sectors—usually organized in valleys of the mountainous Basque Country in which generations had lived and with which people still strongly identify—toward industrial sectors. At the same time, more and more guiding functions are being assumed by the central offices of the Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa, formerly Grupo Cooperativa Mondragon (and some observers consider this name change in itself to be important in that it suggests to some a further departure from the heritage of the coops). This transformation is seen as necessary for efficiency by some but as a threat to "local control" within each coop by others. At issue is the degree to which the advantages of creating centralized functions—for example, ease of coordination—truly outweigh the losses in terms of the sense of "groupness" that characterizes many of the individual coops. Some of the coops are thus fearful of losing both autonomy and identity. And, a social movement—formal unions are not allowed in principle has arisen within the 9,000 member FAGOR regional group to oppose strongly the "breaking of the traditional bonds of people to people and people to the land." It is important to recognize that intercooperative solidarity was originally defined within regional sectors; now it is being "transferred" to industrial sectors, where a specific sector may have member coops in cities both inside and outside the Basque Country. Thus, it is not surprising that some coops, notably a group called ULMA, in a valley next to that of Mondragon, have separated themselves from the corporation chiefly in order to preserve their "regional integrity." And in that same Valley of Onati unemployment in early 1994 was a mere 2% in contrast with 16Yo for the Basque Country or 23% for Spain as a whole. My interviews there revealed a powerful sense of identity rooted in local distinctiveness and self-determination.

    Programs to increase Productivity and Participation. A final development within the coops is pertinent to this discussion. At the corporate as well as at the cooperative level, new programs for increased productivity and participation are being implemented, mostly under the general heading of "Total Participative Management." Among these programs are Self-directed Work Teams, Constant or Continual Improvement (focused on quality) and Auto-responsibility (referring to each work position). While it is too early to evaluate these efforts, the majority of which were initiated in 1993 or 1994, it is clear that their implementation will have a shaping effect on the future of the coops, not only with respect to their standing in the European and world markets but also in terms of their social integrity and vitality. For example, in one successful coop which manufactures plastic car components, the program of Constant Improvement (in part at my urging) is currently being broadened to include hygienic and social aspects of the workplace. Thus, in a variety of areas employee-members are encouraged to make improvements directly in their places of work as well as to make suggestions to their teams and managers. All of the programs mentioned here involve substantial restructuring in terms of patterns of relations and lines of authority.

    With all of these controversial issues, commitments to core values at Mondragon— notably, democracy, equality and solidarity—are implicated. Some observers, for example, have argued that a decreased commitment to equality can threaten commitment to participation. This is why the analysis of how members at a variety of levels of the coops talk about and practice core values is so important. Greenwood and Gonzalez (1989), in their organizational-cultural study of part of one coop in the FAGOR group in the mid-1980s, found both passion for the humanistic goals of the organization and concerns about the deleterious effects of growth, bureaucratization and centralization.

 

MAKING SENSE OF MONDRAGON

    In the Mondragon case we find a convergence of nearly all of the issues discussed in this essay. We must ask, for example, in reformulating Weber's (1978) enduring question in a market-conscious way: How can a large, partially bureaucratic and economically successful worker-cooperative system sustain its humanistic value commitments over time? (cf., Satow, 1975). (In one sense, this question represents the obverse of the one being posed by economists currently investigating Mondragon: that is, "Can a cooperative system survive in the current market economy?"; Martin, 1994.) To address this big question, I am operating with more specific ones: for example, how are the basic values of the cooperatives being "negotiated" and "renegotiated" today? I am considering the multiple meanings for the same value (e.g., "solidarity"), tensions between those different meanings, tensions between different values (e.g., between "efficiency" and "participation"), and commitments to values (as demonstrated in a variety of ways). I am also examining the role of value-centered discourse in the life of the coops.  

Focus on Communication

    These and related questions point us to the analysis of messages (such as individual and corporate accounts of decisions), levels and objects of identification by employee-members (such as commitments to transcendent goals), and formal and informal practices in the organization (such as training programs and employee communications). The range of meanings for a particular value term, say, "participation," becomes very important in that some terms are likely to allow more "symbolic maneuvering room" than others with a more restrictive range of meanings (cf. Cheney, 1991; Eisenberg, 1984; Stohl, 1993). Of course, we also must attend to the structural aspects of such an organization: that is, the ways in which day-to-day communication is "architecturally" shaped through the prescription of relationships, messages and decision-making procedures (see McPhee, 1985).

    Values such as democracy, solidarity and equality are realized to a great extent through talk. How, for example, can a commitment to participation be effectively demonstrated except through access to, by the structure of, and with respect to the content of discussions? And the reinforcement or erosion of such values similarly takes place in and through communication practice: that is, democracy itself must be discussed, assessed and modified in an ongoing manner if it is to be effectively maintained. However, the expressed meanings for communication-related values such as participation and equality can be rigid or flexible, changing or relatively constant, broadly encompassing or narrowly circumscribed. In other words, one person's vision of democracy, in the workplace or elsewhere, is by no means the next person's; universality cannot be simply presumed; consensus cannot be merely assumed. And, the pursuit of such values can and often does engender conflict, contradiction and paradox. If, for example, a democratic work system opens itself to new members and new ideas that involve strong challenges to the existing democratic order, what then? ("Should we admit people who may try to change radically our organization?")

    We should therefore study both the activities of participation themselves as well the ways in which coop members interpret and reflect upon participation and related values. In the middle phase of my project, l am conducting an examination of the "texts" of over 100 interviews (conducted entirely in Spanish and audio-taped): one quarter are from a wide sampling of coops and levels; the rest come from three distinct and diverse coops of 140-250 worker-members. All interviewees were selected by me; in the case of the three select coops (one, a recent a struggling conversion of a traditional capitalist firm; another, a recent "regionalist" departure from the corporation; and another, a highly profitable coop that is also fairly central to the corporate structure), I used stratified random sampling to interview between 10 and 20% of the worker-members in each case. These interviews were conducted between late February and late June, 1994. Also, I attended several general assembly meetings and related preparatory "chats" (for groups of 20~0 worker-members) in May of 1994 and participated in several training workshops (focused on principles of cooperativism and human relations) in May of 1994. In addition, I was party to hundreds of informal conversations, both inside and outside the coops, often having the opportunity to observe work-in-process. And, I have conducted a preliminary, but broad content analysis of the corporate house organ, Trabajo y Union (or "Work and Union"), distributed monthly to all worker-members.

Themes of the Research

    I do not have the space here to report in depth my findings or to offer extended quotations from the discourse of formal or informal communications. (These will be presented in Cheney, in progress.) However, I can highlight seven themes that have clearly emerged in my analysis and which point directly to the issues advanced in the earlier parts of this essay.

    1. Support Systems. As mentioned above, the creation of an extensive support system is essential to the success, coherence and autonomy of the cooperatives. Economists have documented the central financial role of the bank, the Caja Laboral (or Labor Bank), in allowing the coops to flourish—by, for example, offering preferential interest rates for the creation and development of individual coops (see, e.g., Thomas & Logan, 1982). But, I wish to emphasize, beyond that point, that many interviewees pointed with pride to the superstructure of the health-care and social-security systems. Some said, for example: "That's what makes us strong and special." The superstructure is therefore important to social cohesion as well as for financial autonomy. And, there are many other coops in Spain (as elsewhere) that do not enjoy such security. I should note, however, that the idea of support systems can be broadened to include participation in strategic alliances and network organizations so as to strengthen the position of Mondragon and similar cooperative enterprises (see, e.g., Powell, 1990).
 
    2. Growth. The issue of growth continues to pose both opportunities and threats. While the coops have succeeded economically in part because of their expansion, the very same expansion is seen by many as a threat to the democratic vitality of the group and to the autonomy of individual coops. With growth come some measures of depersonalization, hierarchy, bureaucratization, and centralization, as already observed. Thus, many worker-members speak openly of growth as a 'two-sided coin." The reality of the transformations mentioned here points to the crucial importance of reviving democracy at the small-group level (more on this below).

    3. Identity. Related to the second point above is the struggle over the identity of the coops: sustaining distinctiveness while striving toward broader appeal. Although the Mondrag6n coops are to some extent grounded in Basque culture, recent observers of them have insisted that the "cultural factor" should not be allowed to overshadow the internal structures and dynamics of the cooperatives in explaining their successes to date (see, e.g., Morrison, 1991). Still, until very recently, the coops themselves have been styled as Basque coops. (This is the case even though many worker-members, as immigrants from other parts of Spain to the Basque Country in the economically booming 1960s and early 1970s, do not really think of themselves as Basques and do not speak the incredibly challenging and wholly unique language, Euskera.) In the 1990s, the coops are spreading well beyond the Basque Country, to the neighboring provinces of Navarra and Cantabria, for example. And the Corporation now maintains satellite offices in France, Germany and the U.S. The question "Who are we?" thus surfaces frequently. And the questioning is focused on and most manifest in the current search for a new name for the entire system, now called the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. Many seek a title and an identity that is sufficiently inclusive to symbolize the coops' expanse, yet comparatively local to stress distinctiveness.  

    4. Revitalization. Many worker-members see some of the practices of the coops as ritualistic, calcified and stale and point to the need to recreate the spontaneous and dynamic dimension of cooperative worklife. For instance, interviewees spoke freely of their passion for cooperativism, but at the same time criticized general assemblies and other formally specified meetings as being "as predictable as Catholic masses." Thus, as I witnessed, unplanned moments in general-assembly meetings (such as an objection to a report voiced from the floor) almost necessarily appear to be disruptive. So, the more spontaneous elements of discussion—highly valued by the Basques in their strongly oral and debate-loving culture are to be found more commonly in small, informal meetings that are preparatory to general assemblies. Many coop members thus call for an internal revitalization of governance and daily practices, an issue which is being considered at this moment on a variety of levels. There seems to be a strong sense among worker-members that democracy itself is a process rather than a specific structural arrangement upon which a group or organization comes to rest or rely.

    5. Managing Competitiveness. Competitiveness has internal as well as external relevance. Many worker-members are self-conscious about the contradictory aspects of striving to be cooperative internally but competitive externally, with respect to the larger market. Some, in fact, see the 1991 change in the salary index to be bringing about a degree of competitiveness within the coops that did not exist previously. "People are talking much more about the differences between their salaries and especially about the salaries of top managers than they did before," a number of worker-members told me. Further, the prospect looms for actual competition between and within the coops as the drive toward higher quality, greater production, and customer-driven work processes continues.

    6. Implementing Participation. There is the complex matter of how to implement new systems of participation and productivity within individual coops and throughout the system as a whole. Many people at Mondragon in fact recognize the paradox inherent in imposing systems such as self-directed work teams completely from the top. The corporate communications director related to me a story of the president of the corporation becoming very excited at a meeting and declaring, "From this day, we shall have Total Participative Management throughout the cooperatives!" (Fortunately, the President, himself an elected official, later realized the contradiction that he had unwittingly and benevolently embraced.) Clearly, these new programs have the potential to revitalize democratic process within the coops, though by enhancing decision-making power at the level of work positions and in small-group teams rather than at the broader strategic level of the system as a whole. However, some worker-owners expressed to me concerns about overwork in the future. What is essential to the success and to the humanistic integrity of these plans is that worker-members at all levels be able to join in their formulation and implementation. Managers can foster a participative environment, but they cannot and should not force it.

    Noteworthy in this regard is the related paradox, expressed by some worker interviewees, that "we are waiting for a new charismatic leader (like one of the founders) to lead us to be more democratic." Thus, at both the managerial and rank-and-file levels are obstacles to authentic democratic revival.

    7. Dynamic Communication. There is an acute need to maintain a dynamic, self-reflective and comprehensive communication system. The coops, like the larger societies in which they are situated, still have relatively low regard for formal written communications (such as memos and reports). Yet, they feel that they should use such means, often in a top-down fashion, to "be a modern business." What is needed is a more complex, group-based and highly interactive system that will energize all levels of the cooperative system: the individual coops, the newly-created sectors (whose identity for many employee-members is not solid or vivid), and the unifying corporate structure. Vertical written communications, such as the (not-so-widely read) corporate house organ, can play an important role, but they should not be relied upon as the backbone of communication in a system that has a tradition of making use of a variety of groups and bodies to give advice and to make decisions. A variety of types of ad hoc groups, with diverse memberships, can be used effectively to keep the organization together, increase participation, broaden involvement in decisions about specific programs and their implementation, and decrease both the felt and the actual "distance" between worker-members and the "cupula."

 

EPILOGUE

    We thus have in Mondrag6n a giant and complex laboratory for the study of workplace democracy within the context of the increasingly globalized market economy. This case, with nearly four decades of rich experience behind it, affords important opportunities for theoretically-informed and practically-oriented communication research. And, this and other similar organizations have striking implications not only for the study of so-called "alternative" organizations but also for other efforts to put some of our most treasured political and social commitments to work.

    A humane and democratic workplace is not just a good idea, but it does take a special kind of collective commitment to make it happen. As an ideal, the democratic and humane workplace can certainly be a point of reference in making policy, even if it remains unattainable in all its features. Whether exceptional cases, such as Mondragon, can ever become the rule remains an arguable issue for both practitioners and theorists. The answer depends in part on how one sees possibilities for doing something "different" within an economic and political landscape that, despite announced claims to the contrary, seems to insist on conformity. Alternatively, one might look forward to broader societal transformations, working within certain local contexts toward that vision. But it is hard to argue that many of our workplaces today are not terribly people-friendly. So, why not ask simply: "What would organizations be like if we really created and maintained them for persons?"

 

ENDNOTES

1. This formulation is inspired in part by the humanistic critique of contemporary organizational life and theory in Robert B. Denhardt (1989). I must note that the underscored definition cannot do justice to the complexities surrounding the matters of individual and organization and the possible relationships between the two. For example, from a more collectivist as opposed to a more individualistic perspective, it is not reasonable to dichotomize the two sets of goals as implied here: individual goals and organizational ones would be overlapping to such a great extent in the regular operation of the social system. Further, it can be argued that a higher goal, such as pursuit of the common good, necessarily brings together concerns for the individual person as well as for the social body. Nevertheless, there is a danger in subsuming individual rights and responsibilities within even the most noble and progressive collectivist vision. In fact, there is need for perpetual vigilance with respect to the individual's right to distance her/himself (and the parallel right of a sub-group to distance itself) in one way or another from a seemingly restrictive or oppressive majority. (Compare Foucault, 1984, and Westenholz, 1993, on this point.)

2. See also Schwartzman's (1989) detailed and fascinating interpretive account of what meetings mean to participants in largely democratic service organizations. Her case analysis reminds us of the importance of attending to many different types of messages and levels of analysis with respect to communication in organizations. Moreover, Schwartzman alerts us to how presumably mundane communication phenomena, such as meetings, may in fact be considered as constitutive of the organization by its members, especially within a democratic order.

  

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