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Don't leave democracy outside the factory door

In its relations with its employees one of the tired slogans which management traditionally pronounces, noble in sound but often empty in practice, is: "Our employees are a most valuable asset." The employees are indeed management's most valuable asset; it is just that they are not so treated.

The work structure in American business and industry casts the employer in the role of order-giver and the employee as order-taker. Democratic values which free citizens enjoy in a free society disappear the moment the employee enters the workplace. Employer authoritarianism dominates the workplace, tempered by employee rights guaranteed by the provisions of a labor agreement (when the employees are represented by a union).

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Fundamentally, improving the quality of worklife (or whatever other term one may use) means bringing into the workplace a measure of democracy which the worker as citizen enjoys outside the workplace. Workers must not be treated as cogs in the machinery. They are not automatons responding simply to structured work processes, obeying precise instructions. They are thinking human beings who have deep knowledge of the workplace and of the methods, means, and processes used to provide service or to produce product, as the case might be. They must be treated with dignity at the workplace as they deserve to be treated with dignity in society as a whole.

This requires a drastic change in management attitude toward the workers. Historically, management has operated within the concept of autocratic control. Management makes the decisions, the workers obey. The work force, however, is changing rapidly. Workers entering the workplace today generally have four years more education than was true a generation or two ago. They are more prone to challenge authority and to question past practice and tradition. They want to know the "whys and wherefores" relative to the performance of their functions and the decisions management makes that affects their welfare.

An increasing number of management executives have come to the realization that the employer-employee and the employer-union relationship must be elevated to a new and different plane. Workers must be treated with the respect deserved by all human beings. They must be given the opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process relative to the workplace. They must have the chance to achieve self- fulfillment at work and enhance their feeling of self-worth.

Gimmickry will not work. Improving the quality of worklife requires joint cooperative management and union effort to achieve the mutually desirable objectives of creating a more satisfying workplace and a work climate attuned to the individual needs and aspirations of the workers.

Considerable progress is now being made in which companies and unions are developing and implementing quality- of-worklife programs. In the years ahead we can anticipate a rapid proliferation of such programs as the next step towards building democratic values into the workplace.


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