Stan De Spiegelaere of the ETUI proposes a cure for populism – democracy at work. After all, he argues,  if we want political democracy to succeed then we need citizens to have practical experiences with participation and involvement. Where better to acquire this experience than the workplace?

Trump in the White House, Orban in Hungary, the Law and Justice party in Poland, the AfD in Germany, Erdoğan in Turkey… It seems like the list of challenges to our democracies is becoming worryingly extensive. Time to act! And the area where one should act might surprise you: our companies.

Democracy lives on values of speaking up, participating in decision making and being involved. It’s when societies think their voices and votes don’t matter, that democracies are threatened in their core. Yet, the place where we spend a good deal of our active days, companies, is quite authoritarian. Speaking up is not always values, participating in decision making not welcome and don’t even think about suggesting to vote out your management.

Think about it. Our societies want us to spend about 40 hours a week in non-democratic environments, doing as we are told and at the same time be critical, voicing and engaged citizens in the remaining time. No surprise that many resolve this cognitive dissonance by retreating from political democracy altogether, with all due consequences.

Democracy starts at work

It’s not the first time our societies are confronted with this limbo between democracy and the capitalist organization of the firm. And many countries have found ways to at least lessen this painful spread by introducing some types of democracy in the companies: employees are given a vote. Not to choose the company management (yet), but to choose some representatives that can talk with the management on their behalf.

Unions, works councils and similar institutions take democracy down to the company floors. Imperfect, sure, but they give at least a slim democratic coating to our rather autocratic working lives. They enable workers to voice their demands, suggest changes and denounce issues without risking personal retaliation.

And by doing so, they create an environment in which individual employees feel more comfortable to speak up too about their own work. About how it can be improved, about when to do what. And these hands-on experiences of democracy breed a more general democratic culture. According to two recent studies, employees being involved in decision making about their work are more likely to be interested in politics, have a pro-democratic attitude, vote, sign a petition or be active in parties or action groups. And this is what democracy is all about. It’s more than just casting a vote every so often, it’s about being engaged and involved in decision making that affects you.

The picture is quite clear: if we want political democracy to succeed we need citizens to have practical experiences with participation and involvement. And where better to organize this then in companies by giving people a vote on their representatives and a say in how they do their day-to-day work. Empowered employees bring emancipated citizens. No coincidence the European Trade Union Confederation aims to put this back on the policy agenda.

Populism gives us a fish, workplace democracy teaches us how to fish

Lacking voice in the workplace, lacking hands on experiences with the (often difficult) democratic decision making, many turn to politicians promising to be their voice. “I am your voice” said Trump to working America in 2016. Similarly, the German AfD stressed to be the voice of the ‘little man’.

They all promise of restoring ‘real democracy’ by being their voice on the highest level. At the same time, all these populists take measures which break the voice of workers on the company level. Trump is making it harder for unions to organize or bargain collectively. In Hungary, the Orban government has limited the right to strike and made organizing more difficult.

These populist leaders, in other words, promise to ‘be the voice’ of the working man while at the same time limiting their voice in their own workplace. They promise us a fish, but surely aren’t going to teach us how to fish.

The risks of eating away workers’ rights

And the problems are not limited to those countries. Unionization rates in most of the developed economies have been declining over the years, just as the amount of employees covered by a collective agreement. Currently only one in two employees in Europe currently works in a company that has a union, a works council or a similar institution.

Half of the European workers are thus denied empowerment through workplace democracy. An obvious threat to democratic culture and our political democracy. And therefore, a political priority, right?

Not really. Democratizing companies is unfortunately not high on the agenda of our (political) representatives. A three-year old could easily count the recent political initiatives that strengthened democracy at work. And trusting on the goodwill of enlightened employers and managers to listen to their workers isn’t the way forward either. You need enforceable rights to be informed, consulted and participate in company decision making. You need protection for those representing the people.  Just as we realized that checks and balances, a constitution and a strong legal power, are to be preferred over the hope of getting an enlightened leader.

Of course, promoting democracy at work means limiting the absolute reign of capital in companies. And that seems to be an insurmountable challenge for our democratically elected governments. Last time we made real advances on this issue we needed a world war and the ghost of communism to haunt Europe. We can only hope our democracies will prove more pro-active this time. Or am I not showing enough support for political democracy now?

Stan De Spiegelaere is a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute.

This blog appeared first in Social Europe Journal.