Journey Towards Greater Worker Ownership

[Editor’s Note: We’re delighted to welcome Simon Pek, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. In this post, he reflects on his recently published article: Drawing Out Democracy: The Role of Sortition in Preventing and Overcoming Organizational Degeneration in Worker-Owned Firms, in the Journal of Management Inquiry.]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

We are living in a very dynamic time when it comes to thinking about how our economy can and should be organized. Various forms of worker ownership, such as worker cooperatives, are garnering renewed interest. Prominent candidates for the U.S. presidency are advocating for new programs to encourage worker ownership and worker representation on boards of directors, and the Parliament of Canada recently passed – with unanimous support – a motion centered on recognizing and further developing the Canadian co-operative sector.
At the same time, research and practice suggests that the extent of democracy in worker-owned firms – one of these firm’s central values – can be precarious and hard to sustain. As they grow expand and grow in size, they can fall prey to the phenomenon of organizational degeneration, whereby their worker representatives, who don’t always reflect the backgrounds or interests of the broader workforce they represent, tend to solidify their power over time. The broader workforce, in turn, tends to check out and become less engaged in the governance of their firms as this newly solidified power makes change in leadership increasingly difficult. This not only limits the extent to which these firms achieve their espoused aims, but can also have important social and organizational consequences.
I was drawn to better understand this phenomenon, with the hope that a fresh understanding of the problem of organizational degeneration could shed light on some under-explored solutions that could help us overcome and prevent it as we embark on our journey towards greater worker ownership.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

This paper is innovative in that it sheds light on how the use of elections can generate and perpetuate organizational degeneration in worker-owned firms, and points to the potential of sortition – the use of lotteries – as a novel way of preventing and overcoming it.
Over the years, elections have come to be seen as the default, if not the only, way of practicing representative democracy, whether in our unions, our community associations, or our governments. Yet, a growing body of research and practice in the domain of political science questions our reliance on elections, explores their (usually) unintended consequences, and seeks alternatives. Sortition is one such alternative that has a long history and is experiencing a major resurgence. Many countries have long relied on this mechanism to select jurors, and in recent decades, a growing number of jurisdictions have begun experimenting with governing bodies comprised of randomly selected citizens to deliberate over contentious and consequential issues. For instance, in 2016 Ireland created a Citizens’ Assembly to deliberate about topics including abortion and climate change, and in 2015 Toronto created a standing Planning Review Panel to provide input on the city’s planning initiatives.
I believe that there are many questions left unanswered and many opportunities for future research and refinement, and I hope that this paper encourages researchers and practitioners to experiment with new ways of thinking about representation and democracy more broadly in worker-owned firms.

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