Bernie Sanders Wants to Democratize Your Workplace

Bernie Sanders’s embrace of worker ownership and control aims to extend democracy from the political sphere to the economy.

Bernie Sanders attends communication workers union rally at UCLA on March 20, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Barbara Davidson / Getty

Expanding democracy in politics has long been a central theme for Bernie Sanders. But the Vermont senator’s latest proposals take these efforts in an altogether more radical and potentially transformative direction: namely, the extension of democracy into the workplace and economic life.

As Sanders put it in an interview:

We can move to an economy where workers feel that they’re not just a cog in the machine — one where they have power over their jobs and can make decisions. Democracy isn’t just the opportunity to vote. What democracy really means is having control over your life.

As revealed Tuesday by the Washington Post, the Sanders presidential campaign is currently working on two proposals designed to win American workers a greater share of profits and give them a bigger say in company decisions.

While details are forthcoming, the first will involve requiring large businesses to put a portion of their stock into employee-controlled funds, which would in turn pay out dividends to workers — potentially turning them into owners. The second, similar to a plan proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, would reserve them a share of director seats on corporate boards.

Ambitious and radical, Sanders’s embrace of economic democracy draws on an important though often less visible current of left thought which has stressed the need to go beyond raising wages and strengthening the social safety net.

Postwar social democracy was often associated with nationalization — that is, state-level ownership and management of industries. In many cases, this made sense: public goods like health care, rail, water, and postal delivery often become wildly inefficient or exploitative when administered by for-profit private actors (and, indeed, thanks to the privatization mania that swept through Europe and North America in the 1980s and 1990s, many previously nationalized enterprises have ended up in exactly this predicament).

But more radical left currents both within and outside traditional social democracy frequently made the case for more extensive economic transformation by way of worker empowerment and the socialization of capital. Throughout the 1970s, Tony Benn grew increasingly attracted to various forms of industrial democracy, seeing them as potential tools for solving the protracted dysfunction of Britain’s besieged Keynesian welfare state. Swedish economist Rudolph Meidner also famously put forward a plan that would have seen workers own an ever-growing portion of the country’s industry through regular cessions of stock.

Democratizing the workplace, like the welfare state, is inherently redistributive. But in empowering workers and changing the actual terms of ownership, it has the potential to overturn the unequal relationship between owners and workers that lies at the heart of every capitalist economy.

While Sanders’s proposals, in whatever form they eventually take, will face resistance from corporate interests and oligarchs, they represent a significant step towards a richer kind of democracy in which ordinary people have a voice at the workplace as well as the ballot box — and take home a greater share of the wealth their labor creates.