Canadian Socialist Ed Broadbent: Real Democracy Requires Industrial Democracy

Ed Broadbent is one of the most successful democratic socialist politicians in North America in the last 50 years. In a 1969 speech, reprinted here in full, he laid out a bold plan to erode the tyranny of private ownership and expand democracy to the economy.

Ed Broadbent photographed in 1971. (Fred Ross / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Since the emergence of industrialism there have been two other related developments: the birth of modern political democracy and the growth in numbers of a working class and their institution the trade union movement. There can be no doubt that the latter of these two gave rise to the former.

In Canada, for a variety of reasons, political or liberal democracy has become more firmly and broadly established than has the trade union movement. Even now only a minority of the nonagricultural workers are members of trade unions. Nonetheless, trade unions represent the single most important institution to workers. It is trade unions which have been most effective in obtaining and preserving those rights that currently exist for working men, which are directly applicable to their function as workers. Trade unions, through their strength, have forced a degree of justice upon industrial capitalism. Because of their existence, workers’ wages are higher, pensions are better, vacations are longer, jobs are more secure, and management is compelled to take on the facade of civilized behavior.

So far in this century, the Canadian trade union movement has been the most important instrument in bringing to the worker that level of self-respect and independence which he possesses. Political liberties without the trade union movement would have left industrial man as a mere chattel. Political democracy without full industrial democracy in an economically advanced Canada will leave him in a state that is neither degraded nor emancipated; he will remain a semi-contented dependent, subject to the power of others. What is now needed is another step forward.

Two Democratic Traditions: Liberal & Socialist

It is very important for New Democrats to keep in mind that as socialists our view of democracy differs in some crucial respects from that shared by our Liberal and Conservative opponents. For the old parties, a society is democratic if three principal requirements are met: (1) all adults have the right to vote, (2) there are periodic elections in which those who wish to may compete for political office, and (3) there is the right of all to criticize the government.

Ed Broadbent and French Socialist François Mitterrand (L) in the late 1970s.

For socialists this view of democracy is inadequate; it is inadequate because it is incomplete. We agree that any democratic society must have these three characteristics. However, we also believe that any society having only these qualities is not fully democratic. We insist that two further qualities are required.

(1) A fully democratic society for us is one in which the opportunity for self-realization is equally available to all. And self-realization for us means the free development of our moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and sensual capacities. It does not mean, as it does for those Liberals and Conservatives who talk about equal opportunity, the ability to get ahead of and control others. (2) The second characteristic that a socialist believes a fully developed democracy requires is that the average citizen should possess direct or indirect control over all those decisions that have a serious effect on his day-to-day life.

From the middle of the last century, when our notion of democracy emerged, to the present, the goal of all socialists has been to create the kind of economy in which the equal opportunities for the development of the capacities and talents of people would be maximized and in which all those directly affected by economic decisions would have some effective power in the making of them.

Analytically and historically, it has long been recognized that a capitalist economy, based as it is on the private ownership of capital and the concentration of power in few hands, is inherently exploitative and thus inherently undemocratic. Thus, to create a society based on the socialist democratic principle of the equal right to self-development and the equal right to self-management, we have attempted to help transform our economy from having a capitalist structure to one that is socialist in nature. Our central objective has been to replace an economy controlled by a private few, with one controlled by the public many.

Broadly speaking there have been two loci of attack: parliamentary and extra-parliamentary. At the governmental level, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)–NDP has attempted to have laws passed that would check the economic power of those owning the economic system. At the nongovernmental level, the trade union movement has fought the democratic battle in our factories and offices.

One by one the trade union movement has sought to overcome the so-called rights of ownership or management. What this has meant in the real-life experience of people is that, step by step, the unjust barriers to equality have been broken down. Step by step working men have obtained more control over their day-to-day lives. Step by step they have achieved a higher level  of democracy.

In Canada today, the worker who is a member of a trade union is in a much better position than the nonunionized worker of a few decades ago. He cannot be fired in response to a whim of his employer; his wages are proportionately higher; his vacation period is longer; and his sense of self-respect is greater. These differences between the present and the past are very important. They mean very much, therefore, to the lives of millions of Canadians.

This fact notwithstanding, the unionized worker is in a position of extreme inequality when compared with his employer or the managers representing his employer. It is the employer or his agent who makes decisions about production, about the allocation of capital, about the nature and price of products, and about the distribution of profits. Not only does the worker have no say in these matters, it is one of the central requirements or beliefs associated with a capitalist economy that he should not have a say. These are the remaining so-called prerogatives of management. And it is their existence that makes our present economic institutions inherently unequal and inherently undemocratic.

What is required? It is a truism to say that a socialist Canada would be a Canada in which workers of every kind and skill have significant decision-making power in every aspect of the economy. Socialist citizenship includes fundamental economic rights as well as political rights. Having said this, it is nonetheless important to indicate how this goal might be realized peacefully from within our present structure. Two simultaneous approaches suggest themselves.

(1) At the extra-parliamentary level trade unionists must continue with their historical struggle against management’s prerogatives. These so-called rights of ownership must yield one by one to be included in the class of items over which unions and management bargain. At present many unions in Canada are challenging management’s traditional “right” to control technological changes. They rightly see that the chief significance of the Freedman Report (already three years old) is that Justice Samuel Freedman called into question our common law tradition, which unjustly has bestowed so many “rights” of power on property ownership. Although the particular issue was technological change on the railways, the broader principle raised by Justice Freedman was that workers have a fundamental interest and right in all the decisions that affect them in their place of work.

As early objectives trade unions should work for the immediate implementation of the Freedman Report and for the immediate establishment of joint administrative control of pension funds.

(2) At the political level, the New Democratic Party must vigorously support the trade union movement in its efforts to break down the traditional so-called rights of management. In particular, it must make clear that these “rights” of management have no more profound moral justification than the fact that they have always derived from the power-position of the property owner and have been sanctified by the title “rights” over many years of capitalist history.

We should make clear that our view, that Canadian society as a whole and not just its political institutions needs to be democratized, entails a commitment to certain basic changes in law as it affects the rights of working people and trade unions.

Among the first steps to be taken is the removal of the legal obstacles to effective and speedy certification of bargaining units. It will also be necessary to remove any existing legal barriers to unions bargaining in the “nonnegotiable rights” areas, which our common law tradition has granted to management. The objective is to remove all rights of irresponsible control from the legal right of ownership.

To enable unions to bargain effectively in the new areas of responsibility, legislation should be passed that will require employers to open their books containing information on manpower, profits, investments, product research, etc. In short, there must be complete disclosure to both the union and the public of all information relevant to the running of an enterprise. For the same reason a means must be found for increasing the research funds for trade unionists. My own preference here is for the levying of a special corporation tax, whose revenue would automatically be turned over to the relevant union.


Our goal is to help build a democratic socialist Canada. This requires a transformation of power relations in society; to hasten this, the New Democratic Party must support the force in society that is most clearly moving in this direction. The trade unions are such a progressive force; their victories over the irresponsible concentration of power in our economic system belong to all Canadians. We must, therefore, support the trade unions, and together act with determination to turn a liberal democracy into an industrial democracy.

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Ed Broadbent is a Canadian social-democratic politician, political scientist, and chair of the Broadbent Institute, a policy thinktank. He was leader of the New Democratic Party from 1975 to 1989.

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