Since the Webbs published Industrial Democracy at the end of the nineteenth century, the principle that workers have a legitimate voice in decision-making in the world of work – in some versions through trade unions, in others at least formally through separate representative structures – has become widely accepted in most West European countries. There is now a vast literature on the strengths and weaknesses of such mechanisms, and we review briefly some of the key interpretations of the rise (and fall) of policies and structures for workplace and board-level representation. We also discuss the mainly failed attempts to establish broader processes of economic democracy, which the eclipse of nationally specific mechanisms of class compromise makes again a salient demand. Economic globalization also highlights the need for transnational mechanisms to achieve worker voice (or more radically, control) in the dynamics of capital–labour relations. We therefore examine the role of trade unions in coordinating pressure for a countervailing force at European and global levels, and in the construction of (emergent?) supranational industrial relations. However, many would argue that unions cannot win legitimacy as a democratizing force unless manifestly democratic internally. Therefore, we revisit debates on and dilemmas of democracy within trade unions, and examine recent initiatives to enhance democratization.
The talk will be based on an article of the name that was published in Economic and Industrial Democracy. The article is available upon request.