New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



Forthcoming in Corporations and Citizenship (Greg Urban, ed., Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)


In the 20th century, the idea of industrial democracy was more closely linked to collective bargaining in the United States than in the rest of the industrial world. As union representation and collective bargaining coverage has shrunk to less than 7 percent of the private sector workforce, the very idea of workplace democracy has faded from public discourse. Against that bleak background, this essay asks what workplace democracy could mean in the 21st century for the great majority of workers who are destined to remain without union representation. It contends for a form of workplace democracy that can meet some employee needs and aspirations without provoking vehement employer resistance—a domesticated or "digestible" version of workplace democracy to supplement (not to replace) the essential right of workers to form a union.

The essay reviews evidence of “what workers want,” what they have, and what they need by way of representation in today’s workplace. It contends that workers still need a collective voice despite the rise of employment mandates and, in some quarters, improved workplace management practices. Finally, it suggests a role for responsible corporate citizens in supplying a measure of what workers want and need as workplace citizens (if the law would allow them to do so). The corporate embrace of workforce diversity and inclusion could offer a template for how norms of corporate social responsibility could be harnessed in support of a norm of worker representation in governance -- but only if "worker representation" is not exclusively identified with unions.

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