Finding the Seeds of a Better World: Worker Self-Management


By Alex Hill (Uncovering Alternatives Team, ISC)

When I set out as part of a small team to write a report on workers’ self-management (WSM) in Korea last spring I had no idea how laborious an undertaking it would be. The final product before you, while a mere fifteen pages, is the result of months of research, interviews, site trips, meetings, and editing. As one of the chief researchers on our team, I was responsible for conducting the background research on the history, successes, and setbacks facing workers’ self-management internationally. I also co-authored the report. As someone that began with little knowledge of the topic, I scoured the Internet for journal articles and news items on cooperatives and worker-managed firms to get a sense of the history, origins, and philosophy behind the movement. At times it felt as though I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Challenges inevitably arose in the production of this report. There were extended discussions about how best to make sense of the information uncovered, how to structure the report, and what to conclude based on the mountain of research that ended up at our feet. That none of us were experts in the field of labour issues or economics complicated matters further. Nevertheless, just as labourers at a WSM arrive at decisions about how to proceed with their work through democratic methods, our team embraced a democratic and cooperative approach to overcoming hurdles in the research and writing process.

Of the numerous articles I read and analyzed, only a handful were ultimately incorporated into the report. Having launched this project to produce a report to be read and shared amongst workers and activists, space and parsimony were of utmost importance. Thus, rather than running the gamut of workers’ self-management history from the industrial revolution to the present day or providing a blow by blow account of Woojin Traffic’s transformation into a WSM, the goal was to answer in broad strokes a few basic questions: What is the rationale for workers self-management? What have some of its successes and failures been? Why is it an attractive model for Korean workers in the current economic context? What can we learn about Woojin Traffic?

We answered these questions in five parts. The introduction laid out the reality facing South Korean workers today, highlighting the scandal surrounding Paris Baguette’s violation of labor laws as an example of the highly irregular and casualized Korean labor market. The next section described in more general terms the anti-democratic and costly nature of capitalist production, followed by a discussion of the impetus behind the movement for workers’ control of production. We then examined historical and contemporary cases of workers’ self-management around the world before focusing on Woojin Traffic. Based on the international and Woojin cases, we drew several conclusions about workers’ self-management: First, by turning workers into owners and managers, the WSM model effectively combats workers’ alienation from the fruits and control of their labor under capitalism. Second, workers’ experience in labor-run firms transforms workers into more engaged and self-empowered citizens. Third, contrary to claims by business executives, worker control can actually improve a firm’s efficiency and productivity.

There is much more to be said about the challenges faced by the movement for workers’ control. This report does not pretend to provide workers with a blueprint for change. Rather, we hope that it can catalyze a conversation amongst ordinary workers and citizens about the desirability and feasibility of a more democratic, sustainable, and just form of production and workplace organization. We’ve also not suggested that worker’s self-management is a panacea to the ills of global capitalism or the key to upending the established economic system. Nevertheless, the hours and months spent researching and writing about workers’ self-management have convinced me of one simple truth I hope our report impresses upon you also: a better world is possible.