Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “Workplace Democracy Catches On.”  I was surprised by this headline given how undemocratic most workplaces are.  But, when I read the article I was less surprised.  It turns out that these workplaces are democracies the way North Korea is a democracy – they hold elections from time to time even though the elections don’t actually matter.

In North Korea, the parliamentary elections were widely perceived as a joke when the country announced that 100% of the voters had cast ballots in favor of the ruling party.  None of the companies in the Wall Street Journal article gave workers a chance to vote for their top officers (though one did ask for feedback from workers), but even if they had, the odds are that the vote would not have represented the true wishes of the employees.  One reason why there is no democracy in North Korea or the average American workplace is that democracy can’t exist without freedom of speech.  And while I’m not equating American workplaces with the police state of North Korea, in order to have a functioning democracy, citizens must be free to speak their minds without fear of reprisal from those in power.  Yet, in the employment-at-will regime that dominates in this country, how many workers feel free to publicly criticize the boss?

Not only do workers lack free speech rights in the workplace, but the companies highlighted in the Wall Street Journal article are not actually letting workers make the truly important decisions.  It’s as though we called a city a democracy where citizens were allowed to vote to rename streets, but weren’t allowed to make decisions about taxes or spending.  For instance, the article mentions that at Whole Foods, new employees must win approval from two-thirds of their departmental colleagues to stay past a trial period.  But, what happens after the trial period ends?   According to this Mother Jones article, last fall Whole Foods announced that it was eliminating 1,500 jobs, and according to one employee, at one store low-level supervisors had their wages slashed by up to $5.00 an hour.  I don’t think workers were given a vote on those decisions.

As I have said before, I think it’s about time we had a debate about how to make all workplaces truly democratic, but in the meantime we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that the right to vote on naming a conference room equates to democracy in the workplace.