Including Workers’ Voices in the Digital Transformation

Sidney Rothstein

Williams College

Sidney Rothstein is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Williams College. Rothstein studies the political economy of wealthy democracies in comparative perspective, focusing on Europe and the United States, and his current research examines the politics of digital transformation. He is co-editor (with Tobias Schulze-Cleven) of Imbalance: Germany’s Political Economy after the Social Democratic Century (Routledge, 2021), author of Recoding Power: Tactics for Mobilizing Tech Workers (Oxford University Press, 2022), and his research has appeared in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, German Politics, Perspectives on Politics, Review of International Political Economy, Socio-Economic Review, and Studies in American Political Development. Rothstein holds a BA in Political Science from Reed College and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania.

With the digital transformation unfolding across the OECD’s wealthy democracies, all eyes are on California. The land of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, California has captured the imaginations not just of consumers, but also of policymakers in the world’s most economically powerful countries. The future looks Californian. But while leaders in the United States, France, Germany, and other countries were looking west, elections in the U.S. and Europe brought millions of workers to the polls who showed that our fixation on the future has led us to overlook the present. The Californian approach is attractive, but it limits us to designing tomorrow’s world of commerce without addressing today’s world of work. Looking to German industry, particularly its system of works councils, holds promise for overcoming those limits.

Myths about work in California go back to the Gold Rush. Just as we once conjured up “lemonade springs where the bluebird sings” we read now of high-tech campuses where workers are driven to work on comfortable buses, enjoy fresh sushi for lunch, and get their laundry done while they code. Only recently have we heard from those who drive the buses, prepare the sushi, and do the laundry. Only once these workers organized have they developed enough power to have their voices heard in the press. Moreover, even sushi-eaters on fixed contracts, who easily earn wages five times higher than those of cafeteria workers, face considerable exploitation from their employers, including wage theft, downsizing, and rampant discrimination. The digital transformation threatens workers in manufacturing with being “left behind,” but being included may not be much better.

Asking what is to be done led workers in Silicon Valley to pursue a time-tested solution to the classical threat of employer discretion: they organized. The Tech Workers’ Coalition, Tech Solidarity, and a handful of other initiatives represent the bleeding edge of labor organizing in the twenty-first century. Tech workers are deeply familiar with the newest and most effective methods of outreach and communication because they are the ones who design and maintain them. More importantly, these recent initiatives have succeeded in building solidarity between the high-wage and low-wage workers who find themselves on opposing sides of cafeteria serving stations.

How is this scalable? Tech workers should look to Germany. While the greatest threat to tech workers’ welfare is unbridled employer discretion, the second greatest threat is tech workers themselves, namely, their well-documented commitment to individualism that fuels ambivalence to collective action in general and unions in particular. Identifying with the same values, high-skilled white-collar workers in Germany have nonetheless succeeded in organizing successful and sustainable coalitions to protect their rights—by forming works councils.

Works councils are non-union bodies of workers elected by their co-workers to represent workers’ interests to management. In Germany, works councils negotiate with management over issues from the design of the workplace to downsizing. In the U.S., works councils could give workers greater voice in the workplace while also providing an infrastructure for facilitating communication and building solidarity among workers who otherwise reject existing forms of labor organizing, especially unions. Works councils need not be accorded the full legal rights they receive under German law in order to protect workers from rising inequality and injustice at the hands of giant employers like Apple, Google, and Facebook.

Volkswagen tried and failed to introduce works councils to the U.S. in 2015. Management was the initial and primary advocate of the efforts, but interference by state and national politicians scuttled the efforts. California offers a different arena. The state’s leadership on tackling climate change suggests that leaders are committed to protecting and promoting California’s greatest assets: a high quality of life and valuable innovations. This commitment should not stop at the workplace. Moreover, to the degree that California prefigures the future of wealthy democracies, leaders across the OECD should do what they can to ensure not just that the digital transformation includes us, but that it does so on our terms. Giving workers a voice in the workplace is the best way to ensure that we—from those of us who code to those of us who drive the bus—receive the wages and working conditions we deserve. With the digital transformation, the future often looks like another country. Works councils increase the chances that it will be a democracy.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.