The term 'workers' control' refers to the complete or partial ownership of an economic enterprise (such as a business or factory) by those employed there. It can also be used in a wider and more political sense to mean workers` control of the state. The concept has influenced different strands of socialist thought, including Marxism and syndicalism. Workers' control covers a range of schemes that aim to provide workers with full democratic control over their places of employment.
These schemes go beyond the right to be consulted and participate by seeking to establish real decision-making powers for workers in their particular industries or occupations.
Such a system is often justified in terms of core socialist ideas and principles. First, workers' control is clearly based on socialist views about human nature, as it promotes collective effort and the pursuit of group (rather than individual) interests. Furthermore, some socialists have argued that workers' control, with its emphasis on fully involving employees in all aspects of the production process, can maximise human potential by combating alienation at the workplace and undermining the capitalist view of labour as a mere commodity.
Second, workers' control has significant implications for the economy. Some socialists maintain that, as the workers are the key factor in the production process, they should have the right to control the means of production. Workers' control aims either to dilute or replace capitalist control of the economy. For example, French Syndicalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries called for the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of workers' control of the economy based on the trade unions and proletarian political institutions.
Third, those endorsing workers' control hold contrasting views regarding the role played by the state in the socialist transformation. Syndicalists are hostile towards the state, regarding it as an instrument of capitalist oppression and an inefficient bureaucratic structure incapable of initiating meaningful reform. Consequently, they call for the state to be forcibly replaced with a form of workers' control based on a federation of trade union bodies. British guild socialism a pro-workers' control movement that emerged in the early 20th century, was internally divided over the role of the state. Although all guild socialists argued for state ownership of industry in the pursuit of workers' control, some called for the state to remain essentially in its existing form, whereas others called for the state to be turned into a federal body composed of workers' guilds, consumers' organisations and local government bodies.
Finally, workers' control can be seen as an important step towards a socialist society. At one end of the spectrum, 'moderate' workers' control in a capitalist society (such as increased trade union and shopfloor influence over manager's decisions) provides a method of introducing limited reforms to the social and economic structure. At the other end, industrial self-management by workers living under state socialism (such as the workers' councils operating in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s) reinforces the idea that a socialist society should raise the condition and status of the working class.
Critics reject such schemes on the grounds that they are utopian and fail to acknowledge that business needs risk-takers and investors as well as workers. According to this view, workers often lack the entrepreneurial attributes necessary for success. In taking over the management functions of appointments, promotions and dismissals, manual employees may adversely affect the economic viability of their workplace.