Directing democracy: the case of the John Lewis partnership
thesisposted on 21.04.2010, 11:01 by Abigail Cathcart
The John Lewis Partnership was founded in 1929 as an “experiment in industrial democracy” (Lewis, 1948). This thesis explores the meaning of democracy in the Partnership and examines the wider implications of the case. It argues that democracy in work should be viewed as something which is intrinsically valuable because of its connection to furthering justice, equality, freedom and the rights and interests of all workers. The thesis makes three main contributions. Firstly, the production of a historically situated exploration of democratic participation in the John Lewis Partnership – the largest co-owned business in the UK. Secondly, an analysis of power relations in the organisation and an examination of the ways in which disciplinary power and regimes of truth both constrain democratic practice and offer the potential for resistance and challenge. Thirdly, the thesis challenges critics of the Partnership who have dismissed it as a form of “pseudo democracy” (Pateman, 1970: 73) and “suffocatingly paternalistic” (Ramsay, 1980: 52). Despite the constant threat of degeneration and dilution of the value framework laid down by the founder, the Partnership’s continued commitment to democratic participation provides an important contribution to our understanding of co-ownership and democratically organised forms of work. The analysis shows that management have attempted to direct and define democracy in a highly constrained way, assigning it an instrumental purpose, and privileging the ‘business case’ for democratic engagement. However, the study emphasises that the meaning of democracy is heavily contested and fraught with contradictions and paradoxes. This creates a space in which understandings of equality, solidarity and democracy are debated by the 69,000 employees who are co-owners of the business.