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arrows Of Masters and Servants
by Peter Hall-Jones
    (A Microsoft Word version of this aricle can be downloaded here)

great chain of being
Why do we defer from 9-to-5? The feudal master-servant relationship haunts work in many countries, thanks to English common law. But now both employers and workers want to get rid of the old ghoul. The way unions handle this workplace democracy agenda may largely determine the movement's future.

In the beginning...
Once upon a time there was a great chain of being. (1) At the top was God, and at the bottom were all the inanimate objects. (Actually, hidden below the bottom – in a kind of underground lair – were the Devil and his minions). Humanity appeared at different points in between: kings were below angels, vassals below lords, apprentices below craftsmen, and wives below husbands. And all this was divinely ordained, so we just had to lump it.

From out of this compost grew English common law. Over time hallowed principles were codified into social rules, and extremely detailed treatises were produced setting out how people on different levels must relate towards each other. This common law controlled the parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the guardian-ward relationship, and the master-servant relationship.

All this would be boring medieval history except for the fact that English common law still underpins the legal systems of the United States, India, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Brunei, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand… and others. And it is through English common law that feudal relations continue to haunt labor law. Perhaps we no longer hold cherubim below seraphim, beetles below ladybirds, or yew trees below olive trees, but the master-servant relationship is still very much at the heart of industrial relations.




The law relating to employment relationships is based on the traditional “master/servant” relationship. In this relationship, the servant works at the direction of the master and engages in work for the benefit of the master. In return, the master compensates the servant for his or her labors. This traditional relationship of master and servant has evolved into the law of agency…
Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR association (3)

The first thing I tell students when I teach employment law is that it remains rooted in the master-servant relation…
Prof Eric Fink, US law professor, lecturer, and workers' rights lawyer (4)

In fact labor law around the world is full of cases where learned judges have examined where the power lies in a work relationship in order to define what kind of employment is in play. The master-servant relationship is not just a feature of employment, it defines it.

Traditionally unions have tried to make this relationship more comfortable, rather than challenging it outright. They have sought better conditions, higher pay, a safer working environment… all things that can be won (and often have been) without seeking to alter the underlying power relations in a workplace.

Yet why do we take it for granted that we set aside our democratic rights when we enter the workplace? We don’t just exchange our services for a wage; we defer. We might do so resentfully, we might walk off the job sometimes in frustration, but it is extremely rare for us to openly question “management’s right to manage”. Does the master-servant relationship run so deep that we have come to see it as the natural order of things? Do we still regard it as somehow divinely ordained?

Even our language reflects this vertical, feudal relationship. On the one side are our employers: the superiors, the upper class, those higher-up. Their agents are our overseers or supervisors. And we are the subordinates, the underlings, the lower ranking, the juniors. Can you imagine a circumstance in which an employer might be charged with “insubordination”? The English language just wouldn’t stand for it!

The strange thing is that all this deference is out of keeping with the spirit of the times.

Jack StrawOne of the greatest achievements of the baby boom generation is that they helped bring about the end of deference. … We don't tip the cap and bow the head to authority and the establishment like we used to. We don't know our place today. Nor do we automatically assume that the doctor, the politician, the preacher, the teacher, or the brand, have the 'right' answers.
Jack Straw speaking in 2006, as leader of the UK House of Commons (5)

But wait a minute – why doesn’t Straw mention the CEO (or “guv’nor”)?

Could it be because we trust them to rule justly?

Apparently not. The data is fairly clear on this, as we will see below. But for some reason we don’t do much about it. Faced with perceived failures among our masters, workers simply disengage.


workforce engagement
The workplace is in a morale crisis. More and more workers are frustrated or have just kind of resigned themselves to saying, ‘What’s the minimum I need to do?’ or ‘What do I need to do to just get by?’

Jim Clemmer, US management consultant (6)

This trend towards disengagement is not just a US phenomenon. In 2006 Towers Perrin surveyed almost 90,000 workers in 19 countries, and divided them into four sub-categories: engaged, enrolled, disenchanted and disengaged. The global average for workers “engaged” in their work was just 21%. Those who simply turn up and do what is expected (called “enrolled” workers) made up 41% of the workforce. And then there were those who do the least they can get away with, or even try to harm the organisation: the “disenchanted” and the “disengaged”: totalling 38% (7)

Other studies paint an equally grim picture of the contemporary workplace:

United States
Gallup collected a database of 4.5 million employees in 12 industries in the U.S. and found that fully 60% were "not engaged", while another 20% were "actively disengaged"
Gallup Employee Engagement Index survey, 2003
One out of every four working Americans (25%) describes their workplace as a dictatorship, while just 34% of bosses react well to valid criticism.
Workplace Democracy Association/Zogby Interactive poll, 2008

United Kingdom
More than 80% of British workers lack any real commitment to their jobs, and a quarter of those are "actively disengaged"…costing the British economy between £37.2 billion and £38.9 billion per year. …Poor management is the problem, according to the Employee Engagement Index survey.
Gallup Employee Engagement Index survey, 2003
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development noted that if Britain at work was a marriage, it was 'a marriage under stress, characterised by poor communications and low levels of trust'. Only 38% of employees feel senior managers and directors treat them with respect, and 66% don't trust them. (9)
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2006

…only 6% of Canadians believe senior management treats people as if they're the most important part of the organization (compared to 10% globally). … Despite people's strong desire to become 'engaged' in their work… only 23% in Canada (vs 21% globally) are currently engaged at work.
The Global Workforce study by Towers Perrin, 2005

Nationwide official estimates have put the cost of active disengagement in the workplace at around $31.5 billion a year to Australia. …Only 18% of Australian workers are "actively engaged". … Many disengaged employees have become that way due to poor management practice, being treated badly, getting little feedback or cooperation, being overly criticised, not having their performance reviews often enough, or having too many, and not being rewarded for good work…
Engaged versus Disengaged Workers by James Anthony, 2008

New Zealand
(Active disengagement is) costing the country more than $3.6 billion a year in lost productivity. The New Zealand Engagement Study says only 17 per cent of people working here are engaged at work.

shruggingThe lights are on, but nobody’s home. Why? A study of 22 countries in 2008 found that problems related to respect led to the most disengagement globally. (13)

Disengagement… appears to be maximized under conditions of poor leadership and when levels of trust between managers and subordinates are low… There is sufficient evidence to suggest that employee disengagement is on the rise…
Employee disengagement: is there evidence of a growing problem? Richard Pech and Bret Slade, 2006

We have been studying the world’s great workplaces and great managers for over three decades, and have consistently found people tend to join organisations, but they leave poor managers.
Anita Pugliese, managing consultant at Gallup, 2005

56% of US workers say they witnessed ethical misconduct on the job within the past year (up from 43% in 2003). Topping the 2007 list of infractions were conflicts of interest, lying to employees, and abusive or intimidating behaviour.
2007 National Business Ethics Survey

It appears that the servants are not so thrilled about the conditions of their servitude. And they are even less impressed by the behaviour of their masters. Could it be that the two phenomena are linked? Could it be that the master-servant relationship itself is creating all this alienation?

Traci Fenton, CEO and founder of WorldBlu – the organisation behind the list of the world’s most democratic workplaces (17) – certainly thinks so: I think they feel disengaged because they feel like they work in a workplace dictatorship, or because they feel like they work in a traditional command-and-control type of company. (18)

Make no mistake—this is not an airy-fairy ivory-tower kind of an issue. Problems arising from workplace culture (depression, stress and anxiety) are now the primary cause of workplace absence in most developed countries. Some 420,000 cases are reported in the UK each year (19). Estimates put the cost to business in the US alone at about $44 billion per year.

Furthermore, we can be fairly certain that job satisfaction, engagement and productivity are linked. (20)

Management experts David Sirota, Louis Mischkind and Michael Meltzer have surveyed over four million workers in 89 countries over the past 30 years. They have found that 90% of employees become indifferent to their workplace over time. …With an enthusiastic workforce employee turnover can be reduced as much as 80% and performance increased by 25%. (21)

So what are workers looking for? As a New Zealand unionist once put it: Management is far too important to
leave to managers
. (22)
  In 1999 the most extensive workplace survey in the USA since the 1970’s - “What Do Workers Want?” - reported that:
● Most employees want a voice in how their workplace operates;
● Most employees support the formation of labor-management committees, to which they elect representatives to run the organization and settle conflicts.

The study also showed that giving workers the opportunity to express their opinions would raise job satisfaction and increase productivity and profitability.

It is worth pausing for a moment to recap. There is a problem – workforce disengagement – which seems to be linked to an antiquated power relationship in the workplace. It looks likely that this is also affecting both job satisfaction AND profitability. It may also be central to workers’ health and to workplace productivity.

In other words, it looks possible that millions of lives and billions of dollars are involved.

When an issue assumes this kind of gravity it usually attracts some pretty hefty research funding. Yet the master-servant relationship just sits there, largely unexamined, radiating though the centuries and tainting everything we have been built on top of it.

Signs of Change

We may not name the elephant in the middle of the room, but we certainly try to avoid it. In order to look at how this feudal relic has affected our behaviour, let’s take a look at some of the major visions and strategies of the last 100 years, in roughly the order they appeared: (24)



Scientific management
Motivation theory
Management by objectives
Total quality management
Just in Time
Business process reengineering
Balanced scorecard
Corporate social responsibility
Triple bottom line
Employee re-engagement

Anarchism, nihilism
Business unionism
“Arms-length” collective bargaining
Social partnership
Labor-management cooperation
Workplace democracy

Is it just me, or are there two logical progressions at work here? Reading down the employers’ list, does one see a steady shift away from control processes towards an approach based on values and human relations (in which workers and consumers are convinced, rather than controlled)?

And reading down the workers’ side, isn't there a general shift towards the strategy of: “building a new society within the shell of the old”?

Of course history is much more chaotic than this. And we certainly shouldn’t be tempted to believe that employer and worker visions are converging. For instance there was a huge degree of industrial consensus after WWII, but it was torn apart in the 70s and 80s. The same could happen again.

brainOne thing we can say, though, is that in those countries influenced by common law, employers are increasingly seeking to harness their employees’ smarts, AND that at the same time workers are increasingly demanding a voice at work. This is the kind of moment we see historical breakthroughs (or tragically missed opportunities!).

Consider this quote, from best-selling business gurus Ridderstrale and Nordstrom:
Workers (now) own... the critical means of production. In a modern company 70 to 80% of what people do is now done by way of their intellects. The critical means of production is small, gray, and weighs around 1.3 kilogrammes. It is the human brain. (25)

Or this, from Gary Hamel, whom the Wall St Journal called “the world’s leading expert on business strategy”:
…probably for the first time since the industrial revolution, you can’t build a company that’s fit for the future unless you build a company that’s fit for human beings. And let’s just admit it; management as it has been practiced over the last 100 years has not been very human-friendly. We’re going to have to change that. Yes, for the benefit of performance; yes, for the benefit of shareholders; but most of all we have to change it for the benefit of people who show up every day and devote more of their life to work than anything else. If you can build a company that’s fit for those people, that gets the best out of them… then you will build a company that can thrive in the world ahead. (26)

When was the last time workers occupied such a powerful strategic position in production? And how are they likely to wield this influence? We can get some idea of this by tracing their increasingly sophisticated response to the master-servant relationship. Blowing up monarchs didn’t work. Dictatorship of the proletariat wasn’t what we expected. The “one big union” thing still hasn’t come to pass... or not in any form that the IWW is acknowledging. Co-operatives came and went any number or times. European social partnership is under house arrest. Labor-management cooperation (USA) and partnership (UK) generated tentative results and great debates, but both strategies lost ground whenever the tide changed.

workplace democracyThe most recent vision, workplace democracy, brings unionism back into the workplace. As consumers and producers, workers can heavily influence corporate decision-making. Workers want this, and it seems that the new management theories want them to have it. But what we are seeing in the new unionism agenda is that workers are not content to simply work smarter. They also want to influence corporate social responsibility policies; to push for ethical investment regimes; propose new environmental procedures; introduce triple bottom line accounting; promote global labour standards; and change governance structures.

What about governments? The question very much deserves an article of its own, but the least we can do is note that governments have agreed, within ILO frameworks, to push for an international regime of “Decent Work”. This worthy agenda includes: freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

What will happen to companies who resist? Of course many will try to retain command and control methods. And then there are those who will do nothing until they see what happens. It seems that economic Darwinism is already kicking in. Compare Google with AltaVista (remember them?). Compare the two US airlines American and Southwest (27). Compare Semco (28) and Mondragón (29) with any of their competitors. There is no doubt that engaged employees lift performance (30). And worker-friendly management practices produce competitive advantage. But corporate sustainability is starting to require more than fat profits. Staying healthy in the new economy requires real talent. In 2003 a survey across the world's 20 largest economies found that three in five undergraduates would choose to work for a company that could demonstrate its ethical values and positive impact on society. In the UK 80% said they were more likely to stay in their jobs if their employer adopted a responsible approach to the work-life balance. (31)

What comes next?

Is the master-servant relationship being quietly laid to rest? If so, what is arising to take its place? Before answering this, a word of caution. Some argue that a truly democratic workplace is impossible under the current economic rules. As Professor Casten van Otter, from Sweden’s National Institute for Working Life, says: Within a market economy you can not achieve democracy, only move in a more democratic direction. (32)

ball and chainAnd so let’s consider democratisation as a continuum. If we look at it this way, it seems that an answer to the “what next” question may be already emerging. If so, it is dismayingly simple. The HR function at Google is called “people operations”. SEMCO refers to its managers and workers as “people”. In other words we don’t need other words. This is not the next in a long line of management fads. We don’t need to devise a new model for employment; all we are doing is exorcising a feudal ghost. People at work are just that: people. When they start their job in the morning they should have the same rights and freedoms they had ten minutes before. Forget “whistleblowing”, it’s just freedom of speech. Forget “theft as a servant”, it’s theft or it’s not. But above all else, face the fact that workers do not need masters, just as they do not need kings, oaths of allegiance, or a good taste of the lash.

As Semco’s Ricardo Semler puts it:
We simply do not believe our employees have an interest in coming in late, leaving early, and doing as little as possible for as much money as their union can wheedle out of us... They are adults. We trust them... We get out of their way and let them do their jobs... The era of using people as production tools is coming to an end. Participation is infinitely more complex to practice than conventional corporate unilateralism, just as democracy is much more cumbersome than dictatorship. But there will be few companies that can afford to ignore either of them.

What are the implications for unions?

Some unions have clung to the business unionism of the 50s, or traditional collective bargaining of the 60s, largely ignoring more strategic approaches. In the new environment it is hard to think what such a union can offer. If an organisation becomes increasingly democratic it will naturally develop mechanisms to produce collective views. And these will inevitably discuss pay and conditions. Traditional bargaining and grievances will largely dissolve into the general churn of internal problem solving (33).

One can see this happening at its most extreme at Mondragón, a group of worker-owned manufacturing and retail companies which now operates internationally. There the rule is: ...employees may be members of a specific trade union on an individual basis, but there is no company-wide union representation. Since the workers are also the owners, the historical role played by trade unions in conventional companies is rendered redundant. (34)

The problem with this argument is that it assumes “business as usual”. We are no longer talking about conventional companies, nor historical union roles.

earUnions who have been listening to their members’ deeper aspirations have a clear role to play. They have been acquiring engagement skills, as well as organizational depth in the workplace. They know about internal cultures, and they see this as part of their brief. They have thought about where companies sit in relation to their competitors, as well as how to achieve the annual pay rise. These unions can play a pivotal role in the democratisation process.

As Prof Ed Collom has shown, there are natural pockets of resistance to workplace democracy (35). For instance union members support the idea more than non-members. Young entrepreneurs support it more than older managers. The self-employed, women, people of colour, and lower-paid workers are supportive, while those with conservative leanings or higher incomes tend to be less so. Public service workers are supportive, as are professional and technical workers; their managers and supervisors less so.

A good union will already have experience at negotiating these contradictions. It will be able to deliver collective views when employers are unsure of how to proceed, or reluctant to go any further. In some workplaces unions will be the initiators of democratisation (see “organizing for workplace democracy” steps below). In others they will ensure that it is not just window-dressing for the shareholders. And the union
involvement will be crucial to prevent backsliding. Years of patient work can be undone by a new CEO, or a change in government, , or a corporate acquisition. Democratisation is not just a continuum, but a continuous one.

We recently saw this kind of backsliding at Google, where management reverted to fairly standard control mechanisms to change the company’s childcare system. The story led the New York Times to conclude: Judging by what's transpired… Google is fast becoming just another company. (36)

Ben and Jerry’s was bought out by Unilever in 2000, and has since suffered criticism for resisting unionizing efforts (37). Their 2006 social audit found poor morale among employees, and questioned whether the company was: simply a Unilever marketing operation using the brand's reputation for social responsibility to promote sales. (38)

The Body Shop is now part of L'Oréal (39). Ethical Consumer magazine has reduced its rating from 11 out of 20 to just 2.5, and urged a boycott over L’Oréal’s links to Nestlé, which has a poor record on global labour rights and a history of testing products on animals.

Just how fragile are democratic workplaces? This question is too new to be tackled with any rigour, but it is already clear that the new unionism must seek to represent members’ values as well as their pockets.


There are those on both sides of the fence who share the view, expressed by Professor Casten above, that you can not achieve democracy within a market economy, you can only move in a more democratic direction. But this assumes that the two are not critically inter-related; that the democratisation process cannot alter the economy. Perhaps the most inspiring role for unions lies in ensuring that it does; that changes in production find their analog in the economy itself.

If workers in the transport industry want to reduce carbon emissions, then unions in a democratised environment would find themselves able to exert much deeper influence. They could reach deep into workplaces, nationally and across borders. master servant

In such a scenario union co-ordination would be critical to ensuring that democratic employers are rewarded in the market. We can expect to see workers organizing as consumers and community citizens as well as producers. We can look forward to the rise of the “buycott”, as well as the boycott. Good employers will find a receptive client base and an actively engaged work force. The rest will struggle on with the mess they have created: disengaged staff, sluggish performance, ongoing strife and strikes.

If a workforce which is 90% disengaged can maintain production at the present level, what might an engaged worforce achieve? Perhaps their greatest achievement will lie in burying the master-servant relationship once and for all. Now there's a grave fit for dancing!




 Organizing for workplace democracy

Making your workplace more democratic begins where you are, not where you want to be. In most cases the process will involve a series of practical tasks. Here are some suggested actions:

• Collectively discussing and analysing workplace culture
• Union recruitment of part-timers, agency workers and/or contractors as well as full-time staff
• Identifying barriers/obstacles/opportunities which can help the organisation, and using this knowledge in negotiations
• Developing a collective view on the preferred direction of the enterprise
• Moving from a positional to a problem-solving approach in dealings with management
• Challenging the reign of micro-managers, eg working with HR and the employer to implement a “no asshole” (details) policy
• Developing Web 2.0 facilities (details) so that staff can share their views (privately, openly or both)
• Forming management-worker consultative bodies, then adding accountability mechanisms
• Seeking ever-increasing involvement in decision-making at all levels
• Reducing management distrust (eg ending the monitoring of emails; improving evaluation processes)
• Finding practical and positive ways to communicate the union vision to non-members
• Participating (with clear goals) in organisational reviews and change management processes
• Building members’ values-based concerns into collective negotiations (recycling; fair trade/ethical purchasing etc)
• Reducing line management wherever possible, and then making more reductions possible
• Pushing for ever-increasing levels of transparency and accountability
• Opening up the books, and training members to understand them
• Becoming involved in shareholder meetings and decisions
• Winning member representation in governance structures
• Bargaining for global labour standards
• Undertaking performance reviews of management
• Moving towards the election of office holders (with right to recall etc)
• Broadening and deepening democratic processes at each and every opportunity

• Finding ways to ensure that these gains are not lost if and when the CEO changes!




1. Peter Hall-Jones is communications advisor and a founding member of the New Unionism Network, and was formerly head of communications at Public Services International.
2. See
3. See
4. Private correspondence with the author, July 2008
5. Soon to be Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
6. See
7. See

8. See
9. See
10. See
11. See
12. See
13. HR consultancy Mercer (2008). Note that Mercer found important national differences underpinning worker disengagement, making cross-country generalisations a difficult area. See
14. See

15. See
16. See
17. See
18. In radio interview on Dan Mulhern’s Everyday Leadership show, WWJAM, July 2008
19. See
20. See
21. The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want, David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer  Wharton School Publishing 2005. I have written more on the link between job satisfaction and productivity here:
22. Paul Cochrane, General Secretary of the New Zealand Public Service Association, 1998
23. What Workers Want, Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1999. Freeman is from Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and is a member of the New Unionism Network. Rogers is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. See
24. Listing in temporal order is problematic, as some of these have had two or three incarnations in labor history. I have opted for the first, and have begun around 1900. See Any such list will be incomplete, as it does not take into account regional trends or local variants. The ones I have listed were chosen as those most likely to be universally recognised. The last two terms in both lists are more descriptors than offical names, as they are new, and the “branding” process is still under way.
25. From Funky Business, by  Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell A. Nordström, 2002
26. Fortune magazine recently called Gary Hamel “the world’s leading expert on business strategy”. The Economist called him “the world’s reigning strategy guru.” Wall Street Journal ranked him #1 among the Top 20 most influential business thinkers.
27. See
28. See

29.  See
30. See Gallup graph on the New Unionism homepage
31. See
32. Casten von Otter, quoted in an interview with Mary Petersson and Anna Spängs:
33. It has been suggested to me that some employers may even use democratisation to get rid of unions. In my opinion this could only happen in cases where the union is seen by members as an external force – ie where it had no active presence inside the workplace. The moral for unions here is that they must organize for influence, for deeper forms of engagement, rather than just for pay rises and membership fees.
34. See
35. See
36. See
37. See
38. See
39. See
40. It's a technical term now! See


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