Work organizations are often seen as the engines of inequality: they sort people into jobs with different opportunities, they pay people differently, and they reserve power for a select few. But we know far less about how organizations foster equality in the workplace by allowing occupational mobility, reducing wage disparities, and distributing power among many.
In a recent article, I examine one workplace that adopted such equality-producing practices. Over nearly a decade, I conducted research on worker-recuperated businesses in Argentina, which are companies that have converted from privately-owned enterprises into worker-controlled cooperatives. Today, there are nearly 400 worker-recuperated businesses operating in Argentina. And most of these are organized as worker cooperatives that are owned and operated by their members.
Hotel Bauen is a 20-story hotel located in downtown Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. The once privately-owned hotel has experienced a significant transformation over the past two decades. After its private owners declared bankruptcy in 2001, workers occupied the hotel, formed a worker cooperative, and eventually reopened for business.
For the past 16 years, the BAUEN Cooperative has operated this conference hotel under worker control. Open around the clock, the cooperative offers rooms to overnight guests, meeting spaces for events, and food and drinks in the street side café that they named “Utopia.”
In the process, the cooperative has also taken meaningful steps to foster equality among its members through three intentional practices: collective decision-making, job rotation, and pay equity.
In lieu of a boss or CEO, the highest decision-making body is the Workers’ Assembly, which is made up of all members of the cooperative and makes decisions democratically. In addition to addressing important organizational issues, the Workers’ Assembly also elect a nine-person Administrative Council to oversee the day-to-day operations of the hotel.
The Workers Assembly is more than just an administrative formality. I found that members used their collective power to actively oversee management by appealing and sometimes overturning their decisions. Among members, the assembly was often called “the sovereign” and elected officers even proactively called meetings to receive widespread support for their decisions.
Through the Workers’ Assembly, the cooperative not only restructured power by placing the collective at the top, but it also redefined managerial authority, as members acknowledged that power resided not in individual positions or even the formal rules, but in the group as a whole.
The second equality practice I observed was job rotation. Members began in one position and then had the opportunity to change jobs, often to access different schedules or fill critical vacancies.
Originally hired as a housekeeper, Romina had since held a handful of different jobs that did not match her original skill set.
She explained, “When I started, I didn’t know how to use a computer or anything… But then here, I got more practice, I taught myself how to use the computer system. This is something that before, I would never have been able to do.”
Like other members of the cooperative, Romina had the opportunity to learn new skills by rotating to positions. Rather than sorting members into jobs according to their formal credentials or mastered skills, members redefined skills as tasks that could be learned by anyone.
A third equality practice I observed related to compensation. All members of the BAUEN Cooperative earned the same base pay, which was approved by a majority vote of the Workers’ Assembly. Over time, the cooperative had developed a system of “pluses” for seniority, responsibility, and family status that created some variation in take-home pay, but these differences were bounded and transparent.
Members regularly invoked their commitment to equal pay to justify the notion that all jobs were interdependent.
Pilar, a founding member of the cooperative and elected officer, explained, “[Jobs] cannot be compared. One may be mental and the other is physical. If you start to analyze the work, both are important! You can’t measure them.”
By emphasizing their mutual reliance on all members—from bookkeepers who tracked finances to housekeepers who cleaned the guestrooms—members redefined the value of these contributions as equally important to their collective survival.
Through an up-close examination of these equality practices, I do not intend to suggest that workplace inequality has been (or can be) completely resolved. Worker-recuperated businesses like the BAUEN Cooperative confront a host of internal pressures and external challenges in doing business.
But by shifting our focus from inequality to equality, we can start to question unequal arrangements that we often take-for-granted. For example, we often just assume that managers must be authoritarian or that people have to be paid differently in the first place.
Taken together, collective decision-making, job rotation, and pay equity do not offer a perfect blueprint for how to eradicate inequality. Rather, they highlight how businesses can foster equality at work.
Katherine Sobering. “The Relational Production of Workplace Equality: The Case of Worker-Recuperated Businesses in Argentina.” Qualitative Sociology 2019.
Image: Elsapucai via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)