Democracy at work?!
Jenny Brown
October 1999

If I told you I had no right to vote on decisions affecting my life, was not allowed to say what I thought, sometimes had to risk my health or life to maintain my livelihood, and could be severely punished if I joined with others to try to improve things, wouldn't that sound pretty undemocratic?

But that's the condition most of us exist under at work. "You check your rights at the door when you enter the workplace," says Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Harvard Trade Union Program. "You learn about democracy outside, you learn that democracy is about the right of citizens to participate in decisions that affect them... In the workplace, you're not only not supposed to, you're not allowed to participate in decisions that affect you."

Do we get a say on whether we're going to work overtime? Do we have the right to say 'No, this work is too dangerous and I'm not going to do it?' Can we say, hey, this company's making a lot of money, let's vote to share it around some? Can we appeal discipline or firings? Do we have the right to join with other workers to make things better at our workplace? Most of us are so used to not exercising democracy on the job, it's hard to conceive of.

For hundreds of years, workers have fought to get their rights on the job by joining together in unions. By sticking together, workers have been able to win basic liberties we don't otherwise have: Participation in determining the conditions of our work. Defense against mandatory overtime. A bigger share of the money that the employer's taking in. A right to refuse to do dangerous work. A right to appeal discipline or firing ('redress our grievances').

According to recent public opinion surveys, 50% of American workers would join a union tomorrow if they had the chance, but only 14% of workers in the U.S. currently have the protection of a union contract (down from 35% in 1945.) The other 86% of us are at the mercy of a dictatorship at work.

Why haven't more workers won the rudiments of democracy at work that a union can provide? "Supreme Court decisions rolling back union and worker rights, as well as management-inspired amendments to labor law, have tied the hands of union organizers while freeing management to penalize workers who attempt to exercise their rights," says Bernard. "We need to question the basic assumption of U.S. labor law that the workplace is naturally union-free with workers having few rights. In a democracy, wouldn't it make more sense to assume such rights and to strictly scruntinize workers who relinquish their rights, not those who exercise them?"

"Employers currently spend over a billion dollars a year on consultants trained in intimidation and psychological tactics to stop workers from forming unions," according to the Labor Party, a political party founded in 1996 out of the union movement.

Even when private-sector workers win a union through voting, 33% of these workplaces never see a first contract--the employer basically refuses to submit to the will of the people. Employers also use all kinds of delaying tactics, mixed with intimidation, in an attempt to use up union resources and make people give up hope. (See article on page 4.)

Employers are bound by certain laws designed to protect the right of workers to form and join unions (see box below), but they break them right and left and rarely get punished. According to Bernard, "Workplaces teach workers that not only do you NOT have the right to participate, but in fact we'll break as many rules and laws to make sure that you DON'T have the right to participate in decisions that effect you, that you will NOT have these rights."

For example, it is illegal to fire an employee for advocating for or joining a union. But in the U.S., one in ten union activists are fired for promoting a union and ten thousand workers lose their jobs every year just for supporting union organizing campaigns, according to the Labor Party, which has laid out ambitious reforms in the labor law to give workers a fighting chance to achieve more democracy on the job.

The Labor Party, which has affiliated unions representing over a million workers, laid out a campaign to bring the Bill of Rights into the workplace at the 1998 convention in a resolution. It reads, in part:

"Whereas, we have wrongly come to accept that at work we are not entitled to the basic rights and privileges we normally enjoy as citizens, and...

"Whereas, employer institutions and Congress through current law have turned democracy exactly backward:

Among the measures they propose are:

This adds to their 1996 platform planks which state: "Restore Workers Rights to Organize, Bargain and Strike:"

For more info on the Labor Party, or to join, send $20 to Labor Party, P.O. Box 53177, Washington, DC 20009. or; 202-234-5190.

For information on the Alachua County Labor Party Organizing Committee, call 378-5655.

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