The Right to Organize - A Week of Action
For seven days in June, from the 19th to the 25th, unions and their allies all over the US will be organizing hearings and forums, rallies and actions aimed at drawing public attention to the dismal state of labor rights, especially the most fundamental of labor rights - the right to organize. Using the theme "our voices heard, our choices respected" actions will highlight the widespread use by management of coercion, harassment and firings. With an estimated 10,000 workers fired each year for attempting to exercise their right to form a union, and with 80% of employers hiring anti-union consultants to coach them in union avoidance at the first sign of a union organizing campaign, the denial of this fundamental human right has reach epidemic proportion in the US.
Now's a good time, for social justice activists to reconsider the workplace as an important terrain of struggle. For too long, there has been an irrational and self-defeating division of duties among progressives in the US in which unions organize workplaces, while other groups, the so-called social movements and identity groups, organize in the community. Even the term "labor movement" has come to mean simply trade unions, which are supposed to focus on narrowly defined bread-and-butter workplace issues -- wages and benefits. This topical and organizational division of turf misleadingly implies that there is an easy division between workplace issues and other social struggles. And that wages and benefits are somehow unifying while other social issues are divisive. These separate spheres of influence have often contributed to the sad fact that US progressives often march in solidarity with labor movements and workers around the world, but rarely give a thought to the plight of the working majority here at home.
For activists striving for social and economic justice, the workplace is a crucial environment for organizing. Indeed, it is often already organized, and not only when it is unionized; even non-union employees tend to share common hours, lunches and breaks, and most still go every day to a common location. By definition, everyone at the workplace is earning money, so it's a resource-rich community in comparison to many other locations. Much of the production of goods and services occurs there. Decisions of great importance are made and acted upon. It is a place where global capital puts it foot down. And anywhere capital puts its foot down, there is an opportunity for people to act upon it and influence it. For all of these reasons, the workplace is an important location for organizing -- and not just for immediate bread-and-butter issues, important as they may be.
The worksite is also a place where workers learn that they actually have few rights to participate in decisions about events of great consequences to their lives. As power is presently distributed, workplaces are factories of authoritarianism polluting our democracy. Workers cannot spend eight or more hours a day obeying orders and accepting that they have no rights, legal or otherwise, to participate in important decisions that affect them, and then be expected to engage in robust, critical dialogue about the structure of our society. Eventually the strain of being deferential servants from nine to five diminishes our after-hours liberty and sense of civic entitlement and responsibility.
Thus, the existing hierarchy of employment relations undermines democracy. This is not to suggest that all workers are unhappy, or that all workplaces are hellish. Rather, they are unique locations where we have come to accept that we are not entitled to the rights and privileges we normally enjoy as citizens. Consider how normal it seems that employers, even very progressive employers, when asked how they would feel if "their" employees were to form a union, respond that they would view such an act as a personal rebuke, a signal that they had failed and a rejection of their management. Consider for a moment, why are such paternalistic attitudes which would be quickly recognized as such in politics, widely accepted in employment relations?
Take, for example, a fundamental assumption in our legal system -- the presumption innocence. In the workplace, this presumption is turned on its head. The rule of the workplace is that management dictates and workers obey. If a worker is accused of a transgression by management, there is no presumption of innocence. Organized workers protected by a collective agreement with a contractual grievance procedure can at least grieve an unjust practices (or more specifically, one that violates the rights won through collective bargaining). Unorganized workers, however, are left with appealing to their superiors' benevolence or entering the unemployment line. The implied voluntary labor contract -- undertaking by workers when they agree to employment -- gives management almost total control of the work relationship. "Free labor" entails no rights other than the freedom to quit without penalty. That's one step up from indentured servitude, but still a long distance from democracy.
There is no protection in our system against arbitrary and capricious actions by management. There is no right to employment security and no prohibition against unjust dismissal in the private sector such as exists in most other advanced industrial countries. The law of the US workplace is governed by the doctrine of "employment at will." There is some protection to ensure that an employee may not be dismissed for blatant discriminatory reasons of race, gender, disability or age. But that same employee can be Black, female, disabled, older and all or none of the above, and as long as the employer dismisses her for "no reason," the dismissal is legal. Most Americans believe that there is a law that protects them from being fired for "no cause." But that's simply not the case.
The first and most important step in establishing some justice and rights in the workplace is to establish a vehicle for representation - that's what a union is. Management understands that, and that's why they will go to such extremes to prevent workers from organizing. By bringing together workers, who have few rights, who are isolated as individuals and often competing against each other, unions forge a community in the workplace. They help workers understand that they have rights, and they provide a collective vehicle for exercising those rights. They provide a powerful check to the almost total power of management in the workplace.
So, check out the AFL-CIO's web site at www.aflcio.org and go to the "7 Days in June" section and check on events in your area. Or better yet, help organize an action in your area.