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
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
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
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.