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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.

Elaine Bernard

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