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The Dangers of "Workplace Democracy"

How to Kill a Union

by DAVID MACARAY

There are two effective ways of destroying a union local.  The first and most obvious is the “traditional” method, where the membership (a minimum of 30% is required) formally petitions the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and requests that a decertification vote be conducted.  Then, if a majority of the workforce votes to dissolve their ties to the union representing them, they are officially union-free. 

While a decert vote can be the culmination of a specific set of complaints by the membership, more often than not it’s the result of a grudge or perceived slight or general disillusionment with the parent union and is usually accompanied by a mandate to join another union (e.g., flight attendants leaving the Teamsters to join the Association of Flight Attendants, CWA), one which, in the opinion of the members, is better qualified to serve them.

Arguably, in some instances the parent union probably deserves to be jettisoned.  For example, in cases where the local in question has a tiny membership, or the company it’s affiliated with is a nondescript, stand-alone outfit, the International may regard the membership as marginal and insignificant, and, therefore, ignore (or appear to ignore) its needs.  Unfortunately, this is known to occur. 

Neglect of this sort can create dissatisfaction and cause the local executive board to look elsewhere for representation.  To be sure, swapping unions like this doesn’t happen often, not only because it’s a bureaucratic nightmare, but because it’s regarded as “poaching,” and raises jurisdictional hackles (especially if both unions are affiliates of the AFL-CIO).

Rarer still, a workforce will decertify simply because they think they have a better shot at dealing with management on their own (poor babies) rather than having a labor union represent them.  In most of these cases the workforce winds up recertifying, either with their original union or with another International, once they find out how quickly a non-union shop begins to resemble “amateur night.”

The second way to destroy a union is more subtle.  It’s done through what is called “workplace democracy.”  This consists of the company persuading the membership to volunteer for joint management-hourly committees and then having these ad hoc groups co-opt the role of duly elected union officers.  In practical terms, it’s a strategy that makes eminent sense.  If you were management, whom would you rather deal with—a tough, hard-nosed labor union or a group of rosy-cheeked minions? 

Appointed by the company, usually with the grudging approval of the local union who fears accusations of “obstructionism” if they protest too much, these committees are created, ostensibly, to address specific problems and issues.  The issues can be as small, literally, as how to remodel the employee breakroom and what the theme of the Christmas party should be, or as ambitious as how to restructure the crews.

Normally, one would expect the union to play a major role in such undertakings—especially something as important as crew restructure—but the way the company side-steps this is by arguing that if these gatherings were reduced to typical union-management affairs, the union could be depended upon to get all “adversarial” and pissy, which would defeat the purpose.  “We’re here to solve problems,” an operations manager once told a union officer, “not to have you get up on your soap box.”

This is not to say that union leaders don’t attend these committee meetings, because they do; but they are vastly outnumbered by eager and highly motivated “civilians” looking to get involved.  With management leading the way, the tone of these meetings tends to be one of cheerful optimism and phony vitality, reminiscent of those movies where a group of college kids gets together to put on a musical in an empty barn.  

Management’s use of the term “adversarial” is pejorative and calculated.  Portraying the union as fundamentally “negative”—as being more or less opposed to any idea management proposes, no matter how reasonable—can have a profound effect on certain memberships, especially those that are naïve, worn out by a recent, debilitating strike, or predominantly anti-union. 

Yes, anti-union.  Bizarre as it seems, there’s always a segment of the membership who resents its own union.  Despite enjoying superior wages, benefits and working conditions, these disgruntled members disapprove of their union in the same vague, undifferentiated way that citizens disapprove of their political leaders.  They won’t run for union office, attend regular membership meetings, or even vote in a union election, but they’ll engage in a running commentary on the union’s flaws.

In any event, the upshot of these crew empowerment exercises is fairly clear.  Despite all the hype and hoopla, genuine “workplace democracy” doesn’t actually occur, particularly in those cases where the “will of the people” involves suggestions that would result in the expenditure of money.  After all, management didn’t convene these groups to have them raise costs. 

Moreover, if a union officer on one of these committees happens to object to what’s going on and tries to convince the group that they’re being played for chumps, he’s treated as a bully, defeatist or (my favorite) “dinosaur.”  As embarrassing as it is to admit, there have been cases where hourly workers have privately approached management people and asked that a union officer be removed from their committee. 

It also needs to be recognized that the rise of this “workplace democracy” craze coincided with two phenomena:  the stagnation of wages of the average American worker (which haven’t increased in real dollars since 1973), and the staggering decline in union membership across the country.  That was not a coincidence.  As union rolls declined, workers’ paychecks shrank.  

Although it generally takes a while to sink in, these “empowerment committees” eventually realize that they never really had a shot at getting the autonomy they sought.  For one thing, the company is careful to steer the proceedings in the direction it wants.  For another, why would management go to all the trouble of by-passing the union leadership and establishing “workplace democracy” if it resulted in decisions they fundamentally disagreed with?

The tragic part of all this is that people on the floor honestly believe that, by circumventing their union and having a direct dialogue with the company, they can “control” things.  Unfortunately, a group of novices, no matter how optimistic and well-intentioned, can’t deflect a management juggernaut.  Indeed, they’re more likely to get steamrolled by it.  That’s why Washington D.C. lobbyists favor mandatory term limits.  With an endless supply of fresh, inexperienced congressmen arriving every two years, these seasoned lobbyists see it as easy pickings.        

The simple fact is that management will do everything in its power to keep from having to share money with its hourly employees.  This is not an hysterical tirade or camouflaged “socialist” message.  It’s not to say that corporations are evil.  It’s merely pointing out an obvious economic truth:  No matter how much they have, or how much more they stand to gain, businesses want to hang on to their money.

Look at Wall Street.  While financial managers had their snouts buried so deep in the money trough they had to come up snorting and wheezing just to get air, the folks who do the unglamorous jobs—the clerks, runners, administrative assistants—struggled to make a living. 

The only reliable means of resisting this built-in reluctance to share the revenue is to have an equalizer, someone dependable on your side.  Someone whose job it is to fight on your behalf, whose sole aim is to get you your fair share.  Like a union.  What’s so hard to understand about that?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net