True democracy in the workplace

In the next couple of weeks, the Senate will consider the first major overhaul in federal labor law in 60 years.

Opinion surveys show that about 40 million American workers wish they had a union in their workplace. This desire is understandable since workers with unions make about 30 percent more than their counterparts in the same type of job. But the chances of these employees realizing their desire are very small because the system of “elections” for forming a union is so highly stacked against workers.

When most people hear about “union elections,” they assume they run the same way as elections for Congress or the president. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

When employees want to form a union, they have to go through a process that looks more like the discredited practices of rogue regimes abroad than like anything we would call American.

For an election to be “free and fair,” both sides must have equal access to media and the voters. But not under labor law. Anti-union managers are free to campaign to every employee, every day, throughout the day; but pro-union employees can campaign only on break time.  Furthermore, management can post anti-union propaganda on bulletin boards and walls — while prohibiting pro-union employees from doing the same.  By law, employers can force workers to attend mass anti-union propaganda events.  Not only are pro-union employees not given equal time, but they can be forced to attend on condition that they not ask any questions.  Recent data show that workers are forced to attend between five and 10 such one-sided meetings. If, during the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democrats could have forced every voter in America to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 (or if the Republicans could have forced everyone to watch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth video), with no opportunity for response from the other side, none of us would have called this “democracy.”

The Founding Fathers understood that workers are particularly vulnerable to the economic coercion, and therefore we have a host of laws designed to protect voters from the economic influence of their employers.  For instance, in elections for Congress or the president, it is illegal for a private corporation to tell its employees anything that favors one candidate or the other. But in workplace elections, it is standard practice for supervisors to hold repeated one-on-one conversations with the individuals they oversee. Here, the person who has the most direct control over hiring and firing, promotion, raises, hours and duties tells their subordinates in no uncertain terms why a union would be bad for them. The message is clear: If you ever want a raise, or a day off to take your kid to a doctor, you better not support the union.

Many of the tactics used to intimidate employees are legal. However, because federal labor law contains no possibility of punitive fines, prison or any other type of sanction, employers break the law at will. Last year, approximately 15,000 Americans were illegally fired, suspended or otherwise financially punished for trying to form a union in their workplace.

An election where one party controls the media, requires voters to attend its rallies, enforces a gag order on opponents and fires voters for backing the opposition is undemocratic and un-American. The Employee Free Choice Act would reform the current system to guarantee that Americans who want to form a union are able to do so in part by ending the charade that we call a Labor Board election by giving workers a second option: the choice to form a union by a majority sign-up process.

Business lobbies in Washington, D.C., are trying to prevent any change to the system, seeking to condemn their employees to a rigged “election” process that none of us would accept in a campaign for county dogcatcher. Shame on them.

In 2002, the State Department condemned elections in the Ukraine. Among the problems our government cited were that employees were pressured to support the ruling party; university administrators told students how to vote; and the ruling party dominated the media while restricting the opposition’s access to TV and billboards. Under the current federal system, all of these tactics are legal and commonplace.

Anyone who is serious about workplace democracy has to start by insisting that we have at least as high standards for American workers as we do for voters abroad.

Lafer is a political scientist at the University of Oregon and the author of Free and Fair? How Labor Law Fails U.S. Democratic Election Standards.