Democracy on the job? Not under capitalism

May 29, 2008

Capitalist democracy means landlords have more say in how to use vacant housing than the homeless. Photo: Bill Hackwell

Imagine you were in a place where you had no rights at all. If you did anything wrong, you would face harsh punishment, including denying you the ability to feed your family.

Most of us do not have to imagine. It is the reality of our workplaces. If you arrive at work five minutes late, if you get sick and need to go to the doctor, if you stand up to abuse, if you organize a protest against illegal employer acts—in any of these cases you can be disciplined, demoted or fired.

Under capitalism, if workers ask for higher wages or more benefits, or do not meet the requirements set forth by the boss, they can be replaced—often by workers ready to work for a lower wage and less willing to stand up to the boss.

This type of “flexible” labor market is central to capitalism. The more power the owners have over workers, the more likely they are to make massive profits by paying lower wages, giving fewer benefits and paying little attention to worker safety.

In the United States, workers have little job security and few workplace rights. The vast majority of the 130 million U.S. workers are “at-will” employees. At-will employees enjoy no real protection at all. They can be hired or fired for any reason or no reason at all.

Federal and state laws on paper prohibit employers from discriminating against workers. For example, there are minimum-wage and labor standards. But these laws are violated and not fully enforced. Bosses can get away with almost anything.

There is no such thing as democracy in the workplace for U.S. workers. Workers enjoy almost no legal protections, unless a union contract exists between the workers and the bosses. In the United States, about 12 percent of workers are in unions.

Unions represent the interests of the workers in the workplace. The union negotiates with the bosses for a collective bargaining agreement, or contract, to protect workers and spell out their rights, wages and benefits. A union contract is an important gain for workers. For example, a union contract usually protects workers from being fired arbitrarily. The real effectiveness of a union contract, though, depends on the strength and militancy of the workers in enforcing the contract.

The number of U.S. workers in unions reached its height in 1953 at 32.5 percent of the workforce. By the fall of 2004, unions represented only 12 percent of the non-farm labor force and 8 percent of workers in the private sector. Union membership is lower now than it has been for more than 50 years. These statistics, however, do not mean that workers are unwilling to join unions.

Despite the numerical decline in recent years, organized labor still represents more than 13 million people; this includes many recent immigrants and women. A 2003 poll by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers found that more than 42 million non-union workers in the United States want to join a union.

Workers’ rights to organize have been curtailed and viciously attacked by the capitalists and their state since the right was won in the 1930s.

The gradual erosion of workers’ rights is part of the logic of capitalism. Decades of reactionary propaganda, million-dollar anti-union campaigns and the passage of anti-union labor laws have taken their toll on the labor movement.

Reactionary labor laws

The U.S. capitalist class did not want to grant workers union rights in the first place—it was forced to do so. In the face of horrible working conditions, workers in the early part of the 20th century staged militant actions—strikes, demonstrations, work stoppages and factory occupations—to demand higher wages, shorter hours and safer working conditions.

Workers stood up to violent attempts by capitalist owners to smash united actions. Many workers were badly beaten and even murdered by the capitalists, the cops and their hired goons.

After general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis, the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was enacted in 1935. Then-President Roosevelt and the U.S. ruling class supported it as a concession to prevent a potential revolutionary upsurge in the working class.

But the NLRA has always lacked an effective enforcement mechanism. The act does not force employers to reach an agreement with unions. It only requires them to bargain in “good faith” with union officials. The economically more powerful owners can derail negotiations, or leverage the workers into accepting bad contracts—as long as they meet the legalistic requirement of “good faith” bargaining.

The National Labor Relations Board, created by the NLRA, was designated to mediate disputes between unions and workers on the one hand and bosses on the other. Since its inception it has overwhelmingly sided with the bosses. The NLRB is essentially another talk-shop of the capitalist state, whose members are appointed by the president and whose job it is to preserve the prevailing anti-worker, anti-union offensive. The NLRB has no substantial remedies that penalize bosses for committing illegal acts like firing pro-union workers.

This has contributed to a lower level of workplace democracy for both union and non-union workers in the United States in recent years. Strong unions signify a stronger organized movement of the working class. This can lead to better wages and benefits for all workers.

Bosses’ right to terrorize

The bosses fear a strong and active union movement. It is why their political representatives in the White House and Congress have steadily worked to demolish union rights by enacting reactionary laws that completely gut the NLRA. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act are two such examples.

Taft-Hartley granted bosses the outrageous right to file “unfair labor practices” against unions for committing “illegal” acts against corporations. The effect was to create a false legal parity between unions and capitalist owners. The law granted bosses the right to “free speech,” meaning the ability to intimidate, terrorize, spew lies and coerce workers into voting “no” in a union organizing drive.

The act also encouraged “right-to-work” laws, which since its passage have been enacted in 22 U.S. states. These right-wing laws tilt the legal balance even more toward the bosses by giving individual workers the right to choose not to pay union membership fees or dues even when they benefit from union protection. These laws make it harder for unions to organize. They are known among labor activists as “right-to-work-for-less” laws.

The Landrum-Griffin Act imposed strict reporting requirements on unions, similar to the complicated tax requirements placed on major corporations. It also forbade unions from engaging in solidarity strikes. Landrum-Griffin allowed scabs—people who cross the picket line and are hired to replace striking workers—to participate in union certification or decertification elections, and therefore interfere with union drives.

As labor laws have been revised, mostly in ways that diminish workers’ rights, the NLRB has followed suit—sometimes it has even led the way. A recent NLRB decision ruled that employees who fall under the title of “shift supervisors” must surrender their union rights. This effectively stripped the union rights of tens of millions of workers, including nurses, retail managers, agricultural workers, construction workers and many other workers who in the coming years will be reclassified as a result of the ruling.

We need to fight back!

Labor laws are skewed against workers to enforce the rule of capitalism. They are part of the elaborate superstructure of society that maintains the essential relationship of labor to capital. Seeing the effects of capitalist labor laws in action is illustrative.

North Carolina’s Smithfield meat packing plant provides a prime example. It shows how few rights workers have when there is no union and also how hard it is to organize a union in a non-union workplace.

Although the NLRB has documented numerous Smithfield crimes—like threatening retaliation against workers who speak up for their rights on the job, harassing and intimidating workers, physically assaulting and falsely arresting workers with its company-run police force, pitting Black and Latino workers against each other, threatening cuts in wages and benefits, and firing pro-union workers—the company continues to violate workers’ rights with near impunity.

Even if the NLRB decides that a worker has been illegally fired, an employer can appeal and either win or have the ruling reversed. The decision can take years. The worker may or may not receive back pay even if reinstated. By channeling the struggle into the costly and rigged legal system, the company can deflate a union campaign. During the years of legal wrangling, bosses spare no expense to maliciously kill the workers’ militancy and struggle.

This does not mean, however, that unions and workers should not use any means they can, including the legal arena, to gain leverage in a union or workplace campaign.

Despite the innumerable systemic obstacles facing workers, organized resistance to capitalist abuses in the workplace is needed more than ever. The hope for victory lies not with reliance on pro-capitalist laws and agencies but with organized class struggle.

In the United States, workers’ wages are stagnant, living standards are falling and unemployment is on the rise. More than 3.4 million jobs have disappeared between 2000 and 2003 alone—and that was during an economic boom! Many of these jobs have been rendered obsolete by technological advances. Others, mostly manufacturing jobs, have been outsourced to countries with fewer environmental and labor regulations and a large pool of poor people desperate to work.

The government is feverishly working to prevent a deep economic recession, while corporate profits and CEO salaries have reached all-time highs. Such is the absurdity of the profit-based capitalist system.

The right to unionize was won with the sweat and blood of millions of workers. It was a crucial gain in the battle between the working class and the capitalists.

But as necessary as they are, unions are not the ultimate expression of workers’ democracy. Under capitalism, the ruling class is always working overtime to push back any gain benefiting workers.

To ensure true democracy, the bosses need to be removed from their seat at the head of the table altogether—in the workplace and in the state.