Saturday, January 19, 2013

Does democracy belong in the workplace?

It’s been a long while since right-to-work has been debated in America. But…it’s back. I’ve always opposed right-to-work laws. Wyoming enacted one 1965. It’s the source of low wages, high rates of workplace deaths and injuries, and a generational economic stagnation interrupted only with an occasional boom. I always thought right-to-work laws were a part of a Machiavellian plot to destroy the influence of organized labor.

I surmised that union opponents wanted more than simply limiting the ability of labor leaders to bargain for their members. After all, corporations can hire effective negotiators themselves. I believed the real problem is that unions were a thorn in the side of conservatives. After all, unions led the fights for civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, and fair employment laws. They registered voters and got them out to vote, often for Democrats. Republicans believed that if they reduced union influence, it wouldn’t be long before only Republicans could get elected in Wyoming.

I figured those were the reasons Republicans supported right-to-work laws. I was wrong. That was just coincidence. Right-to-work proponents are just concerned about workers’ well-being…so they say.

Right-to-work supporters may be on to something. Initially it seemed unfair to allow workplace deadbeats to reap benefits of union members without contributing their dues to the common cause. The Michigan experience offers a new way of looking at these things.

Consider this debate in a larger historical context.  Organized labor assures workers have a voice in the economy. It’s called “workplace democracy,” i.e. the application of democratic practices in employee-employer relationships. In our society democratic practices include voting, debate and participation in the decision-making systems through elected representatives.  

Right-to-work supporters oppose democracy in the workplace. If what happened last month in Michigan provides any evidence, they aren’t too high on democracy in public governance and lawmaking. But I digress.

Right-to-work laws don’t ban unions. They do allow workers who benefit from the work of the union to receive those benefits without having to financially contribute to the union that negotiated them. Some call it a freeloader law. The supporters of the renewed campaign to pass right-to-work laws in the United States assure the right to freeload is actually good for workers.

They claim it’ll make unions more responsible. Apparently, the whole idea is to replace democracy in the workplace with bare-boned capitalism. Right-to-work supporters fear union leaders have become complacent and take workers for granted because dues payments are mandatory not voluntary. They are so concerned about workers’ right that they claim to encourage the enactment of laws that will improve union leadership. Under right to work, the workers can choose whether to pay dues. Thus, they argue, union leaders will be forced to be more responsive and more effective. Get it now? It’s actually capitalism without democracy.

Think about the logical extension of that argument. If the choice to pay dues to a union can improve union leadership, can you imagine how much better American government could be if the voters were given the choice of whether to pay dues, i.e. taxes? Under the current social contract, much like union contracts, all members of our democracy are required to pay dues. If payment of dues, i.e. taxes, was contingent on whether we are pleased with the performance of government, leaders such as presidents, members of congress, and state legislators would have to do much better to persuade us to pay dues.

Congress’s single digit favorability rating would have to rise quickly in order to convince members of the democracy to pay their voluntary share. I suppose there would be those who freeload no matter how well government leaders perform but the right-to-work supporters feel there wouldn’t be many.

If the workplace is better served by giving workers a choice of whether to pay or freeload, American democracy deserves nothing less. I am sure that the Koch brothers and other billionaires who currently receive gracious service from elected officials will be first to pay their fair share, unlike now. 

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