Democracy at Work

June 2004


How to achieve more democratic control over the workplace through membership in a union.

Most of us who have to work for a living don't have a lot of experience with democracy in the workplace. We work for others. What they say goes. Our bosses may pay attention to what we say if they're good bosses, or if they like us, or if things are going well, but in the end, we don't make the decisions; they do.

Our training for this kind of work environment starts very early. Very few families are run on the democratic model: at best, Mom and Dad are benevolent despots. At school, our teachers take on our parents' roles as dictators. We're taught about great men and women who are leaders, fashioning the world to fit their own visions.

When we grow up, however, we face a very different world. We discover that our parents, far from being enlightened superior beings imbued with special knowledge and wisdom, are ordinary people just like us -- and we resent it, but eventually get over it. We learn that our leaders are not any better than our parents and that the experts do NOT know what is for the best.

Worst of all, we learn after a few years in the workplace that our bosses frequently have nothing special to offer except the luck of being born into more money than we were, and they're frequently the biggest morons we come across. That is, unless we go to a good college, where we receive intensive training in why we're better than everyone else, so that we can take our places as educated morons in our turn.

Some people do have democratic workplaces. There are people who work for cooperatives or large partnerships, or within collectives. These people have some say over their working conditions and the work decisions that influence their lives. For most of us, this kind of control only exists in our daydreams.

Some people belong to unions. Unions are one of our democratic institutions. When you join a union, you become a member of an organization in which you have a vote. Big or enormous unions mean relatively little individual say-so, but a person who applies him/herself and works to have a voice can achieve a place of recognition, even within the largest unions.

Why do you think that bosses hate unions so much? Why do you think that corporate owned media and entertainment have little positive to say about unions? If you watch enough FOX, you'll get the idea that unions are not much better than junior achievement for organized crime. It is true that organized crime has infiltrated some unions -- as it has some corporations, particularly those that deal in money: banks, brokerage houses, and investment firms (though nobody talks about RICO convictions at pension management firms, except when they're union pensions).

Bosses hate unions because they like to be autocrats; they hate to give up absolute control. They want your life to be organized around their profits. They want to share those profits minimally because then there is more for them.

There are good bosses. Henry Ward Packard of Packard Motor Car said that "the impulse of the worker to join unions is the best evidence that managers have failed to manage well." That is true. But even the brightest and best manager, who tries very hard to keep the needs of his worker in view, needs some surveillance.

In this country, we're lucky to have some governmental oversight to help to prevent the worst kind of abuse in the workplace. But gaining ground and improving the general lot of working people does not happen without unions. Working people have always needed to organize collectively and demand improvements for change to occur. This is how it is done in a business-run society like the United States.

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