Andrew Strom is Associate General Counsel of SEIU Local 32BJ.
Several years ago, when it seemed possible that Congress might enact the Employee Free Choice Act, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups formed an organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace. Recently, I was surprised to see that the Chamber and its allies are still using this name. I was equally surprised when the Chamber issued a report attacking minority unions as inconsistent with industrial democracy.
My initial reaction to this business-led Coalition for a Democratic Workplace was simply to dismiss it as a cynical, Orwellian gesture – as though a bunch of coal companies got together to form the Coalition for Clean Energy. But, then I started to wonder whether maybe I should try to take the Coalition at its word.
Is it possible that there is a consensus that a democratic workplace is desirable? If so, what are the minimal standards a workplace would need to earn the label “democratic?” Senator Robert Wagner, the key sponsor of the National Labor Relations Act once said, “There can be no more democratic self-government in industry without workers participating therein, than there could be democratic government in politics without workers having the right to vote.” To Senator Wagner, “the right to bargain collectively [is] the difference between democracy in industry on the one hand, and tyranny, or at best, benevolent despotism on the other.”
It’s hard for me to imagine how a workplace, other than a worker-owned cooperative, could earn the label “democratic” if workers are not able to bargain collectively. At a minimum, if workers can’t bargain with management as equals, they would need some other mechanism where they can vote on workplace policies. Management lawyers tend to equate workplace democracy with holding secret ballot elections to decide union representation issues. Of course, in reality only a tiny fraction of workers ever get a chance to vote for union representation. But, if employers want workplace democracy without unions, they could give workers a chance to vote in secret ballot elections to decide important issues in the workplace. I know I’d love to see workers get a chance to vote on the CEO’s salary, or at least to decide on the appropriate ratio between their own wages and the CEO’s compensation.
In addition to the right to vote, another essential element of democracy is freedom of speech. A unanimous Supreme Court recently declared that it is “uncontestable that government officials may not exclude from public places persons engaged in peaceful expressive activity solely because the government actor fears, dislikes, or disagrees with the views those persons express.” That freedom to speak your mind is one of the cornerstones of democracy, but how many workers feel free to voice their opinions at the workplace? And how many CEOs are really willing to tolerate dissent? If we want democratic workplaces, workers need to be free to criticize their employer the same way they can criticize the President.
It’s time for the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace to live up to its name. Let’s have a debate about how we make all workplaces in this country truly democratic.