Representation Elections Are Incompatible with Workplace Democracy

Published May 14th, 2018 -  - 05.14.1831


“For the masses of men and women the expression of the democratic impulse must be within the industries they serve – it must fall within their daily work. That is why the struggle for a voice in industry, through the process of collective bargaining, is at the heart of the struggle for the preservation of political as well as economic democracy in America. Let men become the servile pawns of their masters in the factories of the land and there will be destroyed the bone and sinew of resistance to political dictatorship. Fascism begins in industry, not in government.”

What is the purpose of our labor law?  Ensuring industrial peace and establishing an equitable balance between labor and capital? These words from Senator Robert Wagner, chief sponsor of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), suggest a far more expansive vision. Unionization was necessary for the full realization of democracy. Wagner believed that Americans had made enormous progress in democratizing political institutions. Despite this, the workplace was still entirely run by unelected owners. This meant that most citizens spent more time interacting with autocratic institutions than with democratic ones.  This was more than a theoretical problem. Electoral politics were remote, and people place little value on institutions which have minimal impact on their lives. Democratizing our workplaces would allow people to experience democracy in their everyday lives and come to a greater appreciation of its blessings. This would help to immunize them against authoritarian politics. Industrial democracy would thus help to save political democracy.

That dream of industrial democracy now looks increasingly remote. Extremely low levels of unionization mean that very few workers have any experience with this supposedly democratizing force. Indeed, private sector workers may have even less power today than they did when the NLRA was first introduced.  This failure is rooted in some serious conceptual flaws in the way our labor law treats elections.

When politicians and NLRB members think about workplace democracy they naturally turn to analogies with electoral politics. As Craig Becker has demonstrated, this analogy has some troubling consequences. It leads to a model that is strongly focused on ensuring fair election processes in which both workers and employers are able to freely express their views. The employer and the union are conceptualized as if they were two political parties vying for office. Yet union organizers are not, say, Democrats seeking to replace a Republican president. The existing boss will continue to be the most important decision-maker even if the union wins the election.  A representation election is a referendum to decide whether or not some representative institutions should be introduced into a hitherto entirely undemocratic system.

The typical American business is governed as a miniature monarchy, with one unelected (and sometime hereditary) boss determining company policy. Other businesses incorporate an aristocratic element. Shareholders have overall control, and the extent of each shareholder’s power is determined by how much of the business they control. If the boss is analogous to the king, then the shareholders are analogous to a House of Lords. The only body in any way equivalent to a House of Commons would be the labor union. Yet, while almost all companies have a king, and many have a house of lords, the number of companies with any house of commons is becoming increasingly rare.

Imagine a country that conducted its elections in the same way that the NLRB conducts union elections. After all, what would it look like if we governed our country in the same way that we govern the workplace? This country would have an unelected ruler who could never be voted out of office.  If 30% of citizens signed a petition, however, the leader would call an election to decide whether or not he would be required to consult a representative legislature.  This referendum would proceed, but the ruler would be completely free to spread propaganda against the idea of an independent legislature. He could even compel citizens to attend anti-legislature political events.  Pro-legislature activists, meanwhile, could be barred from organizing activities on regime-owned property. No one would seriously consider this system to be even remotely democratic. Indeed, most people would probably assume that this system had been constructed precisely in order to thwart genuine democracy.

Once we accept that employers exert this kind of autocratic control over the workforce, we need to stop viewing union elections as in any way equivalent to democratic political elections.  Those political elections determine what politicians will represent us. Union elections determine whether we will be represented at all. Democracy does not exist at the workplace until after the election has been completed. If the union loses the election, the workplace will return to the undemocratic status quo.  A commitment to industrial democracy, therefore, requires far more than mere fair elections. It requires a commitment to actually achieving unionization.

Instead of representation elections, we should simply require all workplaces with more than 50 employees to organize a union.  Union elections would still take place, but they would involve different unions competing to become the workers’ sole representative.  The employer would not be a party to these elections and would have no right to express an opinion about which union the workers should choose. This approach would make union elections far more similar to political elections. They would now involve different parties competing to represent their constituents. The continued existence of representative institutions, however, would never be in doubt.

At first glance, the idea of mandatory unionization seems actively undemocratic. After all, if the purpose of labor law is to empower workers, then why should we reform it in ways that reduce their choices? Some workers may currently want to remain unrepresented. But, even ignoring the obvious issues of employer coercion, it is unclear why non-representation should be a legitimate choice in a democratic context. Voters are free to choose what congressman represents them. They are not free to vote away their congressional representation altogether.  The constitution guarantees that representative institutions exist, while our labor law so far only guarantees a right to fight for them.

Mandating unions in every company may seem like a radical step, but even this idea would leave the vast majority of decision-making outside democratic control.  Treating the workplace like an actual democratic republic would requiring giving workers the decision-making power currently monopolized by the boss and shareholders. This would resemble a worker co-operative. But Senator Wagner’s theory of workplace democracy does not require us to go this far. It simply requires there to be some real democratic element for workers to participate in.   Workplaces can have democratic elements without being as democratic as the nation-state.  There may be some very good reasons why a company denies rights to its workers which we would never want a country to deny its citizens. Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government includes fascinating debates about the extent of rights in a private workplace. But these differences between private workplaces and government should not be used as an excuse for the complete absence of democracy.

Much has been written about how management uses its coercive power to distort election outcomes. Workers are frequently fired for engaging in pro-union speech while the threat of economic reprisal is used to keep workers in line. All these worries are well-founded, but they do not deal with the most important failure of this system. The entire idea of representation elections is inherently undemocratic. A democratic system cannot function so long as the very existence of democratic institutions is contested. Any legislator who is serious about revitalizing the American labor movement should consider replacing representation elections with a policy of mandatory unionization.

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