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Most workers understand very clearly that they are better off if there is a structure in place in their workplace that allows their work-related concerns to be addressed, rather than having to rely, as individuals, on the “kindness” of their supervisors and ultimately, their employers.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance a union can have in speaking on behalf of workers to solve the myriad issues we face at work. These go far beyond the need for a living wage to include such critical issues as health and safety and working hours, as well as the determination and enforcement of workplace policies such as as those governing sick leave and bathroom breaks. Workers also understand that their employers, most obviously in the form of corporations, place profit maximization ahead of the welfare of their employees and their willingness to address these concerns only to the extent that they can contribute to that goal. . To some extent, unions may even provide an “effective” means of resolving grievances that does not interfere with profit maximization, but which can nevertheless be enjoyed by their members.
The truly heroic struggles for organizing that have taken place within companies such as Amazon and Starbucks are testimony to the enormous risks workers have been willing to take to realize their legal right to unionize and the benefits that flow from it. These struggles have in turn led many workers across the United States to recognize that the harsh and often almost intolerable “terms and conditions” of their jobs are not inevitable and can be challenged.
For supporters of free market capitalism, the “bargaining” between a worker and an individual employer is no different from that between a car buyer and a car salesman.
In the United States, the fundamental law governing the relationship between workers and their employers is based on what is called “employment at will”. This means that employers can fire employees for no reason – they don’t have to “show cause”, for example by documenting a poor work record. Similarly, employees can quit a job without giving a reason.
This “employ-at-will” system is meant to be the same as the relationship between buyers and sellers of any good or service. You do not do have buy a new car and no car dealership must sell you one. Both of you can negotiate the price of such a car, and then each of you can choose whether or not to sign a contract. (These contracts are understood by both parties to govern what are known as “terms and conditions of employment”, which include not only the hours and rate of pay, but also the day-to-day and minute-by-minute activities of the workers during these periods of working hours.) The “bargaining” between a worker and an individual employer would be no different from that between a car buyer and a car salesman, and the proponents of “free market capitalism” therefore argue that the Both should also be “free” to enter into an employment contract or not. After signing a contract, workers who don’t like its terms and conditions have the right to quit – they are not slaves. If employers don’t like what workers are doing, they can fire them — they don’t have to be philanthropists. It is true that workers need jobs to live, but it is also true that employers cannot make a profit without hiring workers. In this sense, they “need each other”.
The gap is that workers who have been fired or furloughed are struggling. They can’t buy the food they need, so they have to go hungry, pay the rent on their house so they don’t get evicted, or make the payments due on the loans they took out to keep their house, their car, their furniture to be repossessed. Employers, on the other hand, can easily find replacements for these workers among the many unemployed who share their difficulties, and perhaps pay their new hires even less than those they replace.
This is how capitalism works. And that is why workers have always had to struggle against this “unequal” bargaining system which is at its heart. These struggles are taking place on many different fronts. They include the enactment of minimum wage legislation, rules governing health and safety in the workplace and the prohibition of certain forms of discrimination. They also include measures that reduce the immediate hardship resulting from unemployment, such as unemployment compensation and food stamps, and the government’s grossly inadequate provision of health care and shelter for the homeless, which, together reduce the need to accept rotten jobs. Capitalist “bargaining power” depends on the threat of poverty – it is an essential component of capitalism, rather than just an unfortunate result of the inadequacies of the unemployed.
The ability to strike is the most powerful weapon workers have.
At the same time, it is in this “bargaining process” that we can identify the most powerful weapon potentially in the hands of workers: the ability to strike. It is the work we do that provides the profits of the capitalists. A strike, a refusal to work, constitutes a refusal to generate these profits. The ability for workers to strike, and to prevent strikebreakers from replacing them when they do, allows workers to “negotiate” with the capitalists to force them to return to us some of the fruits of our labor they took us.
Unionization, however, does not mean that unionized workers have, in practice, much power, including the right to strike. The full 10% of unionized workers includes those in public sector unions, such as the 700,000 members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the 1.6 million members of the American Federation of Federal Employees, State, County and Municipal (AFSCME) . While important to their members, these unions are not only legally prohibited from striking, but also cannot participate as unions in determining wages. Contracts that cover the 6% of unionized workers in the private sector restrict and often prohibit strikes. When they go on strike, their jobs can be replaced by those of what are called permanent workers, those who crossed the union picket lines. The active or passive compliance of many workers with management’s protection of white worker privileges, or the hiring of men in preference to women, undermines the picketers’ call for “solidarity” in the conversations taking place on picket lines.
There is growing recognition, including within existing unions, that despite recent successful union campaigns, it is not possible to reverse the decline in organizing within the current structure put in place by the National Council labor relations. In this context, unionization is not a right, but only a very, very slim possibility. Thus, the total number of union members fell by 191,000 in 2010 and by 214,000 last year. We need a broad movement on several fronts to reverse this trend. The victorious struggles of newly organized workers can inspire us to take up this challenge.
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