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Bending Toward Justice

Operating union-free is a global trend. But workers shouldn't have to fight tooth and nail for fair representation.
 
 
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We live in a new world. It began, not on 9/11, but almost fifteen years ago on 11/9. That's the day in 1989 that the Berlin Wall fell. Capitalism had decisively achieved hegemony. Worldwide, the economic, political and social relationships that impact us all have been changing profoundly ever since. Some for the better. Some not.

Among other consequences, unions everywhere are on the defensive as never before. The attacks are relentless and on many fronts. In the U.S. for example, an obscure process known as "card-check," a means by which workers can achieve employer recognition of a union, is now in jeopardy.

The term refers to the cards signed by workers who want a union. Those cards are then checked by an independent third party to verify majority support. Once verified, an employer who chooses to do so can recognize the union as the workers' collective bargaining agent.

The card check procedure was established in 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). It has worked just fine ever since for the employers, unions and workers who have used it.

So, why is it is under attack by the dominant wing of capital now? In general terms, it's because employers are strong, unions are weak and anti-union forces are emboldened and aggressive. More specifically, when certain labor-management planets align just-so, the card check process allows unions trying to help workers who want a union actually establish one.

Otherwise, forming a union is damn near impossible. There are important exceptions, but that's just what most employers want. And get. It's quite easy now for employers who don't want unions to prevent them. Hence, the decline in union membership. Operating union-free is the global trend. And in case you hadn't noticed, forming free trade unions in Iraq, the United States or anyplace else is nowhere to be found on the Cheney/Wolfowitz agenda.

Capital thus unbalanced is ultimately bad for capitalism. It's also bad for the world. Bad for the environment. Bad for fighting diseases and epidemics. Bad for "middle-class" living standards. Bad for social progress. Bad for healthy economic development. Bad for freedom and democracy.

Ah, democracy – now there's a paradox. We're told that democracy is what made the difference in the triumph over the bigger dictatorships (communism, fascism and apartheid) of the 20th century. Over time, democracy trumped dictatorships because when citizens are involved and empowered, things work better.

Dictatorship stifles initiative, innovation, adaptation, healthy debate and participation. Democracy liberates. Most prominently in the Soviet Union, the growth of the goods and services "pie" was stunted for decades. In the U.S., Canada, and the European democracies, prosperity grew dramatically. (In the U.S., so did the means to support huge military spending.)

Capitalism is surely more democratic than feudalism or communism. But on Labor Day 2004, capital has far too few checks and balances. Never mind the "jack-ass" capitalists like Enron, Adelphi and World Com. It's the global matrix of Wal Mart, Electrolux, Microsoft, Credit Suisse, Halliburton, Sony, Disney, Nissan, Amazon, et al that is inexorably and invisibly diminishing the power of citizens, advocacy groups and, yes, governments everywhere.

Now with that in mind, let's go back to the effort to save card check. Is keeping that option available important? Very, especially in the short term. But over the long haul, it's the wrong issue to have the big fight about.

The times demand a new approach. In today's world, unions shouldn't be a "choice" that workers have to fight tooth and nail to get in the first place. Unions should be required at every work place of more than 25 workers. Period.

To put it another way, given the lopsided power of employers, even a small workplace without a union is like a city without a city council.

How do we fix that? A constitutional amendment in the United States guaranteeing workplace representation for workers would be a good place to start.

Would such an amendment benefit General Motors, Toyota, Comcast, Exxon/Mobil, Ahold, GlaxoSmithKline, Wal Mart and small-to-medium businesses too? Absolutely. Would it have anything to do with existing unions? Maybe a lot, maybe very little. Would it necessitate new "rules" for strikes and contracts? Perhaps. How would it actually work in practice? TBD. Those are all fair questions for discussion and debate.

The biggest question of all? Could a constitutional guarantee of worker representation ever get the support necessary to make it happen?

Of course it could. As Dr. King said, 'the arc of history bends toward justice." So let's get going.

Frank Joyce is a labor activist and communication consultant based in Detroit, Michigan.