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Challenging the Workplace Dictatorship

George Orwell's "1984" is already here and it's called the American workplace, but finally there's a law in the works that might make jobs livable.
 
 
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With the Employee Free Choice Act heading toward a Senate vote, conservative columnist George F. Will has suddenly developed a tender concern for workers' rights. The act "strips all workers of privacy," he fumed in the Washington Post last week, and will repeal "a right -to secret ballots -- long considered fundamental to a democratic culture ..." As Will sees it, the unions are backing the act out of sheer desperation: Since they can't seem to win a fair fight for workers' allegiance, they want government to take away the workers' rights and help herd them into union membership.

OK, now let's leave Will-land and enter an actual American workplace. Are you punched in? Good. The first thing to notice is that you've checked your basic civil rights at the door. Freedom of speech? Forget about it: Some employers bar speech of any kind with your fellow employees. I saw this firsthand at a chain restaurant and a Wal-Mart store. Wanna work? Zip your lips.

How about those privacy rights that Will so concerned about? Nada -- they don't exist outside of Will-land either. You probably had to pee in a cup to get your job in the first place, which constitutes a very intimate chemical invasion of privacy. In most states, your purse or backpack can be searched by the employer at any time; your emails and web activity can be monitored.

Right of assembly? Sorry, you don't have that either. In my experience, most managers see a group of three or more employees talking together as an insurrection in the making. Shut up and get back to work!

The Employee Free Choice Act would require employers to recognize a union whenever a majority of workers sign union cards - thus bypassing the often prolonged and creaky process of an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election. The longer the delay before the election, the more time management has to intimidate, isolate, and harass the union's supporters.

Here's how they do it: Workers are called away from their jobs and required to attend management-run meetings where they are subjected to anti-union harangues and videos. Note: Not only do workers lack freedom of assembly, they lack the freedom to not assemble. If management announces a 2 PM meeting, you better be there. These are called "captive audience meetings" for a reason.

At the meetings, which may take place daily in the weeks leading up to an NLRB election, management lays out a dire picture of what will happen if the union comes in: Workers will lose the right to talk to managers individually (not true); they will see their wages and benefits decline (emphatically not true); they will be stuck paying exorbitant dues (hardly); the company may have to move to Mexico ... Sorry, no questions or comments from the audience.

Most pro-union workers can withstand the company's mass captive audiences. Harder to resist are the one-on-one and small group meetings, where individual workers are grilled about their union allegiance for as many hours as it takes. During one union drive among truck drivers, management confronted workers one by one about personal issues like their credit ratings and family responsibilities. A lot of them finally broke down, and the union drive was defeated.

There's nothing wrong with management voicing its view on unions -- say, in a flyer to workers -- and certainly nothing wrong with secret ballots. The problem lies in the abuse of management power in the period between the initial union card signing and the NLRB-sponsored secret ballot election. If workers are willing to sign a union card-- which is a courageous step all by itself -- that should be enough to signify their choice.

Will calls the Employee Free Choice Act "Orwellian." But Orwell's fascist "1984" is already here and it's called the American workplace. What really scares employers about the Employee Free Choice Act is that it will begin to change that -- and bring the first stirrings of democracy to work.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

 
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