Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Time Has Come

There seems to be a growing consensus among employers that contracts are irrelevant, that workers have no voice, and that the rules are whatever management wants them to be at any particular time.

Granted, these types of employers have always existed; some of you may be saying, “what you’re saying is old news to me.” But what I’ve observed is that the number of employers with such attitudes is growing.

I consider it betrayal. It is a betrayal of the contracts they sign with us, a betrayal of the good faith we bring to the bargaining table, a betrayal of the spirit of cooperation we have tried to bring to the workplace, a betrayal of the basic respect all workers deserve, and a betrayal of a society that believes in fair play.

One employer reneges on a contract, finding every excuse possible to avoid compliance. Another loses an arbitration and announces it will not comply with the ruling - despite contract language stating that the decision is binding. Another openly and brazenly retaliates against employees who speak up, and essentially taunts them, saying, “so what - do something about it.”

So we will.

It is time for us to take back our workplaces. In a sense, this means “back to basics.” The fundamental reason workers formed unions to begin with was to win power and a voice in their workplaces, not to pool enough money to hire a lawyer. We must build a union of a thousand unions: in every workplace, a union of employees who know that they have the power in their own hands to counterbalance that of management.

Lessons from the past are relevant. Speaking about how drastically different American unions were a century ago, author Suzan Erem wrote: “they won with hundreds or thousands of workers walking out or sitting down, not with a quasi-lawyer in one chair and a worker expecting a service for his dues in the other, waiting in a posh conference room for management to decide to play by the rules” (Labor Pains, 2001).

Don’t panic, I’m not calling for a strike or a sit-down. I’m making a comparison between empowered workers and workers who lose power by playing the game according to legalisms and rules created by management.

Employer refuses to settle a contract? We can’t rely simply on filing a labor board charge; the employer must know that a workplace full of employees won’t stand for it. Management ignores an arbitrator’s decision? We can’t rely just on filing another grievance; they have to know that a workplace full of employees will speak up in outrage. Management threatens or intimidates an outspoken employee? They have to face more than a legal charge that gets resolved six months later. They must immediately face empowered workers who understand that by standing up for that one person, they stand up for themselves.

Building workplace power and developing a new generation of workplace leaders must be priority projects. Many employers’ approaches are changing - becoming more aggressive, dismissive, and disrespectful. We must also change if we are to successfully meet that challenge. As Erem says in her book, our mission is to “teach a generation of union members who had only known the union as an insurance company to defend themselves and to build a stronger voice inside the workplace.”

Ambitious? Perhaps.

Possible? Absolutely.