Jobs Without Power
Working In America
by Jonathan Tasini
August 30, 2003
For at least half their waking hours, the American people live in a dictatorship. At home or in public places, Americans enjoy a measure of freedom and liberty envied by most people around the world: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association (true, John Ashcroft is trying to change all that but that's another story). But, the moment Americans walk through the doors of their workplace, they enter into a world that strips away all their basic rights. Within the walls of the workplace, the whim of the corporation is more powerful than the U.S. Constitution.
Workers cannot say what they believe lest they risk being shown the door. They are fired if they try to exercise their right to freedom of association. They can be secretly monitored via telephone, computer or camera. Grown adults must ask for the right to pee. Having very little power to shape their working environment and subjected to a daily diet of control, oppression and humiliation, I'm actually amazed that more workers have not revolted or even resorted to physical violence.
When we can't band together at work, if that's our choice, we leave our economic future in the hands of companies that break the law every day, with no consequences, because they make money every day they don't have to bargain with a union chosen by workers. Companies fire employees, threaten to close plants and they hire trained union-busters to strike fear into the hearts of workers. Millions more of our neighbors, friends and relatives would happily join a union if they weren't faced with an antiquated legal system, which long ago ceased to become relevant because it is simply a tool used to brutalize Americans at work.
Shockingly, America as a nation does not grasp the daily war people face at work. If you ask the average person -- certainly white-collar professionals, but even traditional blue-collar laborers -- whether any worker can simply decide to exercise their rights under the law without fear of harmful consequences, they would answer in the affirmative. In a recent poll by Peter Hart Research Associates, 92 percent of the people said they would find it unacceptable for corporations to fire employees who support a union -- but only 17 percent of those people believed that employers engage in such behavior, which is rampant. There is a huge disconnect between perception and reality.
Here's another disconnect. Consider, for a moment, some grim long-term economic factors, not the short-term focus on whether we're in a recovery or not: people are out of a job longer than at anytime since the 1960s; we have an underemployment rate -- which includes people who are unemployed and people working part-time who would like to have full-time work -- that has hit double digits (10.3 percent in June 2003); over 40 million Americans, millions of them children, have no health insurance; and an impending global hemispheric shift in 2005, brought on by trade rules, will send hundreds of thousands of jobs to poorer countries, devastating urban and rural America.
We rarely connect the draining of our economic vitality -- if you will, the American Dream we extol in our yearnings for a decent livelihood -- to the unrelenting corporate war against peoples' desires to form unions. In states where unions are strong, people earn more money and have better health care, their children go to better schools, and they experience less crime and poverty than states where unions are invisible. Check it out -- why does Canada have national health insurance? Over 40 percent of its workers have unions.
Something is terribly wrong in America. I'm not talking just about corporate corruption, or the spectacle of executives looting their companies with the excuse that they deserve their stock options and obscene pay, or the cynical, fiscal madness of a political bribe (read: tax-cut) tossed like bread crumbs to millions of desperate people who face a steady erosion of pay, pensions and health care in every corner of urban and rural America.
No, what's far scarier is what we've come to live with at work. Our political and legal system has created a world where a corporation decides, with virtually no restraints, what to do with our jobs -- the jobs for which our communities provide the sons and daughters who create the wealth of a corporation. We get distracted when a few corporate scoundrels get tossed in jail -- even though that never changes the fundamental imbalance of power in the workplace. We ponder the value of our 401(k)s, instead of demanding pensions secure from casino-like investments in the stock market. We endure titles like "associate," which convey false security and stature to minimum-wage workers with no benefits. We have accepted as economic "fact" that we will have to take many jobs in our lifetime and retrain ourselves, not out of choice but, so we're told, because that's the way the economy works, particularly the global economy.
This can change. The cries for power at work are there, the demands that could ignite a modern-day civil rights movement are percolating. It is still inchoate, atomized by the shear size of our country and the invisibility of the message in our mass culture. But, with each decade bringing new frustrations piled upon past economic burdens -- pensions declining or being taken away; slow growth in income; the attacks on Social Security and Medicare; the health care crisis; bad trade agreements; and a government policy that favors the rich over the poor -- the desire grows strong to bring to the workplace the principles of democracy, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.