THE BLOG

Americans Love Democracy, Except in the Workplace

09/04/2011 07:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2011

Unionization is not often described as democracy in the workplace, but
that is exactly what it is. Under federal law, private-sector
employees may elect representatives to bargain with their employer
over their terms of employment. Currently, 93.1% of the private
sector work without any elected representatives in their workplaces.
This Labor Day, it is worth pausing to reflect on the reasons why.

One of the obvious reasons for the low numbers of unionized workers in
the private sector is the threat of job loss from employers. While
terminating an employee for supporting a union is unlawful, breaking
the law in this manner is unfortunately cost effective. An employer
will be liable for an employee's back pay; but in exchange, the fear
caused by firing one employee who supports the union is often enough
to defeat organizing efforts. Unless the National Labor Relations Act
is amended to allow steeper penalties against law-breaking employers,
fear of job loss will remain a major roadblock to workplace democracy
in the private sector.

Another major reason employees do not unionize is their belief that
existing laws provide sufficient workplace protections. However,
employees are shocked to learn that there is no federal law limiting
the hours an employer can force someone to work without breaks.
Except for those falling under Department of Transportation
regulations, employers can order employees to work overtime without
limit. Few states add any legal protections. Even in the healthcare
industry, notorious for mistakes caused by fatigued employees, the
federal government leaves it to the private sector to limit work
hours.

And while most employees nominally know they are "employees at will,"
few realize this permits termination for reasons that are blatantly
unfair. For example, if a store has merchandise that is missing, the
boss may assume at least one employee is guilty and fire all the
employees. Employees at will have no right to an investigation in the
workplace. Likewise, a boss can fire an employee simply to hire her
son. No federal laws prohibit nepotism in the private sector.
Employees at will can even be fired for missing work when they are
truly sick if the illness is not a "serious health condition" as
defined by the Family Medical Leave Act.

If employees understood how few legal protections they have in the
workplace, they MIGHT be more likely to want a union. Too often,
people lose jobs in unjust situations before realizing the rights they
do not have.

To be sure, many will say that we cannot afford unions and remain
competitive in the global marketplace. Unions were effectively blamed
in the 1980s and 1990s for the loss of manufacturing. However,
putting the union jobs aside, the U.S. was destined to lose much of
manufacturing to the low wages of Chinese workers based on the minimum
wage alone.

Now that we are primarily a service-based economy, the gap between the
rich and poor continues to widen as unions are shrinking. If
employees demand more wages, employers are free to shift labor costs
internally by reducing bonuses and wages paid to management. This
would be a wise option before raising the price of their product or
service.

Others will protest that unions are inefficient and corrupt. But we
have not abandoned democracy in our government despite an equal
susceptibility to corruption and inefficiency. When a politician is
caught in a scandal, we may vote for another party in the next
election. We do not throw up our hands and say, "This is too much
trouble. No more elections!" Yet we have done that in our
workplaces.

To the delight of companies everywhere, most of us leave our
livelihoods to the mercy and whims of the employer alone. However,
that may soon change. Come November 14, 2011, the National Labor
Relations Board will require employer to post a notice explaining
their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, including their
right to democracy in the workplace. While the public sector's labor
rights are being chipped away, the private sector may notice their own
rights.