Democracy and Worker’s Power

By Bonnie Weinstein

Every right won by workers anywhere in the world has been won by the active participation in the struggle by the ranks of workers themselves. From strikes to revolutions, victory depends upon the day-to-day involvement of the workers themselves in carrying out the fight. The most recent example of this took place in December of 2008, when Republic Windows and Doors workers won back pay and benefits owed to them by sitting-in and occupying the factory until their demands were met.

Not only did they win their immediate demands, but they have won their jobs back. Just recently, Republic Windows and Doors was sold to a California company, Serious Materials, for $1.45 million. The new company officials promised United Electrical Workers Local 1110, the union that represented the Republic workers, that they would rehire all the laid-off workers at their former rate of pay!

There is no doubt that the massive popular support and solidarity the Republic workers were able to muster for their just cause led to this unexpected victory. Their decision to occupy their factory won them that popular support.

It was no accident that the sit-in was the workers chosen action. It’s a tried and true tactic of the workers movement and has lead to many victories in the past. And, it’s important to note, that the success of such actions have always depended upon the popular support of other workers for their cause.

Solidarity among workers—the conscious understanding that an injury to one, is an injury to all—is a very powerful unifying force for working people, even though tremendous legal barriers to real solidarity exists.

Carrying out job actions, such as strikes, in solidarity with the rights of other workers, like the Republic workers, is illegal under U.S. law.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947

U.S. capitalist labor laws struck a deadly blow to workers’ democracy by ending the right of workers to withhold their labor in support of the rights of workers on other jobs and in other industries. If this were a democratic country, the majority would have the right to carry out its will.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 19471—an extension of the Labor-Management Relations Act—defined the actions labor can take in the event of disagreements with the bosses, and the actions that can be taken by the bosses during their disputes with labor.

The Act bans jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts and “common situs” picketing (picketing by a labor union of an entire construction project as a result of a grievance held against a single subcontractor on the project.) These are the most crucial, solidarity tools in the historic arsenal of the workers’ movement. They are essential to effectively fight for and win their demands. Being able to carry out those actions in unity with others is what enables workers to muster large enough numbers to defend themselves and their class against the bosses’ assault on their wages, benefits and working conditions.

The theory, based on the real-life-experience of working people is that, if an employer on one job can get away with something, employers on other jobs will do the same thing. And, conversely, what workers win on one job will make it easier for workers to win on other jobs.

The ability of working people to take action in support of other workers under attack is essential to saving our jobs and living conditions! And that’s why the capitalists do what they can to outlaw it.

Workers strength and power lies in the numbers they can muster in their own defense

The ruling capitalists make up about one percent of the population and are far outnumbered by working people. The ongoing goal of the capitalist class is to weaken solidarity among workers, which leads to the further weakening of the ability of workers to fight for their rights—such as the basic right to strike in support of fellow workers whose living standards or working conditions may currently be under attack.

The Taft-Hartley Act also gave the government the power to issue injunctions to end legal strikes if those strikes posed “hazards to the American people.” These “hazards” are determined, not by the workers, or the American people in general, but by the bosses and their bought and paid-for government representatives. These injunctions were recently used against New York transit workers in December of 2005 and before that, against the ILWU port workers in December of 2002.

And, to make sure that labor leaders would themselves be further disarmed, the Act required union leaders to sign statements swearing they were not communists. This basically entitled the bosses to dictate who could (or could not) be the labor representatives; while at the same time, the same Taft-Hartley Act gave the bosses the right to fire supervisors with union sympathies.

The Taft-Hartley Act, written by the bosses themselves and passed by their bi-partisan, paid representatives in the House and the Senate, serve to ensure that the majority (a united working class) can’t act in unity and solidarity with each other, i.e., demonstrate their power as the majority in a purely democratic expression of unity with one another, such as in a general strike, without breaking the law. It is divide and conquer written into the laws of the land—the capitalist laws.

Working people must not accept any laws that make working class unity, solidarity, and majority will illegal. Workers must take back our fundamental democratic right to strike!

Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)

Working people in the U.S. are severely handicapped by the low numbers now represented by labor unions and the dismal state of those unions as fighters for the rights of their members. And now workers are faced with soaring unemployment.

But that does not weaken the resolve of the capitalist class to destroy any remaining power workers can muster in their own defense without breaking the law.

We now have the prospect of the “Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)”—H.R. 8002—passed by the House in 2007. While Obama has vowed to sign the bill, it has not passed the Senate yet. It amends the National Labor Relations Act to establish, “…an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.”

The honey

Basically, EFCA guarantees that whenever a majority of workers files a petition or fills out cards to be represented by a union; and if the Board (National Labor Relations Board) confirms that a majority of the employees has, indeed, signed valid authorizations to be part of that union, and they are not already represented by another union; then the union becomes the bargaining representative for those workers. No secret-ballot election is necessary.

If all these provisions are met, the NLRB must certify the labor organization as the worker’s representative.

This is a step forward since it does make it easier to establish union representation thereby diminishing the ability of the bosses to pressure workers who want to join the union.

Secret-ballot union elections invite management threats to pro-union workers and frequently result in intimidation tactics such as firing workers involved in union activity.

And now, the poison

EFCA also states that whenever a union is established under the new guidelines, both the boss and the union must participate in collective bargaining for the purpose of establishing an initial agreement.

They have ten days after receiving a written request to commence to bargain collectively and must make every reasonable effort to conclude and sign a collective bargaining agreement.

If after a 90-day period, beginning on the date on which bargaining begins, the parties have failed to reach an agreement, either party may notify the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service [FMCS] (an agency of United States Government that handles arbitration and mediation of labor disputes and contract negotiations), of the dispute and request mediation. Whenever such a request is received, FMCS must promptly communicate with both parties and attempt to bring them to agreement.

However, if after the expiration of another 30-day period (beginning on the date on which the request for mediation is made to FMCS; and after the 90-day period in which they first failed to come to agreement), the FMCS is still not able to bring the parties to agreement by conciliation, the FMCS must refer the dispute to an arbitration board that they establish in accordance with their own regulations and settle the dispute. And, under EFCA, this decision is binding for two years.

In effect, what EFCA does, is give workers a false sense of security by, on the one hand, making it easier for them to form labor unions, while at the same time taking away the basic right to strike in case workers can’t reach an agreement with the employer. Instead, workers must accept the decision of government-binding arbitration.

It effectively takes away the democratic right of workers to withhold their labor in solidarity with one another even at a specific jobsite —let alone general strikes across industry already prohibited by Taft-Hartley. It’s as simple as that.

What’s democracy got to do with it?

Of course working people support the part of EFCA that makes it easier to form unions but should oppose the prohibition of the right to strike when the employer refuses to reach an agreement with the majority of workers on the job. We can’t leave it up to the government since this is a government of, by and for the bosses.

These laws are not only anti-labor; they’re anti-democratic in the most profound sense, since they prevent working people, who are the majority, from acting in unity and solidarity with one another. True democracy for the majority of the people—working people and their allies—is at the very heart of universal human freedom and equality.

At the most basic level, democracy is the right of the majority to act on their own behalf —to carry out the wishes and desires of that majority. This kind of democracy is scarce—if it even exists in the world today. But it is humanity’s most basic human right and it’s working people’s most powerful tool.

Clearly, American democracy—any capitalist system—is not democratic. The majority does not get to decide on issues like more schools vs. more war; or more money to the sick and the poor vs. more money to the banks; or whether workers should get raises and better benefits; or whether they have the right to keep their job or not, any more than they have the right to dictate how much bonus money the CEOs pay themselves.

Working people get no choice in these matters. Workers get to choose which capitalist boss will rule them. That’s capitalist democracy!

There’s very little democracy in the unions; none in school except for the election of class president or some such; and certainly there’s no democracy on the job. The boss rules.

And on the rare occasion where we do get a popular vote on a particular issue, like the various antiwar propositions that have been on ballots across America (which have passed by a strong majority,) they are not binding, but simple statements of opinion of the majority of voters.

They are important because they are an expression of the wishes of the majority of working people, and, they have moral power because of it; but the politicians don’t have to listen to or abide by those sentiments. We working people have the right to express our wishes but not to carry them out! And that is not democracy.

The road to freedom is a democratic one

The right of the majority to rule must be raised at every level of our society. From the right of parents and teachers to determine how best to teach children—and get the resources to do so; for the right of all to have access to free and accessible healthcare, housing, jobs; for the right of the majority to use tax dollars for the things the overwhelming majority of human beings need; instead of war and the preservation of a system of slavery based upon the rule of a tiny minority over the overwhelming majority of working people.

At every opportunity we must reject the choice of voting for some capitalist candidate who is supposed to “represent” the supporters’ interests and instead, demand that we vote on the issues!

Let’s vote on whether to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan; or whether to use drones to bomb Pakistan; or whether to send billions of dollars of financial aid and weapons such as white phosphorous to Israel to use against the Palestinian people; or whether to give trillions of dollars to the banks while spending much less for everything else.

An article by Ali Mir, entitled, “Notes on a Meltdown, and a View of the Other Side,” that appeared in Samar magazine November 10, 2008 illustrates the vast sums of money involved in the bailout of the banks as opposed to the “stimulus” package for everyone else:3

" I tried to figure out what a trillion was. I knew it had 12 zeros after the 1, that it was a thousand billion or a million-million, but I couldn't for the life of me understand what a trillion dollars might look like. So I imagined a magic machine that spits out a $10 bill every second, all day and all night long. Nice thought. In the first minute in my fantasy world, I would have $600. In the first hour, $36,000. In the first 24-hour day, $864,000. So far, so good. But as I kept up the calculation, and as the enormity of the numbers dawned on me, I began to dismay. I realized that after one year of this enterprise, I'd have a mere $315 million or so. It would take me three years to get close to a billion. I'd need to collect for more than 3,170 years to walk away from my machine with a trillion dollars. If I had been a contemporary of Jesus Christ, I still wouldn't be two-thirds of the way there!"

We must demand the right to make decisions about where this money should go for ourselves, as working people—the people who collectively contribute the most to society as a whole—potentially the most powerful class in the world, the majority. Much more powerful than the capitalist class, if, and only if, workers are allowed to carry out the will of their own majority.

The majority must take control of the economy. All corporate books must be opened for review so we can see clearly where every penny of profit has gone. All profits should be taxed one hundred percent and used to fulfill the needs of the majority whose blood and sweat created that wealth.

One of the most troubling aspects of the economic crisis today is the loss of jobs. Job creation should be under the democratic control of the majority of workers themselves.

The production of goods should be based upon need. Once the production levels are adjusted to meet those needs, if there are still workers without jobs, hours should be cut back with no reduction in pay until all those without jobs have them—and at the same rate of pay. We must do away with two and three-tier contracts that condemn the next generation of workers to poverty.

All safe, mechanical or other upgrades that increase production rates should also be reflected in fewer working hours for all—again, with no reduction in pay. Automation and reduction of menial and repetitive labor under these conditions is a goal to look forward to for all working people. The long-term goal being to create more educational, creative and leisure time for all.

Consequences for pollution and war

Democratic, on-the-job worker’s councils should be set up to oversee the end of pollution of the environment, in the workplace and society at-large.

If a corporation, through accident, negligence or on purpose, causes economic, physical or material harm to humans, wildlife or the environment, the cost of reparations should be one hundred percent the responsibility of the corporation and must come out of their profits and not out of the pockets of the workers.

Since war is the most polluting of all capitalist endeavors, all resources used for the development, manufacture, production, or experimentation; or any actions relating to the war machine must stop immediately; and all those resources be used to fulfill the needs of the people, the lack of which are the basic causes of war in the first place. Our goal as a worldwide, democratic majority of workers should be to rid the world of war and all weapons.

All the funds used to bail out the banks should be turned over to bail out working people because we have the right, as the majority that creates that wealth with our labor, to determine where that money should go!

These are just some of the things we working people, as a majority, should be able to do.

Working people must implement our basic democratic rights by uniting together to demand them as our inalienable rights! This includes the right to withhold our labor until the demands of the majority are met! Now that’s democracy!

Where do we stand now and what do we do?

The ruling classes throughout history have divided working people from one another.

Domination through slavery, brutalization and forced obedience has produced the capitalist rulers of today. They seem to have unlimited resources to bring death and destruction with impunity. As long as working people can be singled out, scapegoated and divided from one another anything goes for the U.S. dominated, world capitalist ruling elite.

The latest division of the world is along the “Axis of Evil” as outlined by the last president and reinforced and supported by the new president. These peoples are marked as terrorists and are fair game for U.S. ruling class lethal military action. In fact, anyone, anywhere can be labeled a terrorist and can be “taken out.”

In our inner cities this same philosophy is at work. The police routinely target the poor—even shoot them in the back and then claim they were “gangsters” or “drug dealers.” They execute them in the streets, and in front of cameras. This is what happened to young and unarmed Oscar Grant this past New Years Day, 2009; and to countless others that go unnoticed because they weren’t caught on camera.

Working people must join together and demand that these attacks stop. We must demand that the government act on behalf of the wishes of the majority by immediately bringing to justice all those BART police who were present and aided in the blatant murder of Oscar Grant—and all who have carried out state-sponsored atrocities and executions against the innocent and unarmed, including not just the entire police force, but the capitalist warmongers themselves responsible for the murder of millions.

Working people must act in our own behalf and take the power that is rightfully ours

But for working people to be effective in carrying out our will as a majority, we must organize ourselves democratically into our own organizations independent of the capitalist-minority ruling class.

We must organize ourselves democratically and in our own defense on our jobs, in our communities, in our schools and in our own organizations especially. Only in that way will we, as a majority, be able to gain the power through our unity to win our rights.

With real democracy on our side, and with unity and solidarity, these rights are ours for the taking!

Most importantly, to be effective, the masses of working people have to be involved in the decision-making process itself from the ground up, not from the top down. This means we must take democratic control of all aspects of our lives.

This means that the rank and file of the unions must make democratic decisions about their contracts and not leave these things up to the union bureaucracy or up to anti-labor laws; or up to conniving politicians; but we must demand the power to carry out our own will.

And this must include the right to run a factory in such a way as to produce the best product, under the best working conditions and under workers’ democratic majority rule. Ultimately it means the right of the majority to rationally and safely produce goods and services to satisfy the needs and wants of all and not for the private profit of the tiny few.

Majority rule is our power. But it only works if all workers have the right to discuss and vote on the issues that concern us and then, carry out our own free will as a democratically and independently organized, self-constituted majority.

We workers have been estranged from true democracy and must learn to grasp its power for our own.