[Vision2020] Why Not Democracy in the Workplace?
ngier at uidaho.edu
Sat May 14 10:04:36 PDT 2005
I'm surprised no one has picked up on the police union issue. Here is my
response, which I hope a local newspaper will publish.
WHY NOT DEMOCRACY IN THE WORKPLACE?
A POLICE UNION IN MOSCOW
By Nick Gier
The United States has been a leading defender of liberal democracy in the
world. Why is it then that so many Americans appear to reject
representative democracy in the workplace? The Bush administration
promotes free trade unions abroad, but does everything in its power to
thwart them stateside.
Moscow mayor Marshall Comstock's recent comments (Moscow-Pullman Daily
News, April 25) about a police union reveal this selective anti-democratic
sentiment. Contrary to Comstock's implications, unions are not some
mysterious external force; rather, they are, just like any other human
institution, made up of hard working men and women in all areas of
employment, including medicine, sports, music, and all levels of teaching.
Medieval worker guilds gave us the self-governing principles on which the
labor movement is founded. Employees elect their unions according to
carefully monitored procedures, and they can "decertify" unions that fail
to represent them properly. This process is being carried out right across
the border with WSU's staff employees.
In December of 1981 the Argonaut, the UI student newspaper, the engineering
dean declared that "we may as well live in Russia" if unions are recognized
in higher education. The problem is that our governance system was
sovietized long ago. Deans can veto department decisions (the Grishkoff
case is a prime example) and presidents can overturn all lower
decisions. Ultimately, the unelected State Board of Education (read:
Politburo) can do anything that it pleases. The disrespect that it has
shown to Marilyn Howard, its only elected member, is outrageous.
Comstock can't understand why his police officers want to waste their money
on union dues when they are complaining that they don't make enough as it
is. If the UI had gone to a salary scale based on the federal GS system,
as the faculty union proposed in 1976, UI professors would have been at the
top of their peers rather than at the bottom. UI administrators, whose
salaries have outstripped full professors' by 74 percent since 1982, have
always said that peer dominance was their goal, but they have failed
miserably in that task.
If we had negotiated a contract with that salary scale, and if we had
received raises equivalent to federal workers, today I would make $50,000
more annually, out of which I could have easily covered my union dues, paid
much more in taxes, gone to many more professional meetings, given much
more to charity, and returned much more to the local economy.
Labor history is not taught very well in our schools and management has
well honed anti-union disinformation programs, so Americans need to be
reminded that unions brought them the 8-hour workday, safe working
conditions, paid vacations, health benefits, generous pensions, and
progressive socio-economic legislation.
Just as an example, unions led the successful passage of the Family and
Medical Leave Act, which has allowed 50 million Americans leave-without-pay
to care for their newborns or seriously ill family members. For decades
most European countries, where the labor movement is much stronger, have
provided up to three months paid leave for these purposes. Almost on every
socio-economic statistic, countries built by Labor or Social Democratic
parties do much better than the U.S.
It is often said that unions are not needed in companies and institutions
that are run well and treat their employees fairly. But this is as absurd
as saying that democracy is needed only when tyrants arise. George W. Bush
hates tyrants and is also a political genius, so why don't we save
ourselves a lot of trouble and money and let him stay in office, along with
his Republican majority, until they die?
Only employees know what their needs are, and it is presumptuous for any
manager to preempt their right to self governance. Mayor Comstock believes
that "a union will not benefit [his] officers," but they have already
decided otherwise. Those below the rank of sergeant have voted unanimously
to be represented by the Service Employees Union International, the
nation's most successful and fastest growing union.
I challenge Mayor Comstock to embrace democracy in the workplace and
recognize the police force's vote for union representation.
Nick Gier taught philosophy and religion at the UI for 31 years. He is
president of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.
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