For a vast majority of Americans, democracy ends when work hours begin.
Most people in this country are subject, as workers, to the nearly unmediated authority of their employers, which can discipline, sanction or fire them for nearly any reason at all.
In other words, Americans are at the mercy of what the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls “private government,” a workplace despotism in which most workers “cede all of their rights to their employers, except those specifically guaranteed to them by law, for the duration of the employment relationship.” With few exceptions — like union members covered by collective bargaining agreements or academics covered by tenure — an employer’s authority over its workers is, Anderson writes, “sweeping, arbitrary and unaccountable — not subject to notice, process, or appeal.”
If “private government” sounds like a contradiction in terms, that is only because in the modern era we have lost an older sense of government as an entity that, as Anderson says, exists “wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life.” The state, then, is simply one kind of government among others, albeit one with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
For most of human history, the state itself was essentially private; few individuals outside of the ruling class had any standing to question its decisions or demand accountability for its actions. The extent to which the state is public at all is, as Anderson notes, “a contingent social achievement of immense importance,” the result of a centuries-long struggle for “popular sovereignty and a republican form of government” such that the state is now “the people’s business, transparent to them, servant to their interests, in which they have a voice and the power to hold rulers accountable.”
With that in mind, to say that most workers are subject to unaccountable “private government” is to make clear the authoritarian character of the American workplace. And it is to remind ourselves that in the absence of any countervailing force, the bosses and managers who wield that authority can force workers into deadly environments and life-threatening situations, or force them to remain in them.
That is what appears to have happened on Friday at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory in Mayfield, Ky. There, more than 100 people, including seven prisoners, were on the night shift, working even after tornado sirens sounded outside the facility. “People had questioned if they could leave or go home,” one employee told NBC News in an interview. But, she said, they were warned: If they left, they were “more than likely to be fired.”
When a powerful tornado did bear down on the factory, it was so strong that there was nowhere safe to hide, according to Andy Beshear, the governor of Kentucky. When the storm cleared, eight people on site were dead and eight others were missing. Three hours north, in Edwardsville, Ill., a similarly powerful tornado hit an Amazon warehouse, killing six people. There, too, workers had been toiling in the midst of severe weather.
Had either of these groups of workers been empowered to say no — had they been able to put limits on work and resist unsafe working conditions — they may have been able to protect themselves, to leave work or miss a shift without jeopardizing their jobs. In the absence of that ability, they were, in effect, compelled to work by the almost sovereign power of their respective employers, with horrific consequences for them, their families and their communities.
Put another way, these disasters cannot be separated from the overall political economy of the United States, which is arguably more anti-labor now than it’s been at any point since Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act in 1935. A society organized for capital — a society in which most workers are denied a meaningful voice in their place of employment — is a society where some workers will be exposed, against their will, to life-threatening conditions.
The immediate solution is as it always has been: unionization, collective bargaining and workplace democracy. This is easier said than done, of course, but it still must be said. Our democracy is and will remain incomplete for as long as most Americans work without power or representation under the authority of private governments. Whatever democratic habits we hope to instill in ourselves and our children cannot be sustained, in the long run, when democracy is banned from the shop floor.
Or, as the sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox once wrote, “The people are not free when a relatively few masters of industry could deny them control of their resources” — and to that, one might add control of their selves.
Every few months, a prominent person or publication points out that McDonalds workers in Denmark receive $22 per hour, 6 weeks of vacation, and sick pay. This compensation comes on top of the general slate of social benefits in Denmark, which includes child allowances, health care, child care, paid leave, retirement, and education through college, among other things.
In these discussions, relatively little is said about how this all came to be. This is sad because it’s a good story and because the story provides a good window into why Nordic labor markets are the way they are.
McDonalds opened its first store in Denmark in 1981. At that point, it was operating in over 20 countries and had successfully avoided unions in all but one, Sweden.
When McDonalds arrived in Denmark, the labor market was governed by a set of sectoral labor agreements that established the wages and conditions for all the workers in a given sector. Under the prevailing norms, McDonalds should have adhered to the hotel and restaurant union agreement. But they didn’t have to do so, legally speaking. The union agreement is not binding on sector employers in the same way that a contract is. You can’t sue a company for ignoring it. It is strictly “voluntary.”
McDonalds decided not to follow the union agreement and thus set up its own pay levels and work rules instead. This was a departure, not just from what Danish companies did, but even from what other similar foreign companies did. For example, Burger King, which is identical to McDonalds in all relevant respects, decided to follow the union agreement when it came to Denmark a few years earlier.
Naturally, this decision from McDonalds drew the attention of the Danish labor movement. According to the press reports, the struggle to get McDonalds to follow the hotel and restaurant workers agreement began in 1982, but the efforts were very slow at first. McDonalds maintained that it had a principled position against unions and negotiations and press overtures were unable to move them off that position.
In late 1988 and early 1989, the unions decided enough was enough and called sympathy strikes in adjacent industries in order to cripple McDonalds operations. Sixteen different sector unions participated in the sympathy strikes.
Dockworkers refused to unload containers that had McDonalds equipment in them. Printers refused to supply printed materials to the stores, such as menus and cups. Construction workers refused to build McDonalds stores and even stopped construction on a store that was already in progress but not yet complete. The typographers union refused to place McDonalds advertisements in publications, which eliminated the company’s print advertisement presence. Truckers refused to deliver food and beer to McDonalds. Food and beverage workers that worked at facilities that prepared food for the stores refused to work on McDonalds products.
In addition to wreaking havoc on McDonalds supply chains, the unions engaged in picketing and leaflet campaigns in front of McDonalds locations, urging consumers to boycott the company.
Once the sympathy strikes got going, McDonalds folded pretty quickly and decided to start following the hotel and restaurant agreement in 1989.
This is why McDonalds workers in Denmark are paid $22 per hour.
I bring this up because people say a lot of things about the economies of the Nordic countries and why they are so much more equal than ours. In this discussion, certainly the presence of unions and sector bargaining comes up, but rarely do you get a discussion of just how radically powerful and organized the Nordic unions are and have been. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Nordic labor market is the way it is because all of the employers and workers came together and agreed that their system is better for everyone. And while it’s true of course that, on a day-to-day basis, labor relations in the countries are peaceful, lurking behind that peace is often a credible threat that the unions will crush an employer that steps out of line, not just by striking at one site or at one company, but by striking every single thing that the company touches.
Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti discuss the ongoing battle between Amazon and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Will you finally let your workers unionize?
As this was unfolding, most of Big Tech, including Amazon, sent white-collar workers home to “flatten the curve” and fight the pandemic. Tim saw company leadership go to great lengths to make sure this new system was working and actively seek feedback from the remote workers. Christy heard from a warehouse employee who said productivity targets made it difficult for workers to take a break even for hand washing without a mark on their record. Pay for warehouse workers starts at $15 an hour with minimal access to time off; in May Amazon ended the unpaid leave policy that for a few weeks allowed them to stay home if they had Covid-19 symptoms.The contrast in the treatment of knowledge and warehouse workers couldn’t be starker. Equally clear is the cause: One group has power, the other doesn’t.
Amazon’s decision to fire the activists was easy to make in the United States, where Amazon workers have no union and are left to fend for themselves. With no right to paid sick leave or protection from unfair dismissal, American workers are among the most vulnerable in the world to pressure from any employer, not just Amazon.
Union-represented Amazon workers in Spain, Italy, France and Germany initially failed to resolve their concerns through negotiation, but with court action, regulatory intervention and strikes, they got their needs addressed.
Let’s look at France: Unions there brought a civil case arguing that Amazon had taken inadequate steps to protect workers from infection risk and that it had sidestepped the unions’ statutory role. The court ordered Amazon to limit its sales to only “essential” items, or face harsh penalties until it could reach a safety agreement with the unions. Rather than negotiate, Amazon closed its French operations and appealed. But the appellate court also sided with the workers, who ultimately negotiated a settlement including mandatory union consultation over safety measures, union hiring of external experts to assess the measures’ effectiveness and a continued increase in workers’ hourly pay. The news from Europe shows that Amazon can work with unions and get good results.
Both of us want Amazon to share the wealth with workers and stop putting the relentless pursuit of revenue growth ahead of all other concerns. One way or another, this requires putting more power in the hands of workers. Regulation and legislation are part of the solution. But there’s no need to wait; power can be taken, not just given. That’s what unions are for.
Amazon is a data-driven company. It should recognize the evidence showing that countries with more collective bargaining have a stronger social fabric and better growth, and are more able to weather economic ups and downs. Businesses with collective bargaining relationships, including Auchan Retail and Carrefour, navigated the Covid-19 crisis with less disruption to their businesses and emerged with their reputations intact and even enhanced.
For its own future and the future of the global economy, Amazon should become more responsive to the women and men who’ve enriched shareholders and be willing to recognize and bargain with their representatives. When it comes to the rights of its workers, it should be a leader, not a laggard.
It’s not just Amazon: The need for more unionization is urgent across Big Tech. Amazon stands out because it combines the extraordinary profit margins of these companies with employing hundreds of thousands of front-line workers. There are fewer of these workers at the other iconic tech companies, but nevertheless their employees also deserve a voice over the issues that matter to them.
The question for Mr. Bezos and the billionaires of the world is: Are they ready to rise to the occasion? Will Big Tech listen to and work with its employees to help the world overcome the worst economic and social crisis in recent history?
This is a 1941 recording of “Which Side Are You On?”, performed by the Almanac Singers.
“Which Side Are You On?” was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers(UMW) in Harlan County, Kentucky.
In 1931, the miners and the mine owners of that region were locked in a violent struggle (Harlan County War). In an attempt to intimidate the Reece family, Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men (hired by the mining company) illegally entered their family home in search of Florence’s husband. Florence and their children were terrorized by the experience.
That night, after the men had gone, Florence wrote the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”
The melody was adapted from a traditional Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low”.
So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.
I’m not saying that coping with change was ever easy. The decline of coal employment had devastating effects on many families, and much of what used to be coal country has never recovered. The loss of manual jobs in port cities surely contributed to the urban social crisisof the ’70s and ’80s.
But while there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.
What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.
Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent. That divergence was politics, pure and simple.
The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. Canada is as unionized now as the U.S. was in 1973; in the Nordic nations unions cover two-thirds of the work force. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.
In which society is it easiest to get rich? Contrary to common belief, it is not countries like the US or the UK that create the highest number of rich people per capita, but Nordic social democracies like Norway and Sweden. Counter intuitive as it may sound, high taxes, generous welfare states and strong unions makes a better environment for the people who wants to earn huge amounts of money, than free markets, low taxes, and minimal government intervention.
Harald Eia is a trained sociologist who works in television with comedy and documentaries.