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We Must Restore Democracy in Our Workplaces

Small-d democracy in our small-r republic has been collapsing for the last 30 years. We are rapidly reversing 300 years of progress.

(Image: Hands together via Shutterstock)

Small-d democracy in our small-r republic has been collapsing for the last 30 years. We are rapidly reversing 300 years of progress.

Kingdoms and feudalism and serfdom were around for millennia, until the evolutionary leap to democracy with the Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In feudal societies, the king or the local lords owned everything, including the land, the buildings, the animals, and even the people. The king and those close to him owned you and your spouse and your children. Some kings even exercised the “right of the first night,” where the king took the virginity of every new bride.

Hierarchy, patriarchy, and misogyny are all intertwined with feudalism, and were rationalized as being biblical and “the way it’s always been done.”

The 18th and 19th centuries saw an explosion of anti-feudal democracy, from the American Revolution through a whole variety of uprisings across Europe and the rest of the world. In democratic nations, people had a say in how things were done, and who owned what.

But feudalism didn’t die. It merely moved. It moved out of the arena of governance and into the arena of commerce. With the invention in 1601 by Queen Elizabeth I of the Limited Liability Corporation, a new type of feudal kingdom was established: an economic one. And it persists to this day, complete with its traditional elements of hierarchy, patriarchy, and misogyny.

The CEO is the King, and often lives and travels like one. The senior executives are the Lords, and amass great wealth and control the lives and fates of those under them.

Workers are serfs, and if they dare defy the king or his lords, they can be punished in ways up to and including imprisonment.

And, like in ancient feudal times, women find themselves at the bottom of this hierarchy, often with little power and less pay than men. Indeed, as recently as this year, numerous Republican men in Congress voted against laws that would prevent employers from engaging in economic, physical, or even sexual violence against their female employees.

While democracy confronted kingdoms in 1776, democracy confronted the feudal corporate state in 1932.

Workplaces had become kingdoms, and workers were treated like serfs in a feudal state, until FDR’s democratic evolutionary leap in the 1930s. With the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, FDR and Congress inserted democracy into the workplace.

They did it by creating the “right to unionize.”

That “right” created a genuine “democracy in the workplace,” a major evolutionary leap forward both for business and for workers – and most importantly, for our democratic republic.

It worked marvelously. Wages of workers increased, and a Middle Class emerged.

CEOs had wealth and power, but it was not unlimited. They lived well, but not like kings. The average CEO made only 30 times as much as his average worker.

But then came the “Reagan Revolution” against democracy in the workplace. The feudal lords rose up.

Anti-democratic and pro-feudalism forces have been pushing back against “democracy in the workplace” since Reagan declared war against organized labor in 1981.

It has not only hurt our workplace; it has also hurt democracy in our nation. A democracy that once existed both in government and in the workplace.

The “Reagan Revolution” pitted worker against worker, tore communities apart, and enriched the Kings and Lord’s at the top of these corporate feudal dynasties. Workers, meanwhile, have been reduced to serfdom and confront a new form of wage slavery.

If we care about strengthening and restoring democracy in America, we must begin with our workplaces.

Worker involvement in the workplace is the core of democracy in the workplace. This was so obvious to the Germans that they enshrined it in their law that half of every large corporation’s Board of Directors must be union representatives.

As long as democracy is kept out of our workplaces, like with the aggressive union busting efforts of Wal-Mart, Amazon, and McDonald’s, our larger sense of community – which derives from local democracy – is damaged and diminished. This, in turn, harms our political democracy, as it makes people disempowered and cynical.

Revitalizing democracy in our workplaces will help revitalize democracy in our nation, from local levels like school boards all the way up to Congress. All we need to do is to look back at the experience of the 1950s ‘60s and ‘70s. Those were periods of high levels of democracy in the workplace, and they coincided with high levels of democratic activism and participation across the political spectrum.

Like Germany, we should mandate that every board of directors have strong union representation. To do that, we must also restore the right to democracy in the workplace – the right to unionize.

Abolishing the Taft-Hartley Act is the most important first step toward that goal. And we must make it easier for workers to unionize through simple systems like card check.

Abraham Lincoln – the first US president to recognize the right of workers to unionize and strike – quoted the preamble of our Constitution when talking about making America a “more perfect union.” From the founding of our republic until the 1980s, we have always been steadily working on perfecting democracy in America.

If we are truly to call ourselves a democratic nation, a democratic republic, we must extend democracy into our workplaces.

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