When most Americans enter their places of work, where they tend to spend 40 or more hours of their waking lives each week, they leave their democratic rights at the time clock they punch, especially their individual rights of free speech.
On the whole, I think it’s fair to say, Americans don’t dwell much on the fact, the contradiction, that the workplaces where we spend a good amount of our lives and make some of our most important contributions to the functioning of American society, are basically accepted as democracy-free zones.
Put starkly, we tend to accept as a culture that when one is engaged in doing the work to produce or provide the goods and services that make American lives possible, democratic rights are thrown out the window. We live in a democracy, except when we’re at work.
Workers do not enjoy the rights of free speech in the workplace (as I’ve written about widely, here and here), and really only have significant representation and voice if they are unionized and enjoy collective bargaining rights and the employment protections, including workplace safety assurances, a union contract affords. And the Supreme Court in its 2018 decision in the Janus case, did its best, spearheaded by arch conservative labor hater Justice Samuel Alito, to make it harder for workers to organize and hence have a voice.
Ironically—and sinisterly–in this case, the ruling argument Alito penned turned the First Amendment on its head, pretending to support the free speech rights of public employees by forbidding public sector unions from collecting fair share dues from those employees who did not become union members (previously, when employees enter a unionized workplace, they pay dues regardless of whether the y sign a union card or not, with the rationale that they are helping to defray the costs of the representation from which they benefit).
Alito argued that the dues could be used for political activity—and hence political speech (even though unions have separate funds for political work)—and employees should have to support speech with which they disagree. It’s a thoroughly bad faith argument in that Alito ignores what he knows full well—employees do not enjoy First Amendment rights in the workplace and, for all intents and purposes, have no representation or voice without a union.
So when President Joe Biden recently voiced support for unions, encouraging workers at Amazon currently involved in a vote to unionize or not to take part in this process, Biden was really just standing up for democracy itself, highlighting that America has not yet achieved full democracy precisely because democratic rights have not extended to the workplace.
While he did not refer specifically to Amazon, the context of the vote in Alabama was clear, as was his figuration of the most basic democratic rights:
“Workers in Alabama – and all across America – are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.”
He simply asked for a free and fair vote, while then also explaining how unions promote democracy:
“Unions put power in the hands of workers, they level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and Brown workers.”
And, the matter he made clear, is and should up to the workers themselves without intimidation or coercion:
“So let me be really clear, it’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear, it’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers — full stop.”
He did, however, emphasize that U.S. law already asserted the importance of unions and collective bargaining to democracy:
“You should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say unions are allowed to exist. It said that we should encourage unions.”
Indeed, the law itself states in its preamble: “It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce … by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.”
Certainly, last summer’s protests and the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted the limits of American democracy imposed by racial inequality and oppression, by the curtailing of civil rights for people of color.
We speak much less, though, of the nation’s failure to extend democracy and civil rights to workers, tending to prioritize the rights of private property and capital: “If I own this land and factory, I can treat people how I want on it.”
Biden’s statement certainly comes across as bold and novel, even though the letters of our laws encourage workplace democracy. Indeed, our civil rights laws are clear in their letter, yet not close to being realized in spirit or reality for people of color and women. The same holds true for workers of all races and genders.
As noted labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observed, “This is new, nothing like it before. Politicians always give great speeches at union conventions and avoid union organizing campaigns because of possibility of failure. But Biden broke this norm.”
I hope we can all agree that it should not be new and unprecedented to support and uphold democracy.
So, while Biden’s support for unions and for workers’ democratic rights in the workplace and in our political-economic system itself might seem unprecedented, hopefully, there will be a recognition that promoting human, civil, and democratic rights for workers of all races and genders is absolutely consistent with and demanded by our democratic ideals and is not all, or should not be, a partisan issue.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.