Friday, December 10, 2004

Post by Jennifer Klein

One task we have before us to discern and articulate what the links are between labor issues, economic justice, constitutional rights and democracy more broadly. In the Progressive Era and New Deal era, progressives, liberals, and the left talked of industrial democracy, or a political democracy accompanied by economic democracy. Given that no one seems willing to use the language of economic democracy today, it perhaps is seen as too tainted by the baggage of Marxian socialism. Nonetheless, we can reflect on what made the ideological claims of “industrial democracy” and economic democracy, social security and economic security so potent. It was a frame that linked equality and security claims with action, autonomy, voice, and participation claims. The empowerment part of the equation was crucial. Workers and community residents had to have the power to participate in the decisions that affected their welfare, wherever that might be. We cannot go back to the language of industrial democracy, since it is not the reality that shapes the daily world for most of us. Yet if we are devising a new ideological framework, I recommend that we articulate one that once again reflects imperatives of these dual claims.

Union representation still holds out the promise of achieving these aims, even more so in a multi-ethnic, service-based economy. The Wagner Act (NLRA), however, has been blocked from ascending to the level of constitutional principle, as it were. And as we know, the proceduralism of the NLRB and union recognition process has actually become an impediment to workers‚ ability to form a union. Yet the all-important Section 7 of the original Wagner Act of 1935 could not have been more clear in its constitutional aspirations: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organization, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The associational rights of workers did not initially depend on a particular process for certifying bargaining agents, especially one that allegedly had to be approved by employers or the state. The point was that employees would engage in self-organization. Subsequent legal interpretations from 1939 through the 1960s gradually subverted this right in multiple ways: channeling collective bargaining into narrowest economic form possible, severing unions from extra-workplace supports and political alliances, and finally suppressing organizing all together. Restoring a constitutional right to organize would not only revitalize unions at work; it would open the possibilities for worker organizations to cooperate and flourish with other community organizations that are concerned with essential aspects of our social lives: housing, health care, immigrant rights, education.

Finally, I was surprised to learn at our Dec. 4 meeting (New Politics session) that forms of political engagement or action outside of voting are “not constitutional issues”-- and therefore need not be discussed. Perhaps this is one additional reason why the Right has been so successful at severely constraining freedom of assembly. Have liberals accepted the notion that the ability to rally in front of city hall, march on the street, picket a store or power plant, or hand out leaflets in front of a public or private building is merely a law enforcement or public safety matter to be handled through administrative, bureaucratic means? Law enforcement agencies, employers, and business entities have been increasingly aggressive in controlling our ability to take political action within public space and increasingly punitive against those who do. Towns and cities of all sizes have been using the permitting process in highly restrictive ways to stymie or limit public collective actions. They have attached onerous insurance liability requirements and new permit fees to suppress such applications; police have resorted to free-speech zones or pens, use of barricades, pre-demonstration confiscation of literature, signs and banners. Add this to employers‚ use of mandatory, forced overtime and surveillance, and not surprisingly, fewer people have the time or the ability to be part of local meetings or organizations.

Those of us who live in New Haven might recall that a mere two years ago union members and workers were arrested for handing out leaflets on the sidewalk outside of the Yale New Haven Hospital; they were arrested by Yale New Haven Hospital‚s private police force. These union activists were outside the hospital because of the hospital's success at suppressing workers‚ right to form a union and exile of any workers who want to speak about the union from their workplace; yet their right of free speech was not even safe outside of their workplace! (Several months later, one of the fired hospital workers came to speak at my neighbor‚s house, a house meeting that was infiltrated by hospital management, who proceeded to write down everyone else‚s name at the meeting). It seems to me there is a confluence of constitutional issues here–where corporate prerogatives subvert civic action--which has undermined economic and political rights in our current undemocratic culture.