Workplace Tyrants Talk “Democracy” to Undermine Worker Free Choice

The halls of Congress are buzzing with talk of “workplace democracy.” This isn’t about syndicalism or co-determination. The slogan is being brazenly exploited by front groups for corporate interests fighting against a piece of federal legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), that would make it easier for U.S. workers to form unions free of management intimidation.

Major companies and their trade associations are sparing no expense in fighting EFCA, which was just introduced in the Senate by Tom Harkin of Iowa and in the House by George Miller of California . We thus have an abundance of bogus grassroots campaigns operating under names such as the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, the Employee Freedom Action Committee, the Workplace Fairness Institute and the Alliance for Worker Freedom.

They all foster the delusion that U.S. workplaces are currently a realm of full self-determination in which employees can robustly exercise their Constitutional rights. This Eden of autonomy is said to be threatened by EFCA, which, according to the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, “is fundamentally incompatible with protecting the interests of individual liberty and the principles of a sound democracy.”

It is mind-boggling that these groups can get away with mouthing such slogans in furtherance of a movement whose leading proponents include Wal-Mart Stores, a company whose name is synonymous with labor abuses ranging from short-changing workers on overtime pay to mercilessly squashing any union organizing efforts. “We believe every associate or employee should have the right to make a private and informed decision regarding union representation,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal recently. And when that decision results in a vote favoring the union, the company promptly shuts down the offending workplace.

Given its reputation, Wal-Mart has nothing to lose in openly opposing EFCA. Most other large non-union companies have been more circumspect, letting the front groups and trade associations do the dirty work. Yet their fear and loathing of EFCA sometimes make it on the record. For example, Wal-Mart’s cooler competitor Target Corp., which is just as “union free,” is also riding the anti-EFCA bandwagon, according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune article that appeared in January. That same article cited two other Twin Cities-based firms, Best Buy and Hubbard Broadcasting, as EFCA opponents.

The latter company’s chief executive, Stanley S. Hubbard, is a long-time foe of unions who has kept collective bargaining out of nearly all his stations. Just this week, union members in the Twin Cities picketed (photo) the company’s flagship station KSTP to protest Hubbard’s effort to extract radical concessions—including the right to withdraw negotiated pay increases at any time—from NABET-CWA Local 21 at WNYT in Albany, New York. The workers at the station have been without a contract since last September.

Stanley Hubbard also has a history of mistreating his non-union employees. A May 1997 profile of him in the publication Corporate Report Minnesota (available via Nexis) stated: “Junior reporters and cameramen regularly told friends that they would have to leave KSTP just before their fifth anniversary because the Hubbards didn’t want them vested in the company pension plan.” The author of the article quotes Hubbard as mocking reporters who challenged his autocratic style: “Newspeople think, Oh, no one should tell me what to do.”

Such is the workplace “democracy” that corporate opponents of EFCA want to preserve.

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