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'Master-Servant' Role for Labor in America

October 12, 1985

Eric Mann's Labor Day article, "Labor's 'Silent Partner' Role Harmful to Workers and Public", made the key point that the future of workers in America is not as the silent partner of corporations, but, instead, is in joining with other persons left out of American society.

Singer Bruce Springsteen defines those persons as the ones with "the feeling like the America they believed in sailed away and left them standing at the dock."

Union members also have that feeling when some of their leaders "sail away" with unnecessary concessions of wages, benefits and jobs and by their cooperation with corporate management. That kind of cooperation among elites cannot work, has little legitimacy, and has provided little job security.

As a United Auto Workers union member for more than 37 years, I understand that cooperation is sometimes a necessary tactic to save jobs and the union, but it is not a strategy for the good of workers or our nation based upon the reality of corporate dominance over our lives.

Cooperation in labor-management relations has even become "trendy" with quality-of-work-life programs being given great attention. The hope is that involving workers in discussions with the management will increase productivity and profits. None of these programs is designed to change the fundamental power relationships.

Apparently they are not catching on. The 1985 Report of President Reagan's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness calls for more "effective cooperation," but reports that it "remains the exception rather than the rule."

The fundamental relationship between labor and management is so grossly unequal that a cooperative one is impractical and has little legitimacy. That relationship is defined clearly in American legal doctrine as the "master-servant relationship," which puts nearly total power into the hands of the employer. This is the antithesis of democracy in a nation that claims to be a democracy.

It is also true that certain laws and union contracts have modified that power, but the dominance of the employer (master over the employee (servant) prevails. That is why the adversarial relationship can be the only legitimate one until the master-servant one is abolished in America.

The strategy of unions to deal with that adversarial relationship must be based on individual rights and liberty and based upon building democratic communities, workplaces and unions.

The Reagan Commission also reported that the decline in productivity could not be attributed to a decline in the work ethic nor to a commitment to work. Human beings need to work and perform best when that work is creative, maximizes individual growth and has meaning to one's community.

The problem with most jobs is that they are boring, demeaning and dead-end. Workplaces are usually run by an insensitive hierarchy in a bureaucratic way. That is why most workers do not do their best and will not until workers are treated as human beings and work is organized democratically.

Unions are operating from a position of weakness with only 18% of the work force holding union membership, although they are holding the line on most union contracts and against most regressive legislation.

Unions must join forces with other groups that are also not privileged or have unsolved problems and face the same corporate and governmental adversaries. Unions will have only limited success in going it alone. The other groups would include environmental, consumer, tax reform, rent control, small business and farmer groups. Also included would be those suffering discrimination and inequality because of race, nationality, religion, sex, handicap, sexuality or age.

Only by organizing new union members in coalition with these groups does labor have a chance to win a more democratic life at work and in the community. The goal is to build a popular majority in support of the right to a job, to a democratic workplace and community that are safe and healthy and free.


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