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Saturday, July 20

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It's time to take the word "boss" back — or rather, give it away.

In reading a review of journalist Matt Bai's new book The Argument, I had one of those cringe-y moments unique to those lucky enough to have been a part of the labor movement: the publisher refers to Bai's time spent with union "bosses" in Chicago. The "boss" being referred to here is most likely Andrew Stern, President of the Service Employees (SEIU), the largest union in the country, about whom Bai has written for the New York Times Magazine. The media has a habit of referring to union "bosses" without irony, completely unaware of the fact that it is a frame created by plutocrats to degrade the labor movement. Besides the subtle mafia reference — the only other time you hear of "bosses" is "mob bosses" — "boss" is a word union organizers and rank-and-file members use pejoratively about their masters. An organizing campaign where the owners resist is referred to as a "boss fight" and the class of owners and consultants that rob working people of rights at work are collectively referred to as "bosses."

To rob us of this fine pejorative is one of the gleaming successes of the anti-worker movement that has strangled American media and politics for the last 50 years.

I've had several "bosses" in the labor movement. One of them offered me some of his soup when I went in to interview; another one offered to give me a ride home in his tiny red Cavalier on a number of occasions.

Although all tough guys and gals, they are hardly comparable to Tony Soprano or Johnny Apes Monteleone.

But the image of a cigar-chomping union "boss" is an important image for disingenuous right-wing propagandists as they fight labor's latest initiative, the Employee Free Choice Act.

Anti-working family apologists, from the National Right to Work Committee to clueless local bloggers like John Ruberry, are terrified of the Employee Free Choice Act because it would be the first step to bringing freedom to the workplace. The workplace, of course, is the dominion of the actual bosses, where they wield unfettered control over the average American. Free to dispense justice according to their own capriciousness, a den of nepotism, sexual harassment and race discrimination, the workplace is the only place where Americans have to check their freedoms at the door.

When you are at the workplace, you are not equal to your boss. By virtue of your "at-will employment" you are at their mercy and must conform our behavior and speech accordingly. They control not only your income — your ability to feed and clothe yourself and your family — but your health, as well. They can arbitrarily order you to work more, or take your work away. You have few rights in the workplace, and those few rights are protected by ineffective bureaucracies that are typically overworked and understaffed.

"Well, they're the boss." Right, but labor is at least the equal to capital. Some — like Abraham Lincoln — would say, " Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

The right to organize a union in your workplace is theoretically protected by law, but in practice this is hardly the case. Union activists are regularly fired and employers use a variety of tactics, including one-on-one high pressure meetings, so-called "captive audience" meetings, threats of closing the business, spreading of blatant disinformation ("You'll have to go on strike." "Your union dues will be astronomical." "The union is mobbed up.") and changing workloads. This is empirically true; it has been documented by study after study. And the legal recourse — appealing to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — is a joke. The NLRB is stacked with conservatives whose primary goal is to make sure that all of the case law precedents protect the bosses. Fines for firings are piddling amounts that bosses are happy to pay if it means keeping workers from having workplace rights.

Organizing the traditional way — through an NLRB election — has been almost completely abandoned because of the bosses' ability to game it. Using public pressure to force bosses into so-called "Neutrality Agreements," where they agree not to interfere, has been the preferred method since the early '90s. But these campaigns are expensive, costly, and increasingly more difficult to pull off in a media environment where bosses have more clout and access. The Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate this absurd process and guarantee employees' right to form a union if 50 percent plus one of them sign authorization cards. It would also increase fines for violating the right to organize.

Again, anti-working family nutjobs mewl and puke about how EFCA supposedly goes after the American institution of secret ballot elections. This is either intellectual dishonesty or stupidity beyond reckoning. Imagine if before a Presidential election, one party had access to voter lists — the other did not. Imagine one party was allowed to campaign at workplaces — the other was not. Imagine one party was allowed to order you into one-on-one meetings and mandatory large group meetings. Imagine one party could kick you out of your job. Would you consider that a "free" election? Stalin was elected General Secretary by secret ballot. Think his secret police sweated the outcome?

Although a good start, EFCA does not go far enough. There needs to be a national neutrality agreement that would punish violating human rights with rescinding of all tax benefits in perpetuity. You cannot sign away your human rights, and that bosses expect us to sacrifice our basic human right to organize is one of the greatest injustices in this country. We are not "created equal" for one third of our day. How can we abide this?

Like many who hope to tarnish the labor movement in the popular imagination, John Ruberry discusses the Teamsters. Be clear for a moment: the working men and women of the Teamsters were victims of organized crime. Workers were not victims of the Teamsters. And speaking of the Teamsters, in his book Which Side Are You On?, Tom Geoghegan tells a story about a woman in management at a dispatch center who was constantly sexually harassed on the job by her bosses. When she took the boss to court over it, none of her fellow middle managers would testify on her behalf — they were all too afraid of the boss. The only people she could find to corroborate her testimony? The unionized workers, of course, who were protected by a contract. They could walk into court, look the boss in the face, and call him what he was. They didn't have to shake in their boots. They were the only ones truly "equal" to that boss.

We need EFCA now — and National Neutrality eventually — to make whole the promise of real equality for all men and women.

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Suzanne / September 12, 2007 10:24 AM

"The right to organize a union in your workplace is theoretically protected by law, but in practice this is hardly the case."

Yes, we all learned that the hard way at the old workplace, remember?

Great article, Ramsin. EFCA sounds like a step in the right direction, at least.

Nuke LaLoosh / September 12, 2007 12:11 PM


Could elaborate a bit on this sentence:

"There needs to be a national neutrality agreement that would punish violating human rights with rescinding of all tax benefits in perpetuity."

I'd like some details on the concept of an NNA, what you think constitutes a violation of the right to organize, etc.

Ramsin / September 12, 2007 12:37 PM

I'll answer in general terms, Nuke.

Any substantive interference with, or retaliation for, what is termed "protected activity." So for example, if the boss fires a union supporter, or restricts their freedom to talk about the union, or creates in general a hostile atmosphere, they would be found in violation of National Neutrality.

The punishment should be denial of any access to federal money or tax benefits, such as various tax breaks and credits.

The idea of National Neutrality would simply be to enforce a model of a Neutrality Agreement between labor and capital everywhere in the economy.

Just like any two parties in an economic relationship, they should be able to bargain freely. This means that those selling labor should be free to associate to bargain collectively.

Currently, employers know that this considerably weakens their bargaining ability, so they they hide behind the skirt of federal law and bureaucracy.

Here's a good example of a Neutrality Agreement:


Ramsin / September 12, 2007 12:47 PM

Oh, and before the nutjobs come on and say that Neutrality is a violation of Free Speech, the Supreme Court has already found that Free Speech does not hold if it infringes or violates the rights of others.

If a kid can't hold up a sign that says "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" then an employer can't intimidate an activist out of supporting a union.

Jacob / September 12, 2007 11:59 PM

Excellent. More needs to be written about this from the non-anti worker perspective.

Nuke LaLoosh / September 13, 2007 11:09 AM

Ramsin: Thanks so much for the follow-up! I will read the links with interest.

We can discuss the law of the First Amendment some other time -- there are major differences between the analysis in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case and the kind of labor speech you are describing -- but I understand your point.

By the way, are there any members of Congress who are on board with this sort of proposal? I know W would veto anything of this sort, but I'm curious to know if there is a labor caucus in DC that is trying to push it.

Thanks again.

John Ruberry / September 13, 2007 12:41 PM

Go Bears...

Your words:

Free to dispense justice according to their own capriciousness, a den of nepotism

Bad, very bad...

Aside from the "favoritism, nepotism and conflicts of interest" that long have been problems within the group

Who is that group? Another Chicago Teamsters local, #714.


the report raises questions about whether Local 714 leaders "allowed Teamster work to be performed by nonunion labor provided by persons with ties to organized crime."

That local was the fiefdom of the Hogan family. Yes, there gone now. But I wouldn't trust crooks like these with a "card sign up."

Here is something more recent:

The Labor Day Parade in New York City won't be held this year because of a lack of interest, a union scandal and the cost of sponsoring the march. The decision to cancel the 125-year-old parade was made by the Central Labor Council.

Ramsin / September 13, 2007 1:03 PM


You can follow the travails of EFCA here.

As for National Neutrality, that is just one of the many planks that make of the platform of Ramsin Canon's Dream Candidate for President (tm).


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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