In “Pro-democracy Organizing Against Autocracy in the United States,” Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks lay out the type of infrastructure and mobilizations needed to respond to an “authoritarian transition.” They rightly name the importance of the labor movement in mobilizing working people and leaders in such a crisis. In his follow up, “Hard Truths and Good Signs for Labor’s Role in Defending Democracy,” Bob Master goes into more detail on the ways the labor movement is key to fighting back against authoritarianism.
The experience of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) emphasizes the importance of the paths Master lays out. But the implementation of workplace standards boards also holds great promise for deepening democracy, not only at the workplace but across society.
While SEIU has played important parts in the fight against voter suppression and anti-democratic forces in our economy for decades, 2021 was the year that SEIU built out its first ever, formalized voting rights campaign. After experiencing in real time the ways that President Trump and MAGA politicians deliberately sabotaged our elections, SEIU’s leaders and members realized that the threats to our democracy were only going to intensify and that SEIU and the labor movement as a whole would need to have a more expansive role in the voting rights space in order to defeat authoritarianism.
For SEIU, this meant developing a voting rights muscle within the institution by engaging our members on voting rights, working with key partners on the connection between corporate greed and democracy, deepening our engagement in the national and state election crisis spaces, and building out election protection apparatus within SEIU in every state where we thought a threat was possible.
What we learned is that there are incredible organizations leading the charge against voter suppression but that they cannot do it alone. There is much work to do. We must develop a more sustained pro-democracy infrastructure that doesn’t depend on stridently racist and extremist opponents to make the case for a well-resourced, accessible election system. We must make a stronger connection between corporate greed and the gradual weakening of our democracy. All of these forces were here before Trump; just ask unions, who have been the focus of a steady assault on our democratic institutions by corporations for the last half-century.
How corporate power erodes democracy
Corporations currently have outsized control over our government, which means that ordinary people’s impact on our government continues to be greatly marginalized. Over time, the public’s low trust in our government may be linked to the government’s inability to deliver the types of policies that will improve the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. This lack of trust certainly makes the electorate more susceptible to the lies of authoritarian figures who can claim a unique ability to deliver change.
One of the greatest preventative measures we can take against authoritarianism over the long run is to rebuild the public’s trust in our government and in our ability to have a say in that government. One important way to do that is to deepen democracy in the workplace. This means more unions. But it also means integrating working people into our state and economic systems so that we are not solely dependent on political actors, elected officials, or a misplaced faith in corporate altruism.
Corporations have thrived in authoritarian states; they will not save us. And even in the face of America’s most recent brush with an authoritarian takeover on January 6, 2021, many corporations who pledged not to support election deniers began contributing to those same politicians just a year later. And now we have over 200 election deniers in the halls of Congress, in governors’ mansions, as attorneys general and secretaries of state.
One of the major lessons of the last half-decade has been how unready our institutions and leaders are to combat an authoritarian takeover. This is, in part, because much of our democracy has long been under the heavy influence of corporations. Practically speaking this means that real reforms that would help working people but limit the power of corporations have been stifled over the last half century. Increased corporate power has meant fewer policies that help working people. This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy: The government fails working people, so working people have begun to expect less out of their governments. Many people feel disenchanted with the ways that the government can help them improve their lives. A government so disconnected from the populace will more easily fall prey to authoritarianism.
While Chenoweth and Marks properly recognize the essential role of unions and worker mobilization in the fight against authoritarianism, it is mostly in response to authoritarian aggression. This makes sense in the scenario where there is an attempt to take over our government right now–our resistance will have to work with what we’ve got. However, there is time to fortify the resistance, to further root our institutions in worker power so that they are harder to take over.
Workplace standards boards can bring workers’ voices into the public square
There is one critical way we can begin this work of democracy-deepening in the workplace right away: workplace standards boards. Workplace standards boards are a way for workers, government, and employers to come together and set standards for workers across an entire sector. This would ensure that workers at one chain have the same working conditions and benefits as other chains. Workplace standards boards are a real-life example of workers sitting as equals with corporations and government to create better working conditions in their industry. In other words, their participation in our government will create a direct positive impact on their lives. There is no better way to improve faith in our government and make it less susceptible to authoritarian takeover.
In addition to fair pay and benefits, workplace standards boards “create a forum for workers and employers to discuss a range of industry issues.” While labor unions are more popular than they’ve been since 1965, with over 71% of Americans approving of unions, they currently only represent around 11% of the workforce. American corporations are behind the times, and we need them to catch up if we are going to create a stronger economy in the best interests of working people.
Here’s why this matters for our democracy. For much of our history, corporations have lobbied, union-busted, and debased their own workforces in the name of profits. In fact, they’ve done this by weakening the institutions that monitor workforce conditions, like the NLRB, and weakening the institutions that provide oversight of the market, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Every year citizens turn out to vote with the hope of electing politicians who will make their lives better, and behind the scenes corporations have been acting to ensure that they are exempt from those electoral outcomes.
Now imagine a fascist, funded by billionaires and corporations, takes over our government institutions–in addition to the other crises this will create, how will we protect workers from seven day work weeks, from forcing children out of schools and into factories, or reducing an already inhumane minimum wage? This is not beyond the realm of possibility: we are seeing in real time the weakening of child labor laws across the country as part of a corporate plan to roll back labor protections for workers.
Our nation works at its best when corporations are held in check. So we must create a government that protects against corporate blindspots and greed. If we do this, we can rebuild trust in our government. One of the most powerful ways to do that is by giving workers a voice on the job, a way they can sit at the table with corporate executives and engage in real dialogue as equals, and yes, hold them in check.
The good news is it’s already being done in some states. Governor Newsom just signed a bill to create a Fast Food Sector Council for fast food workers in California. With fast food workers at the table, workers won’t have to depend solely on fast food executives to create better working conditions that they’ve neglected to do for decades.
(As has long been the case, corporate interests are not just standing idly by while their influence is being redirected into the hands of working people and voters. In California, fast food companies are exploiting the state’s referendum process to overturn the Fast Food Sector Council bill. In response, labor and progressive allies are pushing lawmakers to pass a referendum reform bill that would put limits on use of paid signatures and make the wording more clear for voters.)
Defend democracy by making it work better
If we are to save our democracy, we must increase the influence of everyday people, of the workers who make corporations run. In the absence of those voices–of worker power–corporate actors will work in the interest of profits. Worker power is the only counterbalance to corporate power.
As Master writes, “The existence of pro-democracy state governments in places like New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington must become a powerful resource for the movement.” In California, we have an opportunity to implement one of the most powerful answers to corporate overreach and a weakened state: workplace standards boards. Imagine if workers were able to sit at the table and create the conditions for a vibrant workplace and in the process restore workers’ belief in the positive role of government (and employers) in their lives. We can destroy authoritarianism by simply giving it fewer places to take root.
With workplace standards boards we can fundamentally change the way our markets and government interact, so that working people get a say. If we can do that, we’ll deepen democracy and create sturdier foundations that are harder to knock over.