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Talking Union

Joe Hill union labor activism co-ops workplace organizing democracy

The fundamental truth of all human history is our striving towards ever greater freedom, prosperity, and justice. In the history of our own country, this is embodied by everything from John Brown’s attempted slave uprising in 1859, to the national protests that occurred during the Occupy movement to today, where a nationwide unionization movement is gaining momentum. But why unionize? What is the point? Simply put, to unionize is to push for economic democracy, to assert our voices as working people and to gain control over our lives.

Then, what is economic democracy? We have all heard of political democracy, as that is what we would call the institutions upon which this country is founded. A democratic policy is one in which the polis, or people, are heavily involved within the affairs by which their society is governed. Similarly, a democratic economy is one in which the workers, those who create a product through their labor, are heavily involved in the governing of their work. Just as our republic is organized into a body of representatives, our workplace can be democratized so that we may better determine the conditions of our labor.

Well, you might say, this whole “democratically organized workplace” thing seems nice, but is there any evidence that it actually works? In fact, there are many successful examples of this alternative method of organization. For instance, you may have seen terms such as “employee run” or “co-op” given to certain forms of enterprise. Mondragon corporation in Spain, for instance, is a large worker cooperative which manages to compete well with more traditionally run businesses while also providing to the workers who run a far greater compensation for their labor. Or take a more local example in the Hoedads Reforestation Cooperative, a Eugene based collective formed with the goal of reforesting clearcut areas, advocating for environmentalism and feminism, and experimenting with alternative economic structures. While the HRC is now dissolved, for a time they were the largest worker-run cooperative in the United States. These are examples of workplace democracy in action, proving that such an idea is not a pipe dream, but something that was pursued successfully in this very town! A workplace democracy entails that the dictatorship of the bosses and shareholders is replaced by a bottom-up structure of organization, where the people who (I daresay) actually do the work are the ones who determine what they are working towards. This may seem like a daunting task, one which would necessitate the overturning of our whole societal structure to even begin to realize. As shown by Mondragon and the HRC, this is actually not such an impossible task. We needn’t think of pulling down the whole structure right here and now, but merely of planting the seeds for what will come after. Through cracks in the pavement grass will grow.

How is that relevant to our situation here, at the University of Oregon? There has been an ever-growing call among the student workers of University Housing to unite and establish for themselves a union. This aspiring organization of student workers, calling themselves the UO Student Workers, have already put forward their grievances in a post on Instagram: that it fails to pay them a liveable wage; it fails to pay what little it does on a frequent enough interval; it charges them for meals which they once received for free, and insufficient training for new hires, in addition to many others. Their solution to these issues is to unite into a collective body which has the bargaining power to speak on even terms with the company. In essence, they are choosing to contest the undemocratic rule of the bosses with the democratic power of the workers.

Workplace democracy is therefore a logical extension of unionization. The two are simply different places on the same path. The creation of workplace democracy solidifies any achievements made by the union at the bargaining table and opens the path for more radical changes, such as worker self-management and a more equitable distribution of profits made by the business. The workplace becomes more than a place where people trade hours of their lives in return for the money they need to survive. It becomes a forum for individuals to contribute something to their community and to their fellow workers.

For student workers, this is an especially important point. Workplace democracy ceases to be a mere theoretical possibility. It becomes a reality which they have experienced, a tangible system that they can advocate for in the undemocratic workplaces they move to. College students have been the locus of many-a-great societal change in the past, and they have the opportunity here to do so again. Rather than the workplace being a source of exhaustion and depletion, the workplace can serve as an infusion of radical vitality, ensuring that a good portion of the campus’s students remain politically active and driven. They could even potentially serve as the basis for a more democratic form of university governance.

However, these ambitions cannot cloud the realities of present action. The most pertinent goals of a student union at the University of Oregon must first and foremost be to better the conditions of the student workers: the improvement of wages, an extension of allowed working hours for those who need it, adequate training for new hirees, a shorter pay period, and tuition reductions for workers are all vital demands which must be addressed. Only once student workers know that their physical situation is secure can they be mobilized to greater and more ambitious projects.

Throughout history, college students have served as the catalyst for radical change in their societies. Politically active and yet still unburdened by too many of the immediate concerns of life, they are critical for any radical movement’s success. This is doubly true for student workers, as they must make their voices not just heard on campus, but in their workplaces as well. With the crippling worker shortage affecting University Housing, they are more dependent than ever on the few students they have managed to hire on. This provides a golden opportunity for us to assert our rights, to remind them who makes the meals, manages the paperwork, and really does the work around here. Without us, this whole structure collapses. If we all left work tomorrow, the University would grind to a halt!

So let us unionize, and take steps towards democratizing our university! Unionize, to better share the fruits of our labor! Unionize, for prosperity today and democracy tomorrow! Let our rallying cry be “All for one, one for all! United we stand, divided we fall!”

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