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  • authored by Members for Democracy

The Tools of Disempowerment - Unplugged

Part 4

Pulling the Plug

We have been exploring the disempowering aspects of workplace and union culture so that we can better understand the obstacles that these create to union reform - how seemingly ordinary, well-established ways of doing things convey disempowering messages to the Power Source [our term for "rank and file members"], reinforcing oppressive ideologies and helping the Power Source internalize oppression. The examples of these tools of disempowerment are many - from standard workplace rules that restrict even the most normal of activities to invasive technology like hidden surveillance cameras, to training programs that teach obedience and subservience, the list goes on. In addition, we examined the disempowering effects layered on top of this by the cultures of undemocratic unions and the way in which these workers' representatives support and reinforce what the Power Source are taught to believe about themselves on the job.

All of this is important for union reformers to know about for a couple of reasons. Advancing workers' interests, whether in relation to workplace issues or in relation to their role within their unions requires raising awareness, organizing support, encouraging solidarity among the Power Source. It's difficult to do that, as we all know. Many reformers and activists alike lament about the perceived apathy of the members. They just don't seem to care. The frequently cited reasons - high turnover, employer-driven "empowerment" schemes, geographically dispersed membership - are a part of the problem, there's no doubt about that. But the other, and more deeply buried part, is that the Power Source in the normal daily order of things are being fed a steady diet of disempowerment from sources that all but the most militant unionists have come to accept as normal, standard, as management's rights. Several generations of he Power Source have now been internalizing oppression and that's a problem. When you internalize oppression, you come to believe what your oppressors want you to believe. Whether it's that your not very smart, that you are untrustworthy, that you deserve little, or that the things are just a certain way and there's nothing you can do about it. This becomes your reality and you conduct yourself accordingly. How can we expect the Power Source to rise up, when it's been drilled into their heads that they can't?

Getting over this hurdle may hold the key to helping the Power Source take hold of its power. So far, we've talked a lot about what's going on. Now we're going to talk about what we can do about it. There is no formula or quick fix for this problem but there is a lot that reformers can consider. Our aim is to start the discussion about that.

Knowledge is Power

The Power Source needs to understand their environment and the harmful elements it contains. Just as they need to understand those that can cause them physical harm; this, that has a disempowering effect, needs to be understood for what it is.

The roots of the solution are, we believe, to be found in the premise that Knowledge is Power. The Power Source needs to know what's going on. Why things are the way they are and how this is holding them back. Before we can expect the Power Source to get excited about union reform, we need to talk about why things are the way they are at work and stop treating the way things are as something that just is - something that is unchangeable.

Knowing about the workplace

The workplace is structured in a certain way. Workers are divided into two main groups: managerial and non-managerial are the fundamental division and there are further divisions within these two groups. A long hierarchy of groups exists, in keeping with the "worth" assigned to each one by the organization. Each group is subject to a myriad of rules and regulations, which become more onerous and restrictive the further down the hierarchy we go. If anyone ever asks "why?" the most likely answer is because "that's the way it is". But that's not a good answer. It's like this because somebody has chosen that it be this way. It's in somebody's interest that it be this way. While many workplace practices may have some practical or reasonable purposes, there is nothing in the workplace that has been mandated from some universal power and so there is nothing that can't be changed. Most workplaces in the year 2001 are structured along the lines of a 19th century factory because management thinking has not evolved much since that time - at least not when it comes to managing people. You are closely supervised because in the 18th century some management theorists concluded that workers needed to be closely supervised and controlled - not because you need one.

The Power Source need to understand this about the workplace and how this is harmful - how practices that seem normal, even trivial, send out disempowering messages. We can't necessarily change these practices or eliminate them and the rules say you have to follow the rules - but if we at least understand them, we can insulate ourselves from their disempowering effects. Raising awareness is the first step. We need to talk about the subtle messages that things like punch clocks and video cameras send us about ourselves and how we can neutralize their disempowering effects. We need to talk about things like "emotional labour", widely used in the service industry, and the number that it does on workers' self esteem. The discussion about management practices shouldn't stop with the standard line about "that's management's rights". That's where the discussion should begin - yes, those are management's rights, now - we can restrict those rights but it may take some time, so in the meanwhile let's make sure they're not messing with our heads".

Knowing the state of the union

When it comes to addressing internalized oppression that comes from undemocratic, unresponsive unions, there are a whole lot of challenges. A lot of union "practices" are wrapped in the cloth of brotherhood, goodness and light.

The Power Source needs again to understand the subtle messages that the union bureaucracy is sending through its various practices. Mergers of locals tell us that we can't be trusted to run things on our own, systemic barriers to the advancement of women, people of colour, youth and other marginalized groups within the union governing structure diminish workers' sense of worth to the same extent as discriminatory practices the workplace. Lavish salaries and perks bestowed upon union leaders tell members that they are worth-less by comparison. The failure of the union to advance issues of importance to large segments of the membership tells those members that they really don't count. The constant blabbering about "industry standards", industry norms, industry realities" tell members that they ought to accept oppression as something that is just normal, unchangeable, maybe even something they deserve.

We need to be straight up about corruption, incompetence and injustice within our unions. There is nothing to be gained by dancing around the fence on these issues or wrapping them in tired rhetoric about unity and brotherhood that nobody is buying anymore. The members know what goes on. They may not discuss it openly but they're smart enough to know that when their leaders live the lives of the rich and famous while they're struggling to make ends meet, something is not right with that. They know that when union officials are convicted of criminal offences, something is not right with that. They know that when hundreds of thousands of women are led by homogenous boys club, something is not right with that. The excuse making that is encouraged by the leadership (we're not as bad as management, we have good intentions...) is pretty transparent. Call it what it is. Glossing it over, will cause people to question your commitment to reform and leave them wondering whether you'll jump at the chance to do the same if you ever find your way into a position of power.

Understanding what's in our heads

Apart from taking a cold hard look at management and union practices, we must also look at the way in which we - the community of reformers - are going about our work. How are we reaching out, how are we communicating our message? What messages are we sending? Are we inadvertently supporting disempowering practices in the way we act and interact? We put that out as a question to the community of reformers because, despite our good intentions, we are all products of the disempowering structures we're talking about. To what extent are we influenced by those structures? Are those influences limiting us - keeping us within the old boundaries? Must unions look like the monoliths of today? Is bigger necessarily better? Do we need hierarchies? Do we need leaders in the conventional sense? We need to explore the possibility that reinventing unions may also be an option. These are broad questions some of which run over forbidden territory of mainstream unionism. They are nonetheless the kinds of questions that reformers need to be asking themselves. Evolution means breaking through barriers - including the ones we set for ourselves. Better yet, we need to be going straight to the Power Source with these questions.

Apart from the broad philosophical questions, there are other more practical issues that reformers may want to consider in terms of their ability to reach out to and connect with the Power Source. How are we going about trying to communicate, to rally support, to get people involved? Are we relying on the same old methods as the bureaucracy? Are we calling meetings that few can attend, do we prepare highly structured agendas that limit discussion? Are we expecting members to buy into a dogma or package of ideas that they are not prepared to buy? Are we asking members what they want in their unions or telling them what they should want? Is the first question: "How do we want it to be?"

We're Going There

If knowledge is power - and we believe that it is - how do we go about getting knowledge and putting out there for the benefit of the Power Source? There is truly a lot to know. In the weeks and months ahead, we are going to do our part to disseminate knowledge to the Power Source. Here is a short list of the ground we plan to cover.

The Landscape

  1. The workplace - why things are the way they are.
  2. Business - the lowdown on what it's really all about. What matters, what doesn't.
  3. Management - a function not a class, what managers really do.
  4. Unions - many different varieties, their limitations and possibilities.
  5. The system - the statutory framework, how it works, who it helps.

How to Change It

  1. Barriers to empowerment - what's holding you back.
  2. How to be power-full - getting the most out of yourself, your union and the system.
  3. Making things happen - skills that a lot of people don't want you to learn.
  4. Evolving and surviving - maneuvering around the landmines and learning as you go.
  5. The Power Source Network - building an empowered community of workers.

© 2017 Members for Democracy