• authored by Members for Democracy

The Tools of Disempowerment - Unplugged

Part 3

A Double-Triple-Mega Dose of Disempowerment

We have been speaking generally about the need to look at unhealthy organizational cultures for some of the more deeply rooted and hidden obstacles to union reform. Those elements within workplace culture that make us feel power-less and thereby less likely to stand up to the power-full, whether they be our employers or the bureaucracy within our unions. Our aim in looking at sick org cultures is to raise awareness about how our work environment is hurting us so that we can take steps to neutralize the effects or to shield ourselves from it. The self-esteem, self-confidence and commitment that is needed to take on arrogant power structures can then evolve.

Sick workplace cultures are harmful to workers in that they:

Reinforce beliefs about the worth-lessness of a group in multiple, ongoing and sometimes very subtle ways.

Group members come to internalize and accept the subtle and continuous messages about their worth-lessness. Over time, they may become persuaded that this is the way it should be, that it is the normal order of things, that their lowly status is their own fault and that they don't deserve any better (if only they were smarter or more hardworking or more ambitious, they could belong to the dominant group).

Overall, there is a disempowering effect - where does your impetus to rebel against oppression come from when your sense of self worth, self confidence is shattered by an ongoing bombardment of messages that you're not good enough?

Worth-less because of what we do

In our previous article we looked at the way in which the workplace is organized and how this, in itself, is a source of disempowerment for workers - how the multitude of employer rules, policies, practices to which workers are subject can make us feel small and powerless and rob us of our self-esteem. We talked about how the constant flow of messages we receive at work (from workplace practices that we are taught to believe are "normal" and beyond our right to question) tell us that we aren't smart enough, trustworthy enough, skilled enough to do much of anything on our own initiative. We must be watched, measured, clocked and scripted. The workplace is filled with tools - from the familiar old punch clock to the high tech surveillance camera - that contribute to our sense of powerlessness.

...and who we are

On top of this disempowering layer (being devalued because you are a worker) there are others - those that disparage and diminish our worth based on who we are - our race, gender, age, ethnic background and so on. Progress towards addressing discriminatory practices in the workplace has been made over the past couple of decades. Legislation protecting human rights and promoting equity in the workplace has helped put a lid on some of the more obvious unhealthy practices, but the more insidious forms of discrimination live on and manifest themselves in various ways. Take a look around your workplace. What is the level of representation of women, people of colour, older and younger workers? Is it representative of the surrounding community? Are people of certain groups clustered in certain occupations, or within certain pay levels? Does advancement, opportunity for promotion or for training opportunities seem open only to certain groups and not to others? Progress has been made, yes, but for many workers, there's still a long way to go.

For purposes of this brief article, we will focus on one aspect of sick workplace culture that is of high significance for reformers in the service industry. Sexism is particularly relevant given the large numbers of women who are employed in the service industry and the large numbers of women in service industry unions (within the UFCW, over 50% of its 1.4 million members are women. That's about 700,000 members.) Over the past few months, I've heard reformers lament about their inability to get women involved in the reform movement and that's something to lament about for sure. If over 50% of your membership is sidelined - for whatever reason - you're not going to get far.

Is sexism prevalent in the culture of employers in the service industry? Well, the people who work in the industry can probably tell us. These are some general criteria that have been used by affirmative action advocates and government agencies to get a sense of the extent to which a workplace is home to systemic discrimination based on gender.

  1. How does the proportion of women workers compare to the number of women in the workforce in the geographic area where the business is located?
  2. What is the proportion of women in managerial jobs (jobs with authority to make decisions that effect the organization)?
  3. Is there a gender-based division of labour (do women tend to be clustered in certain occupations)? Are these occupations that have historically been regarded as "women's work" jobs?
  4. If "women's jobs" exist within the organization, how do these compare with other positions in terms of pay, rank and status?
  5. Are women in these occupations treated in ways that suggests they are "lesser" workers, not worthy of the same degree of respect that is shown to others?
  6. Is advancement/progression from these occupations difficult? Are there barriers to advancement that effect women in particular?
  7. Are women workers subject to offensive or demeaning behavior from other staff that is generally tolerated by management?
  8. If gender-based inequity exists within the workplace, what tangible steps have been taken to address this? (By tangible I'm talking about specific actions that are designed to generate a specific result - not pie in the sky.)

A "yes" to some of these questions suggests that sexism is a part of the workplace culture within which various tools of disempowerment are wielded daily to maintain the status quo. The division of labour, clustering of women workers in low paying low status jobs, lack of advancement opportunities, status-reducing "mandatory cheerfulness" programs (discussed in Part 2) are all tools of disempowerment. In addition to being devalued just because they are workers, sexism in workplace culture provides women workers with a double dose of disempowerment. Every time they report for work, they are reminded of their lower status and relative powerlessness - in stereo. Being devalued on the basis of whom and what you are is terribly demoralizing.

Unions are not immune from it either

If that's demoralizing, what is the effect likely to be if the same sick sexist culture that exists in the workplace, is replicated in the union? Although the sexism in unions is not a welcome subject for discussion among the mainstream, it exists and has existed for about as long as there have been unions (see Women Challenging Unions: Feminism, Democracy and Militancy, Linda Briskin and Patricia McDermott, eds. for a fuller picture). If we go back in time just a little we'll find that not all that long ago, unions were as steeped in sexism as businesses were. This online study will give you a sense of how deep it went.

Although it may be tempting to dismiss all this as something that happened "way back when", let's not forget that it was during that time (the 1950's and 60's) that many of today's union leaders or recently retired union leaders, were making their way up the ladder. This was the culture in which they grew up. Did they bring any of it with them when they assumed leadership positions? We can get a sense of that by looking at the same kind of criteria as are applied when scanning for systemic discrimination in the workplace:

  1. What is the proportion of women in the union's membership?
  2. What is the proportion of women in positions of leadership, influence and authority within the union? How many women are local presidents, national and international executives, business agents, chairs of committees that have the ability to make decisions on policy, resource allocation and other important aspects of the union's existence?
  3. If there is a gap between the percentage of women in the total membership and the percentage in positions of leadership and authority, what is being done to address that gap? (Are there action plans with tangible steps, goals and timelines - or "motherhood" statements about good intentions?).
  4. What opportunities are there for women to progress into positions of leadership and/or authority?
  5. Are opportunities to stand for election for union office becoming more available or are they fewer and farther between?
  6. Do hiring practices for staff positions ensure fairness and equality of opportunity?
  7. Do the union's employment practices discriminate against women in direct or indirect ways?
  8. Has the union engaged in bargaining strategies that have had a disadvantageous effect on women members?
  9. What efforts have been made at addressing issues that are of specific concern to women members?
  10. Are women subject to behaviors that are demeaning or which reinforce feelings of worth-lessness?

Whatever a union's good intentions may be when it comes to fighting discrimination in the workplace, a "yes" to almost any of these questions would indicate that sexism is rooted in it's own culture. The large service industry unions are particularly cause for concern on this front. In the case of the UFCW, only about 12% of local presidents are women (based on information taken from although women make up over 50% of the total membership. Why is that? It's quite inconceivable that out of 700,000 women members, none but a handful have any interest in becoming a local president. More likely, the same barriers to participation exist within the union as exist within a business where a boys club almost exclusively holds positions of authority and influence. The trend towards merging locals and the filling of executive positions through appointment rather than election, further shrinks the number of available positions to which members can aspire. Barriers to participation and organizational practices that limit the opportunities to participate are systemic problems - whether in the union or the corporation. And what about the union's bargaining strategies and outcomes and the effect of these on its female membership? This 1998 study of the effects of concession bargaining on women workers in the retail food business, speaks volumes.

A sexist union culture means that a similar set of disempowerment tools is doing a job on women workers - lack of access to leadership positions, bargaining strategies that diminish rather than enhance workers' rights and entitlements, employment practices that sideline the majority of the group are all examples of these d-tools. When taken together with a disempowering culture in the workplace, the net effect is that a large portion of the membership is receiving signals from two large institutions that are demoralizing and demotivating.

So what happens when the same kind of sick culture that exists in the workplace, exists within the union as well? Well, it can't make things any better. Does it make things worse? There has got to be an impact. If it's demoralizing to be devalued by your employer (the corporation makes no bones about wanting to exploit you), what is the impact of being devalued by the organization that is supposed to represent you: not only is the disempowering effect magnified but there is something a lot more harmful and debilitating at work as well. The relationship that the member has with her union is quite different from the one she has with the employer. The worker-employer relationship is one based on an economic exchange (your labour for X dollars per hour). It's exploitive but it's pretty straightforward. The relationship between the member and her union is much different. On the surface it may appear like another economic exchange (representation in exchange for X dollars per month) it doesn't really work that way.

The union presents itself to the member not only as representative, but also as protector and defender of her interests. It demands her unswerving, unquestioning loyalty. It brings with it a belief system and a code of expected behavior. Through its relationship with the employer, it has the power to affect her economic circumstances for better or for worse. She is small and the union is big and mighty; so is the employer.

When the very organization that is supposed to care about you and protect you, treats you like you're worth-less, what does that do to your head? I'm not sure but my sense is that the same phenomenon that occurs in unhealthy, abusive personal relationships may be at work here. Why do many women have difficulty leaving abusive relationships? The reasons are complex but because they like it that way isn't one of them. Think about it.

Omni-directional disempowerment

The effects become more harmful and debilitating still when we consider that there can be other sick elements in organizational culture apart from sexism. There is racism, ageism, various ethnic stereotypes, and classism (something we don't hear much about but which is very evident in business and business union culture). Each of these are harmful in their own right and create an even more complex scheme of disempowerment when layered over others. To put it simply, when the employer and the union share a sick culture, the disempowering effect can be profound.

Is it any wonder then, that it's difficult to rally the members? When all around you, you are receiving signals that you're not up to a fight, who is going to bother? Union reformers need to stop lamenting about the apathy of the membership and get underneath the layers of disempowering ideologies and practices in the workplace and yes, in the union as well. That's the logical starting point.

But if the barriers to active member involvement are this deeply buried in corporate and union culture, how can we go about removing them or shielding ourselves form them. In our next segment, we'll discuss some options for moving ahead. We'll talk in more depth about the tools and - most importantly - how we can unplug them.

Part 4

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