How an Office Can Be a Lot Like an Authoritarian Regime

July 21st 2017

We live in a democracy, don't we? Many think so, the Electoral College aside, but where we spend much of our life—the office—is one of the least democratic places around. 

In an article for Vox, University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Andersen argues that workplaces are like "small tyrannies" and that bosses act like "dictators." She says  certain workplace policies are made to control employees and keep the power at the top of the hierarchy, with employees having no say in most company decisions. 

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has been saying this for years. He founded a nonprofit organization called Democracy at Work in 2012 that aims to make workplaces more democratic. He wants to see employees having input on the major decisions a company makes, including internal policies that are currently drafted by those on the top but which affect everyone below.

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"The history of capitalism for 300 years has been the history of workers, either individually or in groups... trying to limit the nearly total power that an employer has in the capitalist system," Wolff told ATTN:. He said employers enjoy "autocratic" power over their employees, who depend on a salary to survive but can be fired pretty much at any point based on their employer's whims.

"If you believe in democracy, which we make a lot of noise over in this country, then if you are affected by a decision, then you ipso facto have the right to participate in making that decision," Wolff said. He added that, since most people are not allowed that right, they are essentially leaving democracy at home when they go to work. 

There are many draconian corporate policies that are unfair to workers. These are among the worst:

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1. Tyson workers denied bathroom access

Tyson Foods, the world's second largest seller of beef, chicken, and pork, apparently didn't want its workers to use the bathroom. That's according to an Oxfam America report from last year, which found poultry workers were consistently being denied the ability to do just that, leading some workers to wear diapers. Almost a year after the report came out, Tyson announced plans to address the problem. 

"We value our employees–we call them team members and have a Team Member Bill of Rights that recognizes their right to adequate break time," Gary Mickelson, senior director of public relations at Tyson Foods, told ATTN:. "We have regular work breaks and also allow workers to leave the line if they need to use the restroom. We do not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the restroom."

But Tyson isn't the only place accused of such practices. Wells Fargo employees claimed in 2016 that they are often denied bathroom breaks while at work, too.

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2. Amazon says keep your mouth shut

It's been reported that Amazon not only makes employees spend over 20 unpaid minutes a day going through metal detectors at its warehouse, but also prevents the from socializing while they're there. It is believed in the company that socializing is equivalent to stealing time from the company. It's also been reported Amazon warehouses have scoreboards for workers, which are meant to shame those who are receiving lower scores.

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3. Disney wants to control your appearance

Disney has a long list of requirements for the appearance of employees who work in its parks. Workers cannot have visible tattoos or body piercings (other than a "traditional" ear piercing for women). Certain types of facial hair are banned, as are certain hairstyles (including one that just looks like medium length hair for a black man). There's a lot more, including a detailed explanation of how hygienic employees must be, but that's some of it. 

Disney actually faced a lawsuit in 2015 because, while it has exemptions for people who have a certain appearance for religious reasons, it was claimed those employees were intentionally "hidden" from public view.

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4. Around half of U.S. companies drug test

A survey that was published in The American Journal of Addictions in 2013 found roughly half of U.S. employers drug test. As ATTN: has reported, drug testing doesn't improve workplace safety. And why is it okay to test someone for something they're likely doing when they're off the clock, like smoking a joint?

A large trucking company had to pay $260,000 to four Sikh drivers in 2006 who claimed participating in a drug test would have violated their religious beliefs. That's because part of the drug test required cutting off some hair, and for the urine test they were asked to remove their turbans. Both of those things are against their religion.

Around 50 million people are drug tested annually in the United States, so that's a lot of people having their privacy invaded for little reason. Even many unions, which tend to give workers more individual rights, require drug tests.

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5. Walmart punishes and sometimes fires sick people

As ATTN: reported last month, a report from a workers' advocacy organization called A Better Balance found Walmart regularly gives employees "points" for missing work due to an illness. Once someone gets enough "points," they get fired. This has caused many who have long-term medical issues, sick family members or debilitating mental issues to lose their jobs, even though there was little they could do to avoid missing work.

Blake Jackson, a spokesman for Walmart, told ATTN: he couldn't adequately respond to the report since it's based on anonymous sources. "Like any company, we have an attendance policy that helps ensure our customers are being taken care of and that our associates are protected from regularly having to cover other’s work duties," Jackson said. "We understand associates may have to miss work on occasion and we have processes in place to assist them."

Similarly, a group of Jimmy John's workers was fired in 2011 for protesting the fact their employer didn't offer sick days and that employees were having to go to work—to make sandwiches—while ill.