Capitalism and bullying

The oligarchy in the US, aided by the politicians they buy, have been waging a relentless war against worker unions. Workers who lack the collective protection of a union are highly exposed to abusive practices by employers and managers. An excerpt from a new book Bully Nation by Charles Derber and Yale R. Magrass makes the case that the bullying of vulnerable workers who try to unionize or otherwise improve their working conditions is a consequence of the inequalities generated by unchecked capitalism.

On October 1, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Burger King franchise in Ferndale, Michigan, near Detroit, had bullied a part-time worker, Claudette Wilson, by sending her home two hours early for not positioning pickles correctly on her burgers. As Judge Arthur J. Anchan put it, the company illegally sent Wilson home for failing to “put pickles on her sandwiches in perfect squares.”

Such absurd but intimidating and humiliating bullying of a very low-paid worker was retaliation aimed at intimidating Wilson from continuing her efforts to organize low-wage Burger King workers. A few days earlier, she had stopped at the store to ask workers coming off their shifts to fill out a questionnaire about their wages. A manager had written her up for violating the store’s “loitering and solicitation” policy, something that Judge Anchan also said was “protected activity” and thus illegal. Wilson said she had not done the pickles quite perfectly because of her anger about the earlier unfair treatment.

The story gets bigger because Wilson was one of several workers, including Romell Frazier, who were members of a group called D15, part of the Fast Food Forward Network trying to unionize Michigan Burger Kings. Wilson’s “pickle problem” was really part of a larger and more serious pickle faced by the workers. The Michigan Burger King franchisee was systematically going after workers who were part of D15 and threatening them with sanctions, including firing.

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

Put simply, inequality in wealth and power is baked into capitalist systems, and it is fundamental to structural and institutional bullying. But why does this inequality lead capitalists to bully workers and the poor—and also other groups, such as consumers, and even other capitalists? The answer has less to do with the psychology of executives than with the structure of the capitalist marketplace.

Capitalism is a ruthlessly competitive system in which all capitalists— whether corporations or individual entrepreneurs—have no choice but to compete furiously. Karl Marx argued that capitalists who do not compete with the ferocity of sharks, going for the kill, will be destroyed by rivals who are committed to the economic battlefield and to winning at all costs. This is an economic version of militarism, and it also mirrors the ethic of the schoolyard bully—dominate or die.

It is only collective action via unions that can protect individual workers from this kind of retaliation.


  1. says

    There was once a time when I was anti-union (silly me thought that we now have laws to protect workers so why do we need unions), but that has long since changed. Unions are as necessary now as they have ever been.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ever since the inglory days of Bush & Cheney, I have thought a similar dynamic underlies the use of torture.

  3. jcsscj says

    If you are a true capitalist who is in favor of allowing everybody to maximize his/her personal profit, you should view unions as an essential element of a capitalist economy. Denying people their right to maximize their profit via unions is anti-capitalist behavior.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler
    Also, the US Army, the threat of economic embargoes, political agitators and CIA thugs bullying developing nations into complying with american interests.

  5. says

    I suspect those capitalists would want police to come protect them from workers who wanted to shove those pickles up their noses, huh? Then they’d be happy they paid off the police union thugs to be on the right side, huh?

    Oligarchy is such a simple and fun game, isn’t it? If I had a $1b I’d pay the cops in NYC $750 to kill and eat the rich. And they’d do it, too. That’d leave me $200 million to buy the media, an election and a bunch of nude selfies of everyone. It’d be the “motherfucka!” party. Let’s go. Oligarchy this, motherfucka!

  6. Holms says

    A cursory glance at the working conditions that existed before worker protection laws came about is all that is needed to demonstrate that unions, and the protections they bargain for, are absolutely necessary.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ Tabby Lavalamp

    silly me thought that we now have laws to protect workers so why do we need unions)

    Exactly. Either when not a union member or when I was a union member I remembered that the reason I had things like paid holidays, health & safety laws, decent recourse in the courts for labour disputes, and so on was because of earlier union work and if we lost our unions a lot of that would start melting away.

    Wisconsin anyone?

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