Recent events in Wisconsin have highlighted the necessity of collective bargaining. The governor of Wisconsin notwithstanding, collective bargaining is recognized internationally in numerous conventions, constitutions, and courts as a human right.
Our Constitution addresses the right of collective bargaining. The Thirteenth Amendment provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The thirteenth amendment appears to address only the issue of slavery. However, according to the Supreme Court in 1911, the purpose of the thirteenth amendment was not simply to eliminate slavery, but “. . . to make labor free by prohibiting that control by which the personal service of one man is disposed of or coerced for another’s benefit.” This argument was advanced by labor leaders in the 1920s. They asserted that the rights to organize, strike, and boycott were the logical application of the constitution to the stage of economic development of the time. As the industrial economy developed to a massive scale, the individual employee had no tangible power against the industrial behemoths of the day.
The Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 was the primary national statute that declared the right of collective bargaining:
Whereas, under prevailing economic conditions, developed with the aid of governmental authority for owners of property to organize in the corporate and other forms of ownership association, the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract and to protect his freedom of labor, and thereby to obtain acceptable terms and conditions of employment.
Collective bargaining was an integral component of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. Prior to the law, employers could literally spy upon union members, interrogate, punish, blacklist, and terminate them without just cause. The Act clearly asserts the rights of collective bargaining in Section 7:
Employees shall have the right to self-organization; to form, join, or assist labor organizations; to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing; and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.
This language was affirmed by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which identified the right to organize trade unions again as a fundamental human right.
Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Corporate power is strangling the natural American impulse of political democracy. Collective bargaining is an extant mechanism that ensures at least a modicum of fairness for employees.
Corporate billionaires pay swarms of lobbyists to influence legislators. Union contributions cannot compete with such expenditures. Corporations transfer gobs of cash to legislators as the Koch brothers billionaire club did for the governor of Wisconsin. They finance reactionary think tanks that churn out staggering amounts of false data on issues affecting middle- and low-income people. Individual employees are simply no match for such corporate power and avarice. Unions serve to democratically balance that asymmetrical relationship as a “countervailing power,” as coined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
Our history is replete with patterns of employer abuse absent a union with the collective bargaining instrument. Employees were routinely underpaid, overworked, and dismissed unjustly at the caprices of employers. Employees and their families’ lives were arbitrarily disrupted and sent into financial and personal chaos. This issue crystallizes our national justification to provide a serious voice for working people and their families who perform the work in our cities and towns.
Federal, state, and local governments are very large employers. Like corporations, they wield an enormous amount of economic power over their employees. Moreover, public sector union employees are subjected to the same work issues as private sector employees. It is hypocritical to deny them the same protections that private union employees enjoy. These include protections against work bullying, harassment, and unequal treatment, to say nothing of the right to negotiate wages and salaries.
The private sector has suffered layoffs, pay cuts, and diminished work hours. The public sector has experienced the same deprivations. The difference is that when local and municipality services are cut, residents are puzzled and then outraged as they should be.
When city or town offices are cut, they should be outraged. When libraries and community centers are closed, they should be outraged. When bridges, roads, buildings are decrepit or crumbling, they should be outraged. When their trash is not collected they should be outraged. When nursing homes, veterans’ homes, or elder care services are cut back or eliminated, they should be outraged. When hospital emergency rooms and ambulance services hours are reduced, they should be outraged. When schools close and students are jammed into inadequate space with deficient learning materials, they should be outraged. When public school bus service declines and school crossing guards cannot protect their children, they should be outraged. When tuitions increase beyond the reach of most working people, they should be outraged. When fire departments and police departments are cut, threatening public safety, they should be outraged. When public transportation service is reduced or fares are raised exorbitantly, they should be outraged. When eating establishments fail to meet sanitary or food quality standards, they should be outraged. When tap water arrives at their homes with strange hues or bacteria, they should be outraged. When their rivers become dumping grounds for municipal, industrial, commercial, and medical waste, they should be outraged. When parks and recreation areas are hazardous to the public and become trash heaps, they should be outraged. When sewers become clogged and spill over into their streets and yards, they should be outraged.
The nexus between public sector union services and private sector quality of life is demonstrably important. An attack on public sector employees threatens the basic services of towns and cities that many have taken for granted.
The standards that defined American job conditions and facilitated the growth of the middle class and benefitted the working class emanated from collective bargaining. These included the 40-hour workweek, the weekend, vacation time, employer-supported health insurance, pensions, family, and medical leave, and basic safety and health protections.
Work environment is also an important issue. The union contract can prevent splenetic supervisors from unfairly unleashing their wrath on employees.
When unions improve the work conditions of their members, there is a concentric effect that can benefit all working people. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute released a report in August 2003 concluding that unions have contributed to employment standards and practices adopted throughout the nation. Pay and working conditions are often improved for the entire workforce.
Moreover, unions have contributed to legislation and standards that benefit all working people such as the Occupational and Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993.
The historical record substantiates that when unions are strong, wages and salaries increase for all. Health care coverage improves and pensions are strengthened. When private and public unions are weak, the quality of life for our families and communities is jeopardized.
Finally, there is no correlation between states that have collective bargaining rights and states burdened with large deficits. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in January this year and the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities this February confirmed this. States that deny employees bargaining rights such as Nevada, North Carolina, and Arizona have huge deficits of over 30 percent. Others states that possess bargaining rights such as Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Montana have smaller deficits of less than 10 percent.
State budget deficits are not the product of collective bargaining, but largely reflect the disastrous impact of our latest recession. The test for states is to provide essential services to cities and towns with equitable budget and tax policies not geared to breaking the backs and spirits of middle- and low-income folks.
Unions are demonstrably imperfect entities. However, without collective bargaining rights, the game is flagrantly rigged for corporations and governmental bureaucrats. Collective bargaining is the sine qua non for labor unions. It is an instrument to ensure economic democracy. Our cherished institution of political democracy requires an authentic economic democracy to achieve the aspirations of all working people.
Bruce T. Boccardy is the President of SEIU Local 888 in Massachusetts.