In Support of Unions and their Rights
Open warfare between capital and labor is hardly a new phenomenon. But in this age of intense political correctness and unceasing public scrutiny, rarely do representatives of government openly attack the fundamental rights of labor. And yet, this is the current state of affairs in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.
In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed a bill that would prohibit collective bargaining by public workers on issues other than wages, require unions to vote yearly on their continued existence, and increase workers’ contributions to pensions and benefits. Wisconsin’s Democrat representatives have left the state to withhold a quorum and prevent the bill’s passage. Popular protests have been raging in and around the Capitol in Madison since mid-February.
In Indiana, several measures are on the table that would cripple organized labor, including a bill prohibiting mandatory union membership as a prerequisite for employment in the private sector. All but three Democrats have left the state, as in Wisconsin.
A bill introduced in Ohio would end collective bargaining for state workers and allow the state to hire those willing to cross the picket line during a strike. A revision in the works would allow collective bargaining for wages only but ban strikes.
There is no question that the unions are losing popularity in the United States. Advocates for education reform, along with the film Waiting for Superman, have absolutely thrashed the teachers’ unions for their irresponsibility and recalcitrance, supposedly contributing to the failure of our public education system, according to critics. Unions are rarely mentioned when everything goes smoothly; it is when the transit workers go on strike and shut down public transportation, or when the sanitation workers strike and the trash piles up, or when the nurses strike and hospitals are left understaffed and patients unattended, that we hear about the unions.
Many Americans think of the unions as voting blocs or as inconveniences. We forget (or are not old enough to remember) the generations-long battles for fair wages, hours, benefits, &c. that have raised Americans’ standard of living so high that we have forgotten just how low it would be without the unions. We forget the protections against arbitrary or politically motivated firings and vindictive measures against workers and their rights. And perhaps most important, we forget that in our capitalist system the bottom line is everything, and that capital will always attempt to exploit labor to the greatest extent it can. The unions are the vital bulwark against this one-sided exploitation.
Let us leave aside for the time being the fact that it was reckless spending that got these states into financial trouble in the first place, mistakes for which they are now trying to put the burden on public employees. Let us leave aside that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker discussed his strategy to defeat the public employee unions during a twenty-minute phone call with a journalist pretending to be conservative billionaire David Koch, revealing that government may be less siding against labor and more thoroughly in bed with capital.
If states truly need to raise money quickly, and refuse to raise taxes, and refuse to cut spending in other areas, there are several acceptable options to take in dealing with the unions. They can negotiate to lower wages. They can negotiate to lay off workers. They can renegotiate contracts. The unions, in turn, can make their own bargaining priorities, taking economic realities into account. And if the members of the unions do not believe the newly negotiated conditions to be appropriate, they can strike, if the law permits. The current situation in the Midwest is not a case of the unions’ driving employers out of business with ridiculous demands (which, though stubborn and mutually destructive, is also permissible short-term stance for labor to take), but rather a case of states trying to balance their budgets by throwing their own employees under the bus, and not by negotiating economic concessions in good faith by collective bargaining, but by restricting unions’ rights. It is one thing to renegotiate terms; it is another entirely to strip away fundamental negotiating rights by eliminating collective bargaining. The desire to eliminate collective bargaining shows, above all, the states’ total disregard for their own employees, and may set the stage for completely arbitrary government action based on political views or considerations, or simply to fill budget shortfalls.
Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana are not the only ones renegotiating contracts with their employees: Harvard University’s food service workers are currently beginning their own contract renegotiation campaign. At a meeting on February 24, the leaders of Unite Here Local 26 called on the union’s members to “fight like our union brothers and sisters in Wisconsin” to prevent the Harvard Corporation from cutting more workdays and increasing the cost of benefits (including raising the standard healthcare co-pay from $15 to $40). Just as the burden for financial mismanagement and corporate tax breaks is falling on public employees in the Midwest, at Harvard, too, the unions are being forced to pay for the alleged corruption and imprudent investments of the Summers years, the union’s leaders claim. Truly perplexing is that the university’s endowment grew some $1.5 billion last year according to the union, while the union’s members earned an average of $3,000 less.
More than a demand for higher wages and better benefits, the food service workers union’s message is a demand for respect. They feel disrespected on a very personal level (inconsiderate Harvard University Dining Services managers, for example) and as a group of dedicated and vital employees who feel the University is ignoring their needs.
In these upcoming contract negotiations, Harvard has the opportunity to show its workers and community the profound respect that they deserve. Harvard must demonstrate that it supports the rights of labor, and in so doing send a message to those that oppose those fundamental workers’ rights in the Midwest, across the nation, and around the world.