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Why collective bargaining is essential to Democracy

Political events in Wisconsin have questioned the necessity of collective bargaining.  The governor of Wisconsin notwithstanding, collective bargaining is recognized as a human right in international conventions, constitutions, and courts. 

Our Constitution addresses the right of collective bargaining in the Thirteenth Amendment, which appears to refer only to only the issue of slavery.  However, according to the Supreme Court in 1911, the purpose of the amendment was not simply to eliminate slavery, but to release one person’s labor from the exploitation of another.

The Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 was the primary statute that declared the right of collective bargaining.This was followed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Both confirmed that right.

Today, corporate power is strangling the natural American impulse of political democracy.  Collective bargaining is an extant instrument that ensures at least a modicum of fairness for employees.

Corporate billionaires pay swarms of lobbyists to influence legislators to enact anti-union legislation. This cohort also transfers gobs of cash to legislators as the Koch brothers did for the governor of Wisconsin. Additionally, they finance reactionary think tanks that churn our staggering amounts of false data.   Individual employees are obviously no match for such corporate power. Unions are essential to balance that asymmetrical relationship as a “countervailing power,” as coined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith. 

The other power facing employees is government power.  Like corporations, governments wield an enormous amount of economic power over a vast workforce.  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 have won.

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. Their lives were arbitrarily disrupted and sent into financial and personal chaos. The issue of collective bargaining crystallizes our justification to provide a serious voice for those who perform the work in our cities and towns.  

Decent work standards that facilitated the growth of the middle and working class came 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 and  work environment  A union contract can prevent splenetic supervisors from unfairly unleashing their wrath on employees.  

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.  The record shows that when unions are strong, wages and salaries increase for all.   Health care coverage and pensions are strengthened.  When private and public unions are weak, the quality of life for our families and communities is jeopardized. 

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 now is to provide essential services to cities and towns with fair budget and tax policies that do not break the backs and spirits of middle and low income folks. 

Unions are demonstrably imperfect entities.  However, without collective bargaining rights, employment conditions are flagrantly rigged for corporations and governmental bureaucrats.  Collective bargaining is the sine qua non for union members, an instrument to ensure some measure of economic democracy.  Our cherished institutions of political democracy require an authentic economic democracy to achieve the just aspirations of all working people.

Bruce T. Boccardy is the president of Local 888 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents close to ten thousand municipal and state public employees throughout Massachusetts.