The Right to Unionize

The other day, a friend of mine posted a status update on his wall. “Once again Unions negotiating themselves right out of a job by making ridiculous demands and no concessions!!” referring to the labor fight in Wisconsin between unionized state workers and the GOP controlled statehouse. Below this comment he linked to a video made by the Heritage Foundation titled Wisconsin Union Protest: Myth vs. Fact. To give you an idea of where the Heritage Foundation’s views align, this quote is in the first ten seconds of the video, as uttered by a Wisconsin union supporter: “What did...what did Hitler do first? He busted the unions. Right? First you take away the unions, and then you take away the Jews, and then you take away, you know...That’s where it starts.”

Ten seconds into a video which claims to separate fact from fiction, the first person we see on the screen is an idiot, spouting an indefensible similarity between Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, and one of the most infamous mass murderers in history. And she was slurring her words a bit. Possibly because of the cold, but it didn’t help any. Meanwhile, the first person from the other side of the debate, a State Senator, is shown in her office, reflecting soberly on the state of Wisconsin’s budget deficit. In this short video we see another instance where the ideological wars are poisoning the debate, where sound bytes are more important than facts. If history is any guide, this spells trouble for the Wisconsin unions and their supporters from the Democratic Party.

Wisconsin is indeed suffering from a busted budget, which makes their situation no different from any other state in the union. One of the state government’s solutions has been to demand concessions from the unions representing state workers. That is to be expected. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that they are getting labor for as cheap a price as possible. There is nothing wrong with that, from a legal standpoint, or from a moral standpoint, most of the time. Where the Governor and State Legislature have erred is in demanding not only concessions, but that state workers give up their right to bargain for new contracts collectively. And they are not attempting to do so by browbeating the unions into signing away such rights in new contracts. They know such a demand is non-negotiable to the unions, as it not only spells death to the unions themselves, but also effectively destroys the workers’ ability to negotiate in the future. The statehouse has decided to attempt to make it illegal to unionize effectively. Despite how the budget battles play out, it is unnecessary and immoral to force state workers to give up their right to organize, and it has nothing to do with closing a budget gap.

Instead, this is an instance of moral politics. Liberal political mores dictate that workers have rights, chief among them the right to demand concessions from employers in return for continued employment. Today’s unions are carrying on the legacies of their forebears from the turn of the 20th century, when thousands of workers died during strikes to secure such pittances from their employers as a living wage, abolition of child labor, the six day week and then the five day week, the twelve hour day and then the ten and finally eight hour day, workplace safety, and the recognition of the right to organize. Their efforts are now so ingrained in the American consciousness that most of us can’t imagine living life without a weekend, or worse, spending every waking hour on workdays in the service of our employers. Liberals recognize that in working, workers are selling their lives, not just their labor, and the time that they sell to their employers is something they will never get back, and therefore deserve top dollar for it.

The workers feel that, in extreme circumstances, they are being exploited. In normal circumstances, their position is one of getting the most they can out of their employers in a new contract. There is nothing wrong with that. Employees are the lifeblood of any company. They are the ones that produce the goods and services that generate revenue, and they deserve a larger share of the spoils than has generally been given them over the course of American history

On the opposite side is conservative ideology, which sees in unions a challenge to established authority, itself a morally indefensible position in conservative doctrine. Workers are being compensated for their labor, and market forces, not the ability of the workers to organize, should dictate pay, benefits, and hours. Workers that refuse to work, that make demands of their employers, are breaking a sacred covenant that recognizes that the boss, the factory owner, the governor, what have you, is the supreme dictator of all that is right and wrong in the employer/employee relationship. Any rebellion against the authority of the employer is an assault on the tenants of conservatism, and should be punished with the same swiftness and severity that a parent should punish a disobedient child.

Unionism itself is an affront to their moral authority as leaders of business, industry, or government. For much of American history, it was the employers who came out ahead on a regular basis. But the pendulum eventually swung the other way, and the unions won the concessions that made them powerful political forces in the middle of the 20th century, and also provided their members with upward mobility that today’s union employees can only dream of. Much of this, as it turned out, had to do with union overreach. As the economy went through its cycles of waxing and waning, unions held strong, until the last generation began to give ground in the ’70s and ’80s, as companies, rather than pay employees in the United States that they felt were overpaid, moved production overseas, where labor is cheap, and safety laws are lax.

These are the roadblocks that can make labor negotiations volatile.

Of course, states can’t move their jobs overseas or south of the border. What they can do is outsource work at every opportunity, transferring traditional government services, and its attendant labor headaches, to private corporations that, more often than not, don’t have to deal with unions. This is a dangerous precedent, as states are now selling off their assets for short-term gain, but that is an article for another time.

For all the state workers that are left, states are targeting the salary, benefit, and pension concessions that past governors’ and legislatures’ have given their employees. This is also understandable. I mentioned earlier that unions had become a force in politics, and they used this to their advantage, threatening to instruct union members to withhold votes in elections from state or city officials that didn’t support their positions in labor negotiations. That’s dirty dealing, but honestly, not shocking or unexpected in this little republic of ours. The unions were doing their job, in fact, working to secure the best deals they could for their members.

But now the country is in the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, and the guarantees that unions got from their state masters now look like extortion through the lens of GOP propaganda.

In Wisconsin, state workers have agreed to the concessions proposed by the Governor, with the exception of relinquishing their collective bargaining rights. Therefore, not only is the Heritage Foundation video disingenuous, so is the position of the Wisconsin statehouse. Any claim they make about budgets and deficits in regards to union intransigence is false. The state got the monetary concessions they were looking for. The legislation to abolish collective bargaining rights is punitive. Denying collective bargaining rights is just that, a denial of rights. Until the Wisconsin statehouse concedes that state workers do have the right to bargain collectively, they will see no end to the protests within and without their government. Nor should they, because these draconian tactics have nothing to do with negotiations in good faith, and everything to do with imposing a mistaken conservative ideology that harkens back to the days when the lords of business did all in their power to deny the basic rights of their workers. All that is missing are the Pinkertons.