Tuesday, March 8, 2011
This column was published in the Observer on March 8th 2011.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [or her] interests." In the U.S., we seem to have forgotten that the ability to bargain collectively is an internationally recognized right of all people, rich or poor, in the public or private sector. While workers depend on employers for wages, employers depend on workers for the labor that produces the goods and services that create profit. The two parties are co-dependent. Therefore, the working class is an indispensible part of our economic system and should have the ability to voice its needs and concerns in the only legal form available: unionization. Collective bargaining allows both workers and employers to have a voice, pursue their interests, and come to a compromise. Sounds like democracy to me.
Unions do not simply seek higher wages and benefits; they give workers a voice in the workplace and a sense of dignity. Having a voice changes the relationship between workers and employers from exploitative to mutually beneficial, where both parties respect each other and are properly represented. Without the ability to bargain collectively, the power to make decisions lies exclusively with the employer. We have allowed the corporate world to dominate the discourse about labor for so long that it now sounds absurd to claim that workers should have a voice, which, fifty years ago, was a basic element of society.
One of the central arguments in the current labor battle is that public sector union workers make excessive salaries in comparison to private sector workers. The private sector is currently suffering from stagnating wages, decreasing benefits and increasing insurance costs, while the public sector seems to avoid much of this struggle. Private sector taxpayers blame the public sector employees for this discrepancy. They are angry because they are relatively worse off, an understandable emotion.
However, the blame is misplaced. Public sector workers are not the cause of lower wages, fewer benefits, and poor working conditions in the private sector. Taking away public sector benefits and collective bargaining is not going to create better jobs for those in the private sector and is not going to grow the middle class. It will only divide the working class. It will also potentially decrease wage standards for all Americans as a higher percentage of unionization in a city often leads to upward pressure on wages and working conditions for all workers, including non-union. Creating a conflict between workers convinces the working class to vote directly against its economic interests and takes the blame away from the decision makers that create and maintain low-wage jobs.
Both union and non-union workers must come together and send the message that collective bargaining is not only a human right, but is necessary to grow the middle class and create good jobs. Workers have to stop blaming each other for their economic hardships. Weakening collective bargaining rights of the public sector is not the answer; strengthening private sector rights is. Unions are the only legal representation for workers to bargain for their fair share of the wealth, which comes from the profits of the goods and services that they produce. As the percentage of the workforce that is unionized continues to fall, real wages are decreasing, the middle class is shrinking, and the wealth gap continues to expand. Unions are the last group of organized people consistently backing the average person. They are fighting for the rights of the working class, recognizing that workers are not commodities; they are people with voices that should be heard, and they have the right to bargain collectively. As Pope John Paul II wrote in "Laboren Exercens," unions "[A]re indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions."