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Armand F. Pereira Headshot

Wake Up America! Labor Needs a New "Clock Movement" to Keep Up With the Times

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The events in Wisconsin in the last two weeks are a slap in the face of the unions. While they were too busy organizing rallies and heralding solidarity gains, the Wisconsin Republicans in the state Assembly suddenly approved a bill backing Gov. Scott Walker's plan to cut nearly all public employees' collective bargaining rights -- one of the universally recognized basic human rights, i.e., one of those generally applicable to all human beings, employers and employees alike, whether movie producers, directors or actors, school teachers, truck drivers or nurses, etc. That right is reflected in the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and, more explicitly, a part of the International Labor Organization's Declaration of "Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work" (1998), in turn included in the UN Global Compact and a diversity of private sector certification standards and codes of practice of many respectable enterprises in different sectors across the globe; yet, one not even respected across the "land of the free"?! The ILO's "Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively" Convention 98 has so far been ratified by 160 countries. This treaty explicitly recognizes the fact that countries may have national legislation restricting collective bargaining to some specific groups of workers for reasons of national security, such as "the armed forces an the police" (Article 5), as opposed to reasons of "political support," which would be inadmissible under any regime!

Will the concerned American unions use muscle to slap back in such unusual circumstances? No, they can hardly do that and would do well not to try. Many have been bashed to their bare bones for most of the last three decades, particularly in the United States, of all places! They've been fighting the red elephant and its foxy entourage, as well as several bureaucratic "white elephants" that, for the most part, have continued to push human rights à la carte across the American heartland and the globe. But the unions may have several lessons to learn from Wisconsin, and I dare pointing out just five points in search of such lessons.

One: It is important but not enough to rally. The Wisconsin story reflects a clear asymmetry between concentrated power where it really matters and disperse public noise where it matters far less. If unions and allied student associations and other civil groups get enough rallies going, evidently the media is pushed to roll out smarter and more diversified articles and may even be enticed to call the "political cojones" and other "joneses" to admit that budget cutting is not an admissible excuse to bash bargaining rights à la carte. But it is a risky effort for unions to bet their scarce manpower on this. There are other ways in the days of social networks. After two years of news on financial bailouts of banks and bankers and huge losses in pension plans and in foreclosed homes and the like, it makes no sense to Americans in the so-called "liberal" East and West to watch more bashing of unions and workers' bargaining rights. But it also makes no sense to global news watchers in countries where such basic rights have become increasingly important -- from Gaza to Beirut or Cairo, from Delhi to Cape Town or Djakarta and so on and on. So, while rallies are important, it is even more important to elevate the focus of the bargaining rights discussion from local to national and global circles. This seems to be happening now in Illinois and other places, but it should have happened in Wisconsin before that vote took place. These days, unions need more strategists than rallying squads.

Two: The right to organize and bargain collectively is beyond limited union powers to organize workers and mobilize crowds. It depends on federal and state laws and their enforcement to ensure respect for that right, along with other basic human rights in the work place (i.e. concerning freedom of association, forced labor, child labor and discrimination) as well as other decent and safe conditions of work. Unions have a vested interest in pushing that broader agenda beyond small town politics and traditional capital-labor relations. So far, this broader dimension has not been explored enough in the US media, partly for the foxiest reasons combined with limited public awareness. While American unions have been ill placed in recent years to push this debate themselves (in spite of greater space since January 2009), they could indeed try to exert greater influence on their allies to do so, not only within the current Administration, but also among associations of mayors of major US cities, as well as multilateral intergovernmental agencies, including the ILO and other UN agencies, civil rights and human rights entities, multilateral banks, etc. The major international union confederations and global sectoral union federations are doing that, but the American unions have not done that enough; they ought to do more.

Three: The right to organize and bargain has become a part of the "red" vs. "blue" political party landscape in the US. In the 2004 election, with the partial exception of Indiana, the red states (that voted Republican) coincided with the so-called "right to work" states that restrict those basic rights. This is something worth looking further into. Unions should examine how such changes occur and how they can be prevented. What happened since 2004? Is Wisconsin a typical or atypical case of the shift from blue to red? Do changes in labor relations legislation swing back and forth similarly when the states' legislatures shift from blue to red and from red to blue? These questions are yet another reason why the bargaining rights discussion should be elevated, by placing greater focus on congressional politics and legislative process as compared to traditional workplace relations and street rallying tactics. In this vein, major unions could possibly invest more in fostering future congressional candidates and careers. Women have been short in both unions and legislatures and could certainly be given special opportunities.

Four: Unlike in the trade liberalization debate, where the free traders tended to place the interests of workers (wages) and consumers (prices) against each other, the bargaining rights debate within national borders is much more insulated from such distortion (e.g. consumers without jobs, or with worse jobs due to lack of bargaining rights, would presumably be consuming less, etc.). Unions could indeed take greater advantage of this, e.g., by examining the long-term differences in union vs. non-union jobs in terms of wages and benefits for certain categories of workers in the same sectors and even in the same companies where outsourcing and two-tier internal systems may exist, etc.

Five: American unions in general may need to make greater efforts to improve their own image. They could start by reviewing more critically how and why they are perceived by workers and the public, and then try to improve their relations and attitudes vis a vis employers and workers, particularly younger workers and women. This is easier said than done in environments where they have been clearly bashed, demonized and often victimized by dirty tricks campaigns, although some of them have done their fair share of the same to employers. The point of the matter is that unions in the US have suffered from a negative public perception for many reasons (including, in some cases, limitations on "freedom of association" itself, i.e. freedom to join and contribute to a union of one's own choice). The negative image is nonetheless unfair, hard to believe and even harder to explain, but it has been reflected in some periods through the Gallup's Annual Work and Education Surveys carried out since 1936-37. The answers to the simple (and easily biased) question: "Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions" have revealed negative public reactions to long strikes independently of the President's party, e.g., the mining workers strike during the Carter (D) Administration and the air traffic controllers strike during the Reagan (R) period. Since the National Labor Relations Act in 1936 the approval rate went from 72% to 61% and then slowly up during the Truman (D) years, continuing to a peak of 75% in 1958 with Eisenhower (R) and mostly down thereafter until 1982 with Reagan (R), then up slightly with a new one-year peak of 66% in 1998 with Clinton (D) and down with G. W. Bush (R) except in 2003 (65%), and then further down to 58% in Aug 2008 with Bush (R) and much further down to 48% in Aug 2009 with Obama (D). What explains this last drop? Does it reflect public aversion to presumably greater union influence in the Executive branch and Congress, e.g. in negotiating redundancy packages during the financial crisis? There is also an apparent asymmetry between the slight increase in the public approval rate of unions from 1982 to 2000 and the general deterioration in (real) hourly compensation of non-supervisory employees which occurred over the 1980-1999 period.

The turn of events in Wisconsin is sad to watch and " all about ..." because even many of those who earn a living influencing public opinion seem to have forgotten that the so-called "labor movement" had important landmarks in America, in Illinois of all places; it was an intrinsic part of the foundations of American history and the progress Americans have been so proud of and many non-Americans still aspire across the world.

No, I would not agree with Robert Creamer's title of his article "We Are All Part of the Labor Movement Now". Half of America is not with it and a large part of the other half does not know what is the "movement" they seek.

What "labor movement" needs is a new "clock movement" to keep up with the times and help wake up America! Among other things, it needs basic human rights at work and obligations (of both employers and workers) ensured preferably via federal regulation, just as with some other areas related to the labor market, such as immigration and homeland security; union leadership needs to be revitalized, including with more women and generally younger professionals and leaders, with a higher turnover and higher skills; labor relations can be and need be less ideological and less adversarial and more objective, more results oriented in ways that can make sense for both workers and employers; these will always have conflicts of interest, but ensuring bargaining rights is surely a way of minimizing conflict and promoting peaceful and productive labor relations.

Armand F. Pereira is an international consultant on employment and labor issues with Labor Governance Research and Advisory Services; former Director of ILO to the United States and ILO Representative to the Multilateral Institutions in Washington (2005-2009), former Director of ILO for Brazil (1998-2005).