At this moment the Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker is doing his best to strip teachers and other state workers of the right to choose a union to negotiate their wages and working conditions.
Some on the radical right seem to feel that this is a perfectly legitimate course of action. After all, the State of Wisconsin has a budget gap. But times like these are precisely when workers of any sort are most in need of collective bargaining.
In fact, collective bargaining is not just some procedure that is or is not appropriate depending on the whim of an employer. The right to choose a union -- the right to collective bargaining -- is a human right every bit as central to Democracy as the right to vote, or freedom of speech.
The right to choose a union is not a Democratic value or a Republican value. It is an American value.
Abraham Lincoln once cautioned that if any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.
Republican President Dwight Eisenhower said that, "only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice."
Even Ronald Reagan -- who was certainly no friend of unions -- invoked the universal right to choose a union when he blasted the Polish Government's suppression of Solidarity in 1981. He charged that, "It has even broken the Gdansk Agreement of August 1980, by which the Polish Government recognized the basic right of its people to form free trade unions and to strike."
And the right to choose a union is not just an American right. It is a universal human right -- enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, affirmed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Article 23, Section 4 reads: "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."
The right to form a union is critical to a democratic society because it is the only way to assure that employers do not treat their employees as commodities. Competitive markets often work very well as a mechanism for pricing many products and services. But, taken by themselves, they do not work well as a means of assuring that employees receive a living wage.
The right wing likes to claim that when unions negotiate wages and working conditions the wages are "artificial" or "unnatural" -- that the competitive market is the only "natural" way to set prices. That, of course, is ridiculous.
Human beings are not "commodities" to be bought and sold. They're the purpose of the economy, not objects to be chewed up and spit out when they're no longer needed. There is a huge population of unemployed workers in the developing world. In rural China alone there are 600 million people that not necessary to produce food and must be integrated into the non-agricultural economy. If we allow the right wing to make supply and demand the sole basis for wage rates and payment for labor, we will see a continued race to the bottom, lower and lower wages and salaries, and the destruction of the American middle class.
In fact, corporate success at undercutting the power of unions has been the principal reason why literally all of the growth in the Gross Domestic Product over the last decade has gone to the wealthiest two percent of the population.
The growth of organized labor after World War II was the critical factor that allowed for the creation of the great American middle class. Attempts by corporate power and their right wing Republican allies to destroy the right of Americans to choose a union would -- if they were successful -- destroy the American middle class as well. Unions are the only force that can assure that middle class incomes do not stagnate. That also makes them the only force that can assure that the middle class has enough income to buy the products and services that allow a growing economy.
One thing we have learned across the world in the last hundred years: economies achieve sustained growth only when that growth is widely shared -- only when large numbers of people can steadily increase their incomes and buy more goods and services.
Unions allow widely shared sustained economic growth. Competitive labor markets, absent unions, do not.
The two-decade effort by big corporations and the radical right to undercut unions has taken its toll.
By August 2006, the New York Times reported that:
- Federal Reserve study showed that, "Wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross national product since the government began recording data in 1947; while corporate profits have climbed to their highest shares since the 1960s."
- In the third quarter of 2006, wages and salaries represented 45% of gross domestic product, down from about 50% in the first quarter of 2001 and 53.9% in 1970 according to the Commerce Department.
- A separate report from Goldman Sachs said: "The most important contributor to high profit margins over the past few years has been the decline in labor's share of national income."
- The cause of this decline is not decreased productivity of labor - far from it. From 2000 to 2006, worker productivity rose 166%, but total median compensation rose only 7.2%, according to a report for the Economic Policy Institute.
Wisconsin's Governor Walker announced at the end of last week that he would make a lightning strike in the State legislature to strip public employee unions of their rights to negotiate full packages of wages and working conditions. He hopes to pass legislation this week -- to prevent the inevitable, growing outrage that he know would result. He even threatened to call out the National Guard to quell protests.
Walker was unsuccessful at stopping immediate and growing waves of demonstrations.
Now the streets of Madison look like Tahrir Square in Cairo -- and for the same reason. Walker has become the Mubarak of Wisconsin -- seeking to deny his people a basic human right.
And, like the streets of Cairo, a great deal is at stake in this struggle. Big corporations and the radical right want to destroy the right of collective bargaining in the United States. For years they have successfully prevented the passage of labor law reform that would allow private sector employees to effectively express their right to choose a union. The only portion of the labor movement that has grown over the last two decades is public employee unions.
The battle of Wisconsin is the first volley in a much larger war to destroy public sector unions -- which not only represent their workers, but have also become a critical component of the progressive political movement throughout the United States.
So the battle of Wisconsin is about much more than the rights of Wisconsin public employees. If Walker is successful in Wisconsin it will embolden right wing Republican Governors across America to do the same -- all with the aim of destroying the organized power of everyday people to stand up for their interests and prevent the masters of Wall Street from converting our American democracy into a private plutocracy.
Across Wisconsin, everyday people of all sorts are standing up for the rights of their neighbors who are teachers and snow plow drivers and medical technicians, and secretaries and the folks who take your money in the toll booth. When the alarm sounded, people of all sorts responded. Now it is time for people across America to join them.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.
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