01/05/2011 01:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Protecting Worker's Rights

As states begin to face budget woes, elected officials are attempting to solve them in part by proposing legislation that would curb the rights of labor unions to bargain collectively. Much of this legislation is aimed at state employees. Though the salaries and pensions of state employees need to be addressed for states to remain solvent, stripping away from the right to collective bargaining is the wrong path.

Lawmakers are threatening collective bargaining in multiple ways. Most notably, the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, is considering abolishing the right of government workers to form unions and bargain on contracts. Similarly, lawmakers in over nine states intend to introduce legislation to limit the power of labor unions -- including banning strikes by public school teachers and barring unions from requiring the workers they represent to pay fees.

Sacrifices need to be made for states to get their economic houses in order, but it's troubling that the rights of workers are atop the list of cuts. To be sure, lawmakers are not proposing a full-on attack on the right to collective bargaining. But it would be a tragedy for this right to be the first to be stripped away in any way, shape, or form, even in economic turmoil. This is in part because this right helped to pull us out of economic turmoil during the Great Depression. One of the causes of the Depression was that wages were so low that employers were over-hiring and over-producing. Workers lacked the right to bargain collectively, and their efforts to do so were consistently denied by employers and, in most cases, unprotected by government at all levels. As a result, wages had crumbled to the extent that many workers were dependent on the factory or mill village for their means of sustenance.They lacked purchasing power. In addition, entire families were hired in many workplaces, with children and parents working in grueling conditions for unthinkably long hours.

The right to collective bargaining helped employees to form together to negotiate fair wages, which in turn helped to put our economic house back in order. With fairer wages, employees had greater purchasing power, and were able to participate in the economy beyond the company store and the mill village. In short, the New Deal taught us that when workers flourish, the economy flourishes. It's not a lesson we need to learn all over again.

But stripping away from this right would be tragic for a more important reason -- that is, the right to collective bargaining is fundamental. It was won of a deep national engagement -- a political and social movement of rare kind -- and shouldn't be stripped away so easily, with so little deliberation.

The right to collective bargaining was produced by of one of the country's greatest social movements. Americans marched and organized for the right in remarkable numbers. They began joining unions in at record levels, and protested when their bargaining rights were denied. A series of New Deal enactments and judicial opinions, culminating in the Wagner Act, led to the entrenchment of the right. The Wagner Act was called Labor's Magna Carta and was heralded as one of the foundational documents in American history. Across the country, Americans willingly joined unions at incredible levels, saw their wages and working conditions rise, and their children sent back to school. The Supreme Court held that the right of workers to self-organize a "fundamental right." And though today the labor movement is not as strong as it once was, the right nonetheless still retains its fundamental status in principle and enjoys broad support among Americans.

Still, fewer Americans are in unions today than in the New Deal era and proceeding decades, and the importance of collective bargaining is already being forgotten. Work and labor rights are not at the tip of the tongue. And this is to our detriment. Given our present economic issues -- including the great disparity in incomes -- and the insecurity that American workers face, now is the time to remember the importance of the collective bargaining, not to begin to strip away from it.

In the days ahead, we'll all have to sacrifice a little to get our economic house in order. But we need to be wise about what sacrifices we make and when. There are many paths to balanced budgets that don't run through fundamental rights, and we should focus on them.