Organized labor is a foundation upon which our society is built, and its efforts have led to some of the most critical reform of the last century in this country. It is the institution that allows workers a seat at the table next to big business and ensures that they enjoy the profit share and the working conditions they are entitled to. Collective bargaining allows you to take the only real power you have as an employee — resignation — and through collective action turn it into a force to be reckoned with. The idea that labor and employer enter an employment contract as equal parties is a misconception of economics; it’s been a long time since I interviewed with someone who was going to starve or get evicted if they didn’t hire me.
Right now, however, there is a diverse assault on organized labor in this country. You have doubtless heard of Governor Scott Walker’s disastrous “budget repair bill” of 2011, which sparked massive protests in Wisconsin because of its provisions balancing the broken state budget on the backs of state employees. This proposal not only cut benefits for public servants, but also eliminated the vast majority of their collective bargaining rights. It’s so easy to scapegoat public employees when we’re in an economic crisis and there’s such an anti- government milieu in the country, but they aren’t the cause of the problem — just the most easily attacked (and now, even more easily). As might be expected, though, that’s not as easy as it looks — Walker faces recall in roughly a month and a half. He’s running out of time to get Republicans to rally around him as Democrats rallied to rail against his legislation.
Labor is the issue which unites voters and activists from all sides of the political spectrum because it directly affects ordinary Americans in readily-apparent ways and because solidar- ity between movements is so important for its survival. We may view ourselves as “tempo- rarily embarrassed millionaires” and vote against our own interests on a regular basis, but we recognize that it is the working man who is most vulnerable and best represents fellow citizens. The enthusiasm factor was demonstrated last year in Ohio just as it is being dem- onstrated in Wisconsin now: the popular referendum returning bargaining rights to state employees generated massive buzz and helped create the momentum which led to Walker’s recall election.
While not quite as dramatic as the nonsense in these other states, California work- ers experienced a setback to their legal rights last week. The California Supreme Court ruled that employers have no obligation to enforce workers’ breaks (usually 10 minutes per four hours and 30 minutes per shift longer than five hours). While most people can recall willingness to skip a break at some point in the past, this sets up a perverse incentive for employers to strongly “suggest” that workers skip breaks — especially during busy periods when they are likely to be most exhausted. If you aren’t given a break, they are no longer required to compensate you for the overtime. This probably won’t be overt company policy, but challenges to labor regulations are often made under the table.
The country is undergoing a reinvigoration of its nationwide brotherhood of unions and sympathizers. We can only hope this trend will continue; America needs a fresh, new move- ment to remind us once again not to balance our checkbooks against the ordinary man. As for me, I’ll keep going to work and waiting patiently for the June 5 election in Wisconsin.
In Response, Right Said:
My counterpart talks very highly of “workers rights” that are gained through unions as though they are essential to the proper functioning of an economy in a liberal democracy and that the interests of business and workers are diametrically opposed. Neither is true. In fact, in arguing for his liberal ideology, my counterpart completely ignores the fact that unions also have a uniquely negative effect on the economy and on workers.
By pushing for increased pay, golden parachute arrangements, heavily subsidized healthcare and college funds for their children (all things granted to, for example, the United Auto Workers) unions drive up the cost of labor exponentially. It’s sim- ple Econ 1: the more a business has to expend in order to keep the labor of a union member – because they aren’t allowed to “unilaterally” end their contract with the worker, of which they are an equal partner – the fewer resources they can expend to hire new workers. Less ability to hire new workers = less employed people = higher unemployment.
But another distinction must be made here. Governor Walker’s Budget Repair bill only affects public sector unions – people whose pay increases, subsidized health care and inability to be fired (to decrease government spending or otherwise) depends entirely upon the taxpaying public. This isn’t a matter of making a work- ers environment safe, it’s a matter of people who are supposed to be public servants sucking their neighbors dry to protect themselves.