Collective Bargaining as a Human Right

A slight diversion from the normal content of this blog, I’d like to take just a moment to highlight the protests here in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker’s desire to eliminate most collective bargaining rights of most public employees. (Note: I am a state employee, but UW System faculty are not unionized).

The Governor’s so-called “Budget Repair Bill” will require state employees to make larger contributions to their pensions and health care coverage, and will also remove collective bargaining rights except for wages, which would be limited to be not greater than the Consumer Price Index. (Police and fire fighters would be exempt from this provision.)

While most public employees appear ready to make financial concessions to help ease the State’s budget crisis, the push to eliminate collective bargaining rights has not, to say the least, been well-received.

Wisconsin, of course, has a proud history of progressiveness and organized labor: Wisconsin was the first state to give its public workers the right to bargain collectively; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the largest public employee and health care workers union in the United States, was founded here; and the state is often credited as the birthplace of progessivism. For such reasons, this dispute between a conservative state government and its public employees has been described as a defining moment in the labor movement nationwide.

We are 5 days into the organized protests, and it remains unclear if/when/how this will be resolved.

But I wanted to use this space to give credence to the argument that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right, recognized internationally in various conventions, constitutions, and courts.

For example, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the ability to organise trade unions as a fundamental human right, while item 2(a) of the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work defines the “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining” as an essential right of all workers.

Consider the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution, which guarantees that “Every trade union, employers’ organisation and employer has the right to engage in collective bargaining.”

In 2007, the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri held that Missouri’s state constitution also protected the right to collective bargaining for public employees.

And most strongly, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a case disputing whether a constitutional guarantee of freedom of association includes procedural right to collective bargaining, finding that collective bargaining is indeed a human right:

The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work… Collective bargaining is not simply an instrument for pursuing external ends…rather [it] is intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government… Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Workers gain a voice to influence the establishment of rules that control a major aspect of their lives.

I do hope, in the coming days, the State of Wisconsin will also support dignity, liberty, and autonomy through the continuation of collective bargaining rights among public employees.

UDPATE: Please read this excellent post by UW-Madison’s Greg Downey: “On public employees and the right to organize

UPDATE 2: I found this letter from Archbishop Listecki [PDF] compelling, where he repeats the Catholic Church’s position that there is a moral imperative to protect workers rights, including collective bargaining. Listecki quotes section 25 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (which itself builds from section 60 of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum), which argues:

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

Listecki also quotes Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, which states “[a] union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.” (#20, emphasis in original).

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