Collective bargaining is an international obligation

Posted on 2011-02-23 07:03

The protests in Wisconsin have been on the front page daily as the new Republican governor there backs legislation that would remove collective bargaining rights from public sector employees in that state. With so many private sector folks out of work or without a pay rise in years there seems to be a tacit approval for the measure, but I think it is really misplaced anger and short sighted. Collective bargaining is a central tenant of the International Labour Organization (ILO) charter to which the US is a signee (see the whole list), so we are actually bound to respect it by international treaty, just as we uphold the other principals of that organization's charter - including those against child labour and discrimination in the workplace.

"Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, enshrined in two of the fundamental conventions of the ILO are not mere options. They are international obligations..."

Relationships between unequal parties (be it a rich employer and a poor worker, a powerful government and a single individual, a monied aristocrat and a penniless foreign bride, etc.) have the potential for abuse. Most folks in the US recognize that there needs to be a way for two unequal parties to come to terms fairly. Collective bargaining rights equals the playing field for those lucky enough to be in a union when negotiating with management (in this case, the government).

Demonizing unions for creating the fiscal mess we're in is disingenuous. The unions at GM and Chrysler weren't the core reason why these companies couldn't compete with Japanese car manufacturers - the design and the reliability of the cars they made just weren't the top concern of management and ultimately the deals that the two sides made over the years fell apart because nobody would buy their cars. Simple free market capitalism killed GM. In the reorganization of these companies it was the workers who lost - not the owners and upper management. Folks who had worked at these firms for their entire lives and had bargained in good faith lost their retirements. The pensions and health care promises which now seem excessive only appeared to be so after the company wasn't able to sell cars anymore. Then it became easy to blame the workers for the companies troubles when I could have told you GM was headed down that road many years ago when I refused to buy their crappy cars.

Unions had nothing to do with the disaster of the housing crisis - shady mortgage deals by irresponsible lenders (as well as idiot buyers) weren't the result of a union action, and yet the housing crisis is one of the major factors for why our economy is in a knot. This is related to the disasters on wall street. Last I checked there aren't any unions for wall street execs. Deregulation and lack of oversight on the order of what happened at Enron (remember them?) - back room dealings were to blame there.

The unions did not organize to invade Iraq, the single biggest reason our economy is in the tank today. The US basically blew its economic wad to control the oil fields there in a half baked plan which was eventually scuttled by "insurgents" (a term the British would have used against Revolutionary era Americans had they thought of it). Instead, Iraq turned out to be a big gamble for a "new American Century" (seizing the opportunity afforded by 9-11) made by the cronies of big oil and defense contracting which had no union involvement or collective bargaining.

Those folks in a union know that they are generally underpaid in comparison with the private sector though they enjoy some protections and benefits which are getting harder to find in the private sector. Union workers generally trade high salary for employment security. This is generally known to be true, so its difficult to understand the anger toward these workers. If Wisconsin can't afford to pay for services, obviously they will have to cut those services - people will be laid off, public sector jobs will have to be reduced - but I see no need to change the rules by which government negotiates with workers, rules that are internationally recognized as basic rights.