At a rally in Madison on February 18, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned that the Wisconsin GOP’s attempt to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights “is a coordinated effort by the Republican Party to destroy the labor movement in this country. If Wisconsin passes this, there are at least another 12 to 15 states that will try it.”
Now that the union-busting provisions have been signed into law, there is every reason to believe that Trumka’s warning will begin to play out. According to American Rights at Work, policymakers across the country are using the fiscal crisis to advance proposals that use the excuse of the state budget problems to gut workers’ rights and benefits.
The group points out that as bad as the Wisconsin law might be, it is only the tip of the iceberg of a nationwide problem. Research by American Rights at Work found that of the 140.5 million people in the civilian workforce, “33.5 million, or 23.8%, have no rights under the NLRA or any other labor law: no legally-protected right to join or form a union, no legally-protected right to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions of work, and therefore, effectively no freedom of association in the workplace.”
With laws such as Wisconsin’s now being pushed around the country, the United States will find itself in further breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.S. in 1948. Article 23 of the Declaration states that,
- (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
- (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
- (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
- (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Although the United States was one of only 48 countries that freely subscribed to these principles in 1948, it has fallen far behind the rest of the developed world in terms of its respect for labor rights
As the U.S.-based Freedom House said in a 2010 report, “the United States is almost alone among economically advanced democracies in its lack of a strong trade union movement in the private sector. While in the decade after World War II some 35 percent of workers in the nonagricultural private sector were represented by unions, by 2009 that figure had fallen below 8 percent.”
Freedom House, which traditionally challenges authoritarian dictatorships over denials of freedom, designated the United States as only “partly free” in its survey of global workers’ rights.
“The ability of workers to join trade unions and engage in collective bargaining has been gradually restricted through legislation, regulatory decisions, and court verdicts,” Freedom House noted.
Freedom House pointed out that the public sector is the only area of the economy that has seen its union ranks grow over the past several decades. Over 35 percent of public employees are represented by unions, but as Freedom House observed, “even public-sector unions may suffer as governments are forced to cope with unsustainable budget deficits.”
For this reason, the coming budget battles – and legislation like that just adopted in Wisconsin – could prove decisive to the very existence of a labor movement in the United States, and the future of Americans’ basic human right to form and join labor unions.