Save the Unions! Save the Workers!
On Saturday, Feb. 26, people rallied in all 50 states to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s measure to strip Wisconsin public sector unions– like teacher’s unions--of their collective bargaining rights. That’s a mouthful to say, and what’s the big deal? Why should Wesleyan students, with all the concern over Beta and Planned Parenthood, give a hoot about something that’s happening halfway across the country?
Here’s why: unions are the organizations that protect workers from discrimination and crimes like wage theft. They embody the belief that there is strength in unified numbers: one worker protesting unfair wages or inhumane conditions gets fired, but an entire company of workers is able to stand up and force an employer to negotiate. The current job market is especially competitive right now due to the recession; many companies are outsourcing or downsizing in an effort to trim their budgets, and big businesses have tougher lobbies than ever before on Capitol Hill. American workers need unions to ensure that they are paid and treated fairly, and without collective bargaining rights, unions lose most of their negotiating power.
For decades, unions have been portrayed in the media and by lobbyists as giant monoliths; they supposedly stand in the way of budget cuts because they refuse to make any concessions. While certain unions, most notably the Teamsters Union, fit that stereotype, most unions are small, fragile, and controlled democratically by the people for whom they were created: wage earners in the working class. These small unions need collective bargaining rights. Let me give you a private sector example: a few years ago, there was a successful mushroom workers’ strike in Pennsylvania for better conditions. Up until 1993, those workers had no union; they risked injuries like maiming, were not allowed to take off work for illness without losing wages, and were grossly underpaid and overworked. Without their right to bargain, their employer wouldn’t have had the obligation to negotiate with them.
The attack on collective bargaining also affects teachers’ unions, and thus children’s education. In the public school system, property taxes as well as federal funding comprise a significant portion of school funding; if your district, like mine, routinely refuses to increase property taxes and votes down the school budget, that immediately impacts public school children and teachers. Guidance counselors, arts instructors, support staff, and special needs instructors are the first people to lose their jobs, as are young and often innovative teachers who lack tenure. To reverse this trend, we need more protections for teachers, not less.
Similar measures to those in Wisconsin have been planned in Ohio and Indiana. Indiana workers have only had collective bargaining rights since 1990, when the governor created them by Executive Order. In Ohio, lawmakers just recently removed a provision in their bill that would have eliminated collective bargaining rights—now the bill prohibits workers’ strikes, another fundamental union tool to ensure fair treatment. The Ohio State Senate is set to vote on it this Wednesday. If Indiana and Wisconsin public workers lose their bargaining rights, then workers in other states might lose theirs, and the majority of American workers already struggling to eke out an existence on $33,000 or less a year will face a life of working more hours for less pay, with less time to spend with their families and no safety net if they fall ill or are injured on the job. Unions’ powers have been reduced continuously by government and private entities since their creation in the 1800s, and the anti-union lobby is at the peak of its influence right now. Corporations now have similar rights as individual citizens, so they can sue workers to force them to cease their protests. If workers lose collective bargaining rights, people who don’t need to belong to unions to safeguard their rights as workers will suffer the consequences, too—unless they genuinely don’t have a stake in whether this country embodies its own values.
We don’t have the draft, or the threat of imminent starvation, or Jim Crow, or riots in the streets to compel us to action; but seriously, we shouldn’t need them. We don’t see elderly women like Mother Jones plodding for 60 miles through a frozen river to get to a rally, or people refusing to sit in the back of the bus despite the risk of arrest like Rosa Parks. Nevertheless, we have brains, cell phones, and voices. If you can’t drive to a rally in Ohio or Wisconsin (I know I can’t), sign a petition in support of union workers’ rights; call your congress people and tell them to protect union workers; talk to your friends about the issue and tell them to take action. Our country’s fate is inextricably linked to that of laborers, and the outcome of this issue could make the difference between an economic recovery and an economic disaster.