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Guest Blog: Paul Secunda on Wisconsin Governments Attack on Unions

The unprecedented attack on collective bargaining occurring right now in Wisconsin has made international headlines.  A very right wing ideologue Governor, Scott Walker, with big corporate backers has introduced a bill that would strip public sector workers of many legal rights that have been enjoyed for over 50 years.  Thousands of workers have been camping out for weeks in protest with the support of President Obama.

Here is a nice story on the events from the British Guardian. Here is a Globe and Mail piece, that summarizes the proposed legal changes:

Mr. Walker’s “budget repair bill” would limit collective bargaining to wages only and subject salary increases for government workers to a statewide referendum. Under the bill, state agencies would no longer deduct union dues from workers’ paycheques, forcing unions to collect them on their own. And the legislation would require unions to hold recertification votes annually.

Laws that prevent collective bargaining over everything but wages would almost certainly violate the Charter in Canada in the of B.C. Health Services, but their is no Constitutional protection of collective bargaining in Wisconsin.  Similarly, a statutory ban on mandatory union dues collection would also likely violate the Charter (at least according to this decision of Alberta Labour Board).   What about a requirement for unions to hold a “recertification” vote annually?  That’s an interesting proposal coming from an anti-union Governor.  Clearly the hope is that employees will vote the unions out, but that is extremely unlikely, given that proposed legislation has, if anything, increased employee support for their unions.  But the requirement will surely be highly disruptive and distracting for the employers.  Seems like a pretty dumb idea overall.  Do you think a proposal for yearly “recertification” ballots would violate the Charter in Canada?

I asked Professor Paul Secunda, Professor Labor Law at Marquette Law School in Wisconsin, to comment on the events there.  Here is Paul’s take:

All hands are on deck in Wisconsin to save basic labor and human rights of not only public sector workers, but of all workers who wish to earn a middle-class living. Although Governor Walker and his Republican allies will lead people to believe that this just about “repairing the budget,” it is anything but.

Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” not only seeks health and pension benefit cuts (everyday fare), but also seeks to eviscerate the collective bargaining rights of unions. Under the proposed law, all public sector unions, except for public safety employees like fire and police, lose most of their ability to engage in legally-recognized collective bargaining with the State. I say “most of their ability” because  they are permitted to bargain over wages, but only up to the level of the current consumer price index. If they wish to go further then that, they must seek to do so through a state-wide referendum.

Not only that, but the Governor has added provisions which have a purely punitive motive.  Covered union will be forced to go through annual certifications even if no decertification petition has been filed. Also, covered unions will not be able to use dues checkoff provisions to collect fees from their membership.  These provisions have nothing to do with saving Wisconsin money.

As the recent prank “Koch call” with Governor Walker illustrates this is an out-and-out attack on unions, the only group that is able to oppose the corporate interests in the workplace. Whereas individual employees are generally unable to fairly negotiate wages and terms and conditions of employment, unions, through their collective power, are able to make employers take note and listen.

This is not about public unions paying their share; they have and they are willing to pay more to help balance the budget.  This is an attack against those who believe workers have dignity and the democratic right to have a say on how their workplaces are runs.

If someone comes up to you and asks you why you are supporting the unions today and are adamantly opposed to Governor Walker’s power grab, here are five quick reasons that you can list for your position:

1. Unions  are democratic organizations that provide workers a collective voice in society and in the workplace.  They are a countervailing power to employers, employer organizations and governments that promote business interests at the expense of working people and fair social values.

2. European societies function quite well with a much more extensive and robust public (and private) sector union voice.  Despite the current problems in the European Union, they still seem to compete well globally while providing comparable if not superior wages, benefits and working conditions.

3. Unions provide protections on the job beyond wages and benefits, most notably “just cause” and procedures for due process protections on the job.  These are democratic principles.

4. Unions helped build and sustain the middle class.  Governor Walker’s proposals amount to “class warfare” in two ways: fomenting intra-class warfare while supporting the growth of income and wealth disparities favoring the elites in society.  Note that the firefighters and police officers are excluded. This is a classic “divide and conquer” management strategy.

5. Civilized societies recognize worker rights (collective bargaining) as a human right.

In short, this is not about the right to have a say on “benefits,” as some misinformed news outlets have put it.  No, this is about securing for workers basic human rights that international law recognizes.

Interesting times.  Thanks a lot, Paul.  Do you agree with Paul’s arguments in favor of protecting unions from government attacks?   If you want more of Paul, here he is on TV talking about the same issues.


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