Expert: Efforts to Curtail Public Sector Workers Collective Bargaining Rights Impacts All Workers

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s move to strip or significantly narrow his state’s public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights has implications for all unionized workers, both in the public and private sector, according to a labor law expert.

“A number of other states have taken legislative steps toward rolling back public-sector bargaining rights, and it is telling that these actions are now being taken in traditional Midwestern union strongholds such as Indiana and Ohio that have suffered the most in the de-industrialization process,” said Marion Crain, JD, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital.

Wisconsin was the first state to authorize public sector bargaining, and the state’s public sector pension and health care obligations are moderate compared with those of some other states. According to Crain, if Wisconsin public sector workers lose bargaining rights, other states can be expected to follow. Similar political and legislative pressure at the state level has been recently leveled against private sector unionized workers.

“Four states have enacted laws that guarantee or require the use of secret ballots in union elections, an effort to deprive workers of union representation obtained through card-check processes,” Crain said.

Crain explained that if public sector unions lose strength, the labor movement as a whole will lose power – something that should raise a concern for non-union employees.

Union Strength

“Currently, the bulk of union strength is in the public sector: 36 percent of public sector workers are unionized, while less than 7 percent of private sector workers are unionized,” Crain said. And in 2009, the number of unionized public sector workers for the first time exceeded the number of unionized private sector workers.

Historically, public sector workers accepted lower compensation in exchange for increased job security and more generous benefits than private sector workers enjoyed. Unions have been successful in helping public sector workers to hold state and federal governments to this bargain, Crain said.

“Without unions or with a dramatically truncated right to collective bargaining limited to wages, public sector workers will be unable to protect themselves against the erosion of the deal. They will be forced to accept reduced wages, reduced or no job security and loss of benefits,” Crain added. Like non-union workers in the private sector, these workers would then become “vulnerable to exploitation and powerless to resist except by exit.”

Divided Response

The public has exhibited a divided response to the rollbacks in the rights of unionized workers. Crain pointed out that that private sector nonunion workers’ powerlessness and vulnerability to layoffs and volatile market shifts has engendered deep resentment toward public sector workers who appear to have more stable jobs and benefits.

“Instead of banding together to fight abuses of corporate power and combating corporate greed, workers are engaged in internecine warfare that will ultimately harm workers as a class,” she said.

Crain offered the following reasons why non-union employees should care about the strength of the labor movement:

  • Setting standards for wages, benefits and procedural due process at work. These standards have been adopted by non-union employers as part of the effort to avoid unionization. The “threat effect” of unionization maintains these procedural protections, benefit and wage levels, but only as long as the threat is credible. If unions decline, the threat effect loses its credibility and the risk of a race to the bottom on wages, benefits and working conditions increases.
  • Unions function as watchdogs for workers’ rights, educating workers about their rights and enforcing statutory rights. Unionized workplaces are safer than non-union workplaces (in part because unions provide the enforcement mechanism for the Occupational Safety and Health Act), and unions have been instrumental in helping workers enforce their rights to minimum wage and overtime pay, to be free from discrimination and to receive advance notice of a mass layoff or plant closing.
  • The labor movement gives a voice to workers as a class in the legislative process. Unions are directly responsible for lobbying for enactment of nearly all of the federal statutes protecting individual workers’ rights today, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the OSH Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and Title VII (anti-discrimination statute), as well as many state laws protecting workers’ rights, Crain said.
  • Protection against dilution of statutory rights in the legislative process and the courts. Without an organized political constituency, workers are powerless to prevent cutbacks in statutory rights by legislatures or courts. Unions resist these cutbacks at both the legislative and judicial levels.
  • Organized labor’s role in political elections. The labor movement also is a powerful player in political elections at the federal and state levels.
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