Issue Report: Collective bargaining rights for public unions

Collective bargaining is a means by which employees, in the private and often in the public sector, can collectively bargain with their employer in order to seek better pay and working conditions. Long taken for granted as appropriate and necessary in the private sector, collective bargaining rights have been at the center of debate in regards to public employees and unions. Wisconsin became the center of this debate in early 2011 when governor Scott Walker pushed to end collective bargaining rights for public union workers. He and other opponents of collective bargaining, often claim that ending the practice is a necessary means of helping cut costs and budget deficits. They argue that collective bargaining gives unions too much power and so results in them being able to have their way in securing higher wages and benefits. Yet, others argue that there is no inherent link between collective bargaining and cutting costs; that the mere right to argue one’s case doesn’t mean that the governor and other politicians must agree and grant the benefits requested. Advocates argue that having a voice at the bargaining is so fundamentally important to public employees that it should be considered a fundamental right. And, indeed, international law provides significant support for considering collective bargaining such a right. These and other arguments are outlined below.

Rights: Is collective bargaining a right?

Collective bargaining is a fundamental human right.

Michael Zimmer. "Collective Bargaining as a Human Right." Michael February 20th, 2011

“I wanted to use this space to give credence to the argument that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right, recognized internationally in various conventions, constitutions, and courts. For example, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the ability to organise trade unions as a fundamental human right, while item 2(a) of the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work defines the ‘freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining’ as an essential right of all workers. Consider the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution, which guarantees that ‘Every trade union, employers’ organisation and employer has the right to engage in collective bargaining.'”

Collective bargaining is fundamental to freedom of association.

Michael Bloomberg. "Limit Pay, Not Unions." New York Times. February 27th, 2011

“Organizing around a common interest is a fundamental part of democracy. We should no more try to take away the right of individuals to collectively bargain than we should try to take away the right to a secret ballot.”

Public union bargaining protected by international law

"US: Honor Public Workers’ Bargaining Rights." Human Rights Watch. February 25th, 2011

“International law on the right to bargain collectively applies in both private and public workplaces. The United States championed the International Labor Organization’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, under which the US pledged ‘to promote and to realize … fundamental rights’ defined in the declaration, the first of which is ‘freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.'”

Public employees have a right to be heard at bargaining table.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin: “The same voices that teach our young people and protect our public institutions have a right to be heard at the bargaining table.”

Collective bargaining is a privilege, not a right

A federal district court in North Carolina defended the states laws against public sector union bargaining: “All citizens have the right to associate in groups to advocate their special interests to the government. It is something entirely different to grant any one interest group special status and access to the decision-making process.”

Public unions diff than private, shouldn't have bargaining rights

Andrew G. Biggs. "Why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Is Right About Collective Bargaining." US News. February 25th, 2011

“those public-employee-friendly candidates, once in office, face a much looser budget constraint than in the private sector. There are no measures of profit or loss by which to gauge public employee pay, and, as recent events have shown, it is only when government budgets enter crisis mode that the hard questions start being asked.”


"Guess What: There is no ‘right’ to collective bargaining." Labor Union Report. February 24th, 2011

“Collective bargaining distorts and corrupts democratic government. Collective bargaining is a process for employer-employee relations that was designed for the private sector. This process served as the model for the development of public-sector collective bargaining without taking into account the fundamental differences between the two sectors.”

Rights cannot violate other rights

One person’s rights cannot be in conflict with another person’s rights, nor can the rights of persons acting in a group violate the rights of person’s acting in another group. Although every worker has the legal right to speak, no employer has the legal or moral obligation to listen. Although every citizen in the U.S. has the legal right to petition government, no government representative has the legal or moral obligation to implement the request. Although every person has the legal and moral right to associate, no person has the moral right to do whatever they want while associating. Government representatives have the same rights as public workers. They have the right to say “no” to requests for increases in financial compensation or changes in working conditions. Public workers also have the right to strike and/or quit.

Government should never make contracts with political groups

When government makes a contract with any group it helps to ensure the existence of that group. Government should not support (nor oppose) groups that engage in political activity. If the government makes a contract with a group, then that group must be prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates, as well as lobbying.

Democracy: Is collective bargaining consistent with democratic processes?

Collective bargaining balances power between employer, employee.

There should be a balance of power between employer and employee, and without collective bargaining, the individual employee is powerless to bargain with their employer for better pay and working conditions.

Unions and collective bargaining important to modern workforce.

Michael Bloomberg. "Limit Pay, Not Unions." New York Times. February 27th, 2011

“unions also play a vital role in protecting against abuses in the workplace, and in my experience they are integral to training, deploying and managing a professional work force.”

Most advanced democratic countries honor public union bargaining.

"US: Honor Public Workers’ Bargaining Rights." Human Rights Watch. February 25th, 2011

“Most major advanced democratic countries honor collective bargaining rights of public employees. For example, all EU countries allow public sector workers to bargain collectively. In a 2008 case, the European Court of Human Rights found that Turkey’s restrictions on public employee bargaining rights violated the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the province of British Columbia to restore collective bargaining agreements nullified by legislation.”

Undemocratic states are most likely to restrict public bargaining.

"US: Honor Public Workers’ Bargaining Rights." Human Rights Watch. February 25th, 2011

“many undemocratic countries restrict or prohibit collective bargaining by public employees. For example, the Egyptian government has prohibited public sector collective bargaining. It allowed public employee unions to exist, but in name only, favoring government-controlled unions and quashing any attempt to bargain collectively.”

Critics want to end collective bargaining for political reasons

David Madland. "Public Sector Unions Should Have the Right to Collective Bargaining." US News and World Report. February 25th, 2011

“The reason we are currently having a debate over the rights of public sector workers and their unions is because conservatives across the country are trying to leverage the budget problems that many states currently face to attack a political opponent and further weaken unions.”

Ronald Reagan supported collective bargaining for public employees.

David Madland. "Public Sector Unions Should Have the Right to Collective Bargaining." US News and World Report. February 25th, 2011

“Even the conservative icon Ronald Reagan recognized that public sector workers should be able to collectively bargain. Reagan signed a bill to grant municipal and county employees the right to do so when he was governor of California.”

Public unions want to bargain with same candidates they help elect

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: “When they have collective bargaining in Wisconsin, on one side of the table there’s state employee unions or the local employee unions. On the other side of the table are politicians that they paid for the election of those politicians. Now, who represents the taxpayers in that negotiation? Well, actually, nobody.”

Taxpayers aren't at table where unions/politicians bargain.

Taxpayers are the ones paying for the salaries and benefits of public employees, but they are not at the table when unions and politicians bargain for benefits that put larger burdens on them. This is fundamentally unfair to taxpayers, and the dynamic can only be eliminated by getting rid of collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining gives public unions unequal power

David Crane. "Should public employees have collective bargaining?" SF Gate. February 27th, 2011

“in 1962 the federal government gave collective bargaining rights to federal employees, and in 1977 California followed suit. However, because state employees already had civil service protections, collective bargaining wasn’t needed to equalize their power with employers’ power. As a result, collective bargaining for public employees in California changed the balance of power and – most importantly – gave public employees power over their compensation and benefits. […] Collective bargaining is a good thing when it’s needed to equalize power, but when public employees already have that equality because of civil service protections, collective bargaining in the public sector serves to reduce benefits for citizens and to raise costs for taxpayers. Citizens and taxpayers should consider this as they watch events unfold in Madison.”

Democratic leaders used to oppose collective bargaining for public unions.

Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO, opposed collective bargaining for the public sector. They didn’t believe that collective bargaining rights belonged in the public sector, although they did strongly advocate for it in the private sector. They recognized the difference between the two things. And, being Democratic leaders, it is not possible to claim that they did not have concern for the working class and appropriate working conditions and pay for public and private employees.

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