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Scott Walker and the Republicans are poised to strip almost all collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. They are forcing all workers now to understand what a union really is. If we don’t, all of us will be forced to accept a radically lower standard of living for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
But the issue is more than just about money, if Walker and his allies are victorious, we will be less free.
Americans have a long history of union organizing. Workers joined unions, struck for better wages and working conditions, and engaged in collective bargaining with employers long before the United States government finally guaranteed those rights in 1935 with the Wagner Act. In passing the Wagner Act, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Dealers were trying to balance the scales between workers and their bosses. For years the government had called out the troops to side with employers with a few exceptions, but under the new National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) the US government created a system of rules that backed workers in their demands for a fair share of the wealth that they produced.
The Wagner Act was an unmitigated success. By the 1950’s union membership was near 30 per cent of the workforce. Wages and benefits skyrocketed for all workers as nonunion employers kept up with union scale to avoid sharing power with the union.
By the 1970’s, however, union power declined as corporations shipped manufacturing overseas for bigger profits. Emboldened, employers refused to recognize unions, hired anti-union consultants and made it harder for them to organize by firing workers and by replacing them if they went on strike. The government of the United States also became more hostile to unions with appointments to the NLRB that made the institution a paper tiger.
Although the percentage of union workers in the private sector saw significant declines in this period, union membership in the public sector increased as states like Wisconsin had modified their laws to allow public sector employees to collectively bargain.
This brings us to the current moment. Scott Walker and his corporate allies want to do for the public sector what they did for the private sector in the 70’s and the 80’s. They know that a strong labor movement is the last vestige of organized resistance to privatization and stagnating wages; they also know that labor is the key source of support for social gains like public education for all, public transportation, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. They want to destroy these gains, and that is why unions are under attack. Unions raise the funds, mainly through dues, and provide the foot soldiers for the politicians that support the gains of the New Deal and more. Without them many of these policies will disappear as proposed in Scott Walker’s current budget proposal.
For these reasons it is all important that we act now to organize unions regardless of the law. The Wagner Act did not give us the right to organize, strike and collectively bargain; it was a guarantee won by us through organizing, striking and bargaining. As we have seen though, the law is a tool that the political class wields to try to convince us that they give or take away rights.
We must remember that union rights are basic human rights that can never be given or taken away. We must put that on the agenda through action – strikes, sick outs, pickets, boycotts or whatever tactics our locals are willing to take. Regardless of a collective bargaining law, you can raise the stakes in your community so that your local governments will accept a contract. But you have to make them. If activists want to recall, vote, change the constitution, write letters, send emails, or poke on Facebook or Twitter, they certainly should. But we should never forget that workers won protections at work and through the law because unions acted to pressure employers to recognize them. We must return to this model or we will end up with a massively lower standard of living, and we’ll be less free to fight again for a better life.
CHRISTOPHER FONS is a Social Studies teacher in Milwaukee and a member of the Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association (MTEA). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org