Labor Week
Union Uprising
By Jessica MacGilvray
Apr 24, 2011 - 2:06:15 PM

WISCONSIN—OK, so everybody has heard all about the great battle waged in Wisconsin and several other states about the right to collective bargaining for public unions. We didn't hear many good explanations about what collective bargaining was or why it was important. We also have heard almost nothing about demonstrations and activities in all 50 states in solidarity with the people in Wisconsin. 

In the United States, the right of workers to bargain collectively was the subject of a long and hard struggle, culminating in the Wagner Act of 1935. This act basically set forth the ground rules under which employees were allowed to form unions and the legal responses employers could make. It guaranteed the right of every worker to join a union, if they chose to and to be represented by that union.

Protestors Yelling. Photo by Jocelyn Holt

Since the Reagan era, and particularly during recent Republican administrations, key aspects of the Wagner act have either been diluted by subsequent legislation or selectively not enforced. This is really a war between the rights of workers and the rights of owners. How have the owners been so successful in advancing their agendas of paring back workers rights, while unions have been shrinking and losing their once formidable political clout?

It used to be that people sided pretty squarely with the group in which they belonged. Workers supported work rights, while owners opposed workers rights. Because there were less business owners than people who worked for a living, the workers, at least through their unions, had considerable political might. This is, after all, how democracy is supposed to work, more or less: if more people are in favor of something, the government attends to that, and if more people are against it, the government does nothing or acts against it. But a curious change has come over the electorate in the past 40 years. The general populous has become more and more anti-union.

There are two explanations for this: First of all, the unions themselves changed from being direct representatives of workers and agents for worker rights and became self-serving bureaucrats who feathered their own nests at the expense of the workers (just like the managers they were supposed to be opposing). Some of this is true. Secondly, the very well-funded, very pervasive education campaign was implemented right from grade-school through college and everywhere in the work environment, which taught anti-union, pro-management viewpoints, theories and conclusions, providing only empirical data that supported the pro-business perspective. This re-education campaign has been very successful.

But in Wisconsin, and the other states where massive unrest has been grudgingly reported in the national press, the curtain has been torn and people, many people have seen the agenda of the pro-business lobby to strip worker rights from all workers and return business to the same footing it had at the end of the 19th century when owners had all the rights and prerogatives and workers had none. Some "conservative" legislators are even trying to roll back child labor laws to 19th century levels.
Protestors Yelling. Photo by Jocelyn Holt

And there has been significant and widespread opposition to this by millions of Americans in every State of the Union. The protest has been seriously under-reported in the national press. Interestingly, it has been reported by much of the foreign press. Many more news stories have appeared in European news sources about these protests than have appeared in US news sources, even in the states where the biggest solidarity actions have taken place. The explanation of why this is so is not exactly rocket science: news media are controlled by the same anti-union elites that fund and direct the anti-union lobby.

What is needed now is for all those people who have woken up and found their working lives in real jeopardy to stand together and let their legislators know where they stand. Join a union, if you are not a union member. There are lots of unions to choose from. You may think you'll get nothing for it, but the fact is that in countries where union membership is high, as defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), workers do better and in countries where unions have few members, workers do poorly (Young).  It is a very good correlation.

This is not something someone else can do for you. You must get out there and become a part of a positive movement for progressive change. We need to reinstate the legal protections workers have lost and to make the democracy work for the majority instead of the minority. That is the function of government in a democracy. Without this effort on the part of every citizen, tyranny is inevitable.

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