Jul 10th 2014

Why Collective Bargaining is a Fundamental Human Right

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

The ability for ordinary working people to organize and collectively bargain over their wages and working conditions is a fundamental human right.  It is a right just as critical to a democratic society as the right to free speech and the right to vote.

Over the last 30 years many in corporate America and the big Wall Street banks have conducted a sustained attack on that human right. Unionization dropped from 20.1% of the workforce in 1983 to 11. 3% in 2013 -- and the results are there for everyone to see.
During that period productivity and Gross Domestic Product per capita both increased by roughly 80% in America.  But the wages of ordinary Americans have remained stagnant.  Virtually all of the fruits of that increased productivity have gone to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.
No wonder the gang on Wall Street opposes unions.
That fact that all of the productivity gains went to the top 1% is not the result of an immutable law of nature.  When unions represented a quarter of the private sector workforce, a larger and larger percentage of the total economic pie flowed into the pockets of ordinary Americans – and the result was the world’s most vibrant middle class.
The simple fact is that absent government regulation and collective bargaining agreements, the market by itself does not assure that everyone shares in the fruits of society’s increased economic productivity.  In fact, we know that just the opposite is true.
This is not surprising. The power relationship between the owners of capital and millions of individual employees is completely imbalanced in favor of big corporations and banks.  
Everyone with a modicum of employment experience knows that most ordinary employees cannot individually “bargain” over their wages.  In order to have a negotiation between two equal partners, employees must organize unions and bargain collectively.   Otherwise the wages of everyday Americans will continue to stagnate, and the wealth of the 1% will continue to explode.
The share of income of the top one-thousandth of the population increased from 2% to nearly 10% in the last several decades. The portion of income received by the top 10% went from 33% in 1970 to 47% in 2010.   These are the highest levels of income inequality since the 1920’s.
And the concentration of wealth in the hands of the very rich is higher today that at any time since before the Great Depression.  The top 10% now owns over 70% of all wealth. The top 1% owns almost 35% of all wealth – while the bottom 50% owns 2%.
Left to itself the laissez faire market place would naturally lead to even more concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the very rich. And that would mean that the economy as a whole would almost certainly stagnate and crash once again.
That’s because it is economic common sense that if ordinary workers produce more and more products and services per hour, but their wages don’t go up in proportion to their increased productivity – there will be more and more products and services, but no customers with the money in their pockets to buy all of those new products and services.
That’s a simple truism that Henry Ford understood when he vowed to pay his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars they produced.
Democratic societies cannot long endure this increasing inequality.  And there are only two effective treatments for the cancer of increasing inequality:
Government action – increases in the minimum wage and a return to fair tax rates on the wealthy – and especially on the accumulation of capital;
A massive increase in the percentage of the labor force that exercises its right to collectively bargain its wages.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court made a decision actually aimed at weakening the human right to collectively bargain wages and working conditions. Their decision held that home care workers  -- who were miserably exploited before they joined a union just 10 years ago -- could not be “forced” to pay a “fair share” contribution to support the collective bargaining that had resulted in doubling of their pay.
In fact, of course, this decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the freedom of the home care workers to opt out of paying union dues.  It had everything to do with trying to weaken public sector unions that are the only portion of the labor movement that has materially grown (to represent 35% of the public sector work force) over the last 30 years. 
It is completely fair that workers who choose a union to represent them with a democratic vote should also be obligated to pay for the cost of negotiating and administering a labor contract.   The same, after all, is true of ordinary citizens who democratically elect a city government.  Even if you voted against the Mayor and city council, you still have to pay taxes to the city.  Otherwise lots of people would simply enjoy the benefits of receiving the public goods produced by city government  -- or a union contract -- without paying their share of the costs.
This Supreme Court case was brought by the National “Right to Work” Committee – whose goal is a “union-free environment.”  Their contributors include some of the wealthiest people in America who want to continue to be able to siphon off all of the increases in productivity in our economy without being required to share anything with ordinary Americans or pay a living wage.  They understand that their best bet to achieve that goal is to limit the right to collective bargaining.  Luckily ordinary Americans are waking up to their game.
Last year the number of private sector workers in unions rose by 281,000 over the year previous. Unfortunately, this increase was partially offset by a reduction of 118,000 public sector workers in unions.  The public sector decline resulted from political actions by Republican State Legislators and Governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin – which helps explain why the National Right to Work Committee is so keen on weakening public sector unions.
But public sector unions are organizing to push back with aggressive new organizing drives to enlist more rank and file workers. And in the private sector we’ve seen massive new organizing campaigns – especially in the service sector that is the fastest growing component of the economy. For example, fast food workers have organized the “fight for $15” per hour and a union.
And there is  now a robust national campaign to raise the minimum wage that is supported by almost 70% of Americans.
Increasingly, ordinary Americans understand who is on their side – and who is not.
Luckily for American working people, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely only strengthen the resolve of an increasingly creative labor movement to assert the right to collective bargaining – and to demand that ordinary people once again begin receiving a fair share of the fruits of America’s growing productivity.
According to Bloomberg News, the nation’s 100 top paid CEO’s make from 299 to 1,795 times as much as their average employees.  One of them actually makes $65,000 per hour.  These numbers have skyrocketed over the last 30 years.   
Bruce Rauner, who is running for Governor in Illinois, proudly describes himself as being part of the .01%.  He made $25,000 per hour in 2012 – and then had the audacity to propose that the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 be reduced to the current national minimum wage of $7.25. So much for a sense of perspective from the CEO class.
Some pundits and columnists have bought the notion that is propagated by these CEO’s that labor unions are “so 20th century.”   Oh, they say, we might have needed unions at one time to address problems like child labor and 80-hour work weeks – but not in the modern “information” age.
It is of course true that organized labor not only massively increased salaries for ordinary employees through collective bargaining.  Unions also organized for – and won -- the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the weekend, paid sick days, vacation pay, and an end to child labor.   In other words, labor unions brought America the middle class.
Now the middle class is in jeopardy, precisely because of the Wall Street’s war on collective bargaining.
In fact, given the skyrocketing inequality in the distribution of the fruits of an increasingly productive economy, it should to be clear to anyone who is mildly conscious that we need labor unions and collective bargaining now more than ever.
America is richer now than at any time in its history.  It is the wealthiest society in the history of humanity.  But the wages of most ordinary people have not increased for 30 years.  Time to wake up and smell the coffee -- and do something about it.  
America needs a massive new social movement to demand that every worker in every job have the right to organize collectively.  Every worker should have the right to be in a union in exactly the same way that every American has the right to vote.  That is the only way to empower ordinary people to effectively demand their fair share of the fruits of our economy. 
The right to freedom of association – and to collectively bargain wages and working conditions -- is a foundational principle of every democratic society on earth.  That right is rooted in the United States’ Bill of Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organization, and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It’s time for us to make the right to join a union and bargain collectively the keystone of the progressive agenda.
After all, collective bargaining is the fundamental cure to the growing inequality that threatens to destroy the middle class and eats away at the very foundation of our democratic society.
Follow Robert Creamer on Twitter: @rbcreamer.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "