May 2011
April 21, 2011

Why we defend collective bargaining

Author: Richard E. Casagrande, Esq., NYSUT General Counsel
Source: NYSUT United

Wisconsin. Ohio. Florida. Indiana. Across the country, there is a coordinated drive to destroy public sector unions and end collective bargaining — the right of working men and women to stand together to negotiate with their employer about wages, hours, safety and other working conditions. The drive has gained strength since the last election, but it is not new. There have always been those who seek to repress the rights and aspirations of working people.

For much of our history, people had few workplace rights. Human labor and, more shamefully, human beings themselves, were often treated as commodities to be bought and sold at whatever price the market would bear. Indentured servitude was common in the American colonies. Slavery, based on race, was preserved by the original U.S. Constitution, and was not abolished until the 13th Amendment was enacted eight months after the Civil War ended.

It took 70 more years, enormous struggle, sacrifice and the Great Depression before private sector American workers truly gained the right to organize and bargain collectively, with the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act, named after New York's Senator Robert F. Wagner. By recognizing unions, the Wagner Act gave people a voice at work and the ability to obtain fair wages and decent benefits through collective bargaining.

New York has a particularly proud tradition of supporting collective bargaining. In 1938, our state constitution's Bill of Rights was amended to provide, in Article 1, § 17: "Labor of human beings is not a commodity nor an article of commerce and shall never be so considered or construed . . . Employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing."

New York thus not only forcefully renounced the dark past of treating labor as a commodity, but declared that the right of working people to associate for collective bargaining is as fundamental as the right to free speech, the freedom to worship, and the right to equal protection of laws. In 1967, with the passage of the Taylor Law, this fundamental right was extended to New York's public sector.

Yet, today, the voices against collective bargaining are louder than ever. Governor Walker in Wisconsin, Governor Kasich in Ohio, Governor LePage in Maine, Governor Christie in New Jersey, to name a few, rail against unions and seek to weaken or eliminate them. Other politicians claim to support collective bargaining, but propose measures that would harm the right to organize and bargain collectively.

These politicians are supported by shrill voices on talk radio and in cable news, and by a shadowy network of anti-union groups, endowed by corporate billionaires. All share the same goal: Working people must work harder and longer for whatever wages and under whatever working conditions as are dictated by their employers, and they must have no right to stand together to raise a voice on their own behalf, on behalf of their families, or those they serve.

But, theirs are not the only voices. Abraham Lincoln not only emancipated Americans from human bondage, he spoke eloquently in support of the right of free working people to organize. Franklin Roosevelt, who led us through the Great Depression and World War II, said he would join a union if he could, and his Labor Department issued posters showing a defiant Uncle Sam standing behind the right to organize.

Dwight Eisenhower said he had no use for "reactionaries" or "fools" who stood against the right to organize, and who would see workers returned to a "hapless mass."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued there could be no racial equality without equal economic opportunity, and there could be no equal economic opportunity without unions and collective bargaining. Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, while supporting a strike of that city's public sanitation workers. Even Ronald Reagan admitted that freedom cannot truly exist where the right to collective bargaining is denied.

Generations of Americans and New Yorkers fought for the right to bargain collectively. Many labor pioneers were murdered, beaten, jailed or fired in this quest. The current efforts to deny this basic right do not reflect the American way, and they certainly do not reflect the New York way. Whatever success these efforts may have is sure to be ephemeral because, in the long run, Americans just don't take well to being deprived of basic, fought-for rights.

Today, as New Yorkers, our right to organize and bargain collectively is under attack. We defend this right because whether you are a teacher, SRP, nurse, professor, police or corrections officer, firefighter, letter carrier, factory worker, plumber, retail clerk, or just about anyone else who earns a paycheck, you should never be told that you cannot associate with your co-workers to sit — as an equal — across from your employer at the bargaining table.

Remember, when we stand up for collective bargaining, we stand up not only for ourselves, but for our co-workers, for our families and for all working people.

We stand up for America, and we stand up for New York.