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  • Reviving Labor After Wisconsin: Unions Need A New Approach Emphasizing Civil Rights

    Written on June 11, 2012

    Our guest authors today are Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a civil rights attorney. They are authors of the book Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy By Enhancing Worker Voice.

    Conservatives are calling the failure of public sector unions to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker labor’s “Waterloo.”  Just as private sector unionism has declined from a third of the workforce in the 1950s to less than 7 percent today, Charles Krauthammer writes in the Washington Post, “Tuesday, June 5, 2012, will be remembered as the beginning of the long decline of the public-sector union."

    This forecast seems an exercise in hyperbole (many voters don’t think recall elections are an appropriate response to policy disputes) but the setback for labor was indeed serious.  One of the lessons of Wisconsin is that if public sector unions want to survive, they need to find ways to help revive trade unionism in the private sector.

    The fates of the two sectors are deeply intertwined.

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  • Wisconsin: Will It Be "Cool Hand Luke" Or "Norma Rae"?

    Written on July 13, 2011

    As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.

    This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.

    How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.

    This is a "win-win" situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that "once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated." While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said.

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  • What Democracy Looks Like When We Actually Show Up

    Written on April 7, 2011

    As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.

    No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.

    Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.

    But, as always, we should put this figure in context.

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  • Fundamental Rights At Work

    Written on March 11, 2011

    As Wisconsin public employees reorganize for a long fight in the wake of the state GOP’s "midnight strike" at collective bargaining rights, it brought to my mind one of guest blogger Heba El-Shazli’s posts on Egypt. In it, she notes that Egypt’s new, independent unions are demanding reformed labor laws that incorporate the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

    For many people, this reference probably begs the question: What the heck is actually in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work?  The startlingly intense loathing of collective bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin GOP, and their supporters, is incentive enough to elaborate on this document.  

    Adopted in 1998, the Declaration commits ILO members " to respect and promote workers’ rights and principles”  in four categories:  freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. These are the “core” principles of the ILO, and are incorporated into its "conventions" – an expression of the ILO labor standards. This is the heart of this venerable, tripartite organization, in which business, labor, and government representatives share a place at the table.

    These conventions are not simply some amorphous “rights” dreamed up by union leaders. They are well-established international law, approved and reviewed by employers, unions, and government representatives.

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  • Seize The Day?

    Written on March 2, 2011

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

    This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

    This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

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