Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."

Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.

In that context, President Obama’s very strong defense of collective bargaining is noteworthy, especially because the somewhat prosaic process of collective bargaining is the heart of trade unionism.  It is at the bargaining table that workplace power is balanced, and the voice of employees is heard. It is where, as human beings, workers achieve dignity; where they have an opportunity to exercise some control over their professions and their conditions of work. It is where labor-management collaboration can begin. And, as one recent paper by Thomas Kochan and other respected scholars suggests, it is where, under the radar, a number of private-sector labor-management partners have developed “innovative models for jointly addressing issues such as quality, cost, training, outsourcing, and adjustments to changes in budgets."

The same report suggests that public sector bargaining (with some tweaks to the laws that narrow the scope of bargaining in many states) could also produce the same kind of efficiencies and cost savings in the public sector. All that is needed is to draw on the untapped expertise of the people who actually do the work – the employees.

But beyond improved wages and benefits, improved voice in the profession, or even workplace efficiencies, there’s another aspect of collective bargaining that’s worth noting:  bargaining teaches the virtues of collective action and the value of representation in making decisions.  And the experience of union life and internal union democracy can affect both members and the broader community in surprising ways.

For example, a recent study (abstract only) of social movement unionism found a significant relationship between the experience of union membership and civic activism. Specifically, the researchers found that Latino union members are more likely than their non-union counterparts to participate in their children’s schooling, especially in advocacy roles. The individual testimonies are moving. Union members in the study credited their experiences in the labor movement with giving them the confidence and training to participate actively with their kids’ schools. The give and take of union meetings, the experience of collective action in a variety of advocacy situations spilled over into their private lives as citizens and parents. 

As one woman told researchers: “The union teaches you how to work with others to resolve problems.”  Another commented: “For somebody who didn’t go to school for very long, the union is like a school."

This notion of unions as “incubators of democracy” goes back to the immigrants from Europe who played such an important role in early 20th century unionism.  The process of collective bargaining, voting on agreements, and the overall experience gained through union membership are crucial drivers in this process of “democratic acculturation”.

Thus, at least for me, it was heartening to hear another president declare his allegiance to collective bargaining, as so many American presidents – both Democrat and Republican –have done before. It is indeed a bedrock right undergirding this democracy.

- Randall Garton