They demonstrated in Egypt, now Wisconsin


First thousands took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. Then the wave of protests spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan and now—Wisconsin?

That’s what it seems like as nearly 70,000 gathered on Saturday in a week-long series of rallies in Madison to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s bill that would limit public workers (sanitation workers, teachers, nurses, and others but not police officers or firefighters) right to bargain collectively for things such as sick leave, vacation time, work conditions or shifts they work.  Public workers unions wouldn’t be eliminated. Such unions would retain the right to collectively bargain for wages, for example.

Of course, Scott Walker isn’t a Mubarak. In fact, those who voted for him in November see him the opposite, a hero of the people, someone willing to stand up against special interest groups so the state’s budget can be balanced.

The right of public employees to unionize isn’t recognized in every state. Thirteen states that don’t allow for public sector bargaining. The right doesn’t exist in the Constitution, but it is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23), of which the United States is a signatory. A 2007 Canadian Supreme Court decision explained the rationale for the right this way: “The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work . . . Collective bargaining is not simply an instrument for pursuing external ends   …rather [it] is intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government . . . Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Workers gain a voice to influence the establishment of rules that control a major aspect of their lives.”

Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee intelligent conversation; freedom of religion doesn’t protect against preposterous beliefs; and freedom to bargain collectively may mean additional costs and inefficiencies in the workplace. But that’s the risk of having rights in a democracy.

Public employees are different from private employees in that taxpayers are their employers and the services they perform are deemed to be for the common good. The attack on government workers’ right to collective bargaining has several roots. Many middle-class Americans feel they already are overwhelmed by taxes; some are ideologically opposed to government and want to move as many jobs as possible into the private sector. Another reason is that many Americans don’t like unions in general, seeing them as contrary to individual efforts and drags on capitalism.

If the fight were only about money, then it could be approached the way it is in, say, New York, where Gov. Cuomo is ready to do battle with public sector unions, not by weakening them through legislation, but by doing what any employer does in dealing with unions. Cuomo will make his position public, he will make his argument in every forum he can, he will bargain hard, he will make dire predictions about the state’s viability if he doesn’t get his way, he will cast his opponents in the worst possible light, but he won’t take away the right to collective bargaining.

The right to collective bargaining isn’t as firmly established as other rights. You can’t find it in the Constitution but it can be inferred from the clause on freedom of assembly. If we truly believe in democratic values, then it is hard to argue against a right that “enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of the workers.” I suspect that many of Gov. Walker’s supporters don’t care about workers or democracy but instead seek the destruction of unions in general as impediments to economic prosperity and the privatization of public services, from garbage collection, to schools and hospitals, as a way of dismantling government.

During the week of revolution in Cairo, the Saudis said that Americans should stop talking about universal rights. We didn’t. And we shouldn’t now when human rights are under threat in Madison.

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