My colleague Charles Lane, a stellar product of the equally stellar, unionized Montgomery County school district, has opined that collective bargaining should be banned for public employees. However, he writes, “No one is saying public workers have no right to organize. They are free to associate and lobby government, openly, for better wages and working conditions.”
Lane doesn’t address just what form that lobbying should take. When public employees have been forbidden from collective bargaining, they’ve been known to strike, however illegal that may be. It’s certainly the path that Chinese employees of state-owned and –supported companies have taken in recent years. In the U.S., before they were allowed to bargain collectively, it was the path taken by a range of public-sector workers, including the cops in Boston and the sanitation workers in Memphis. When such actions are illegal, it goes without saying that no worker is legally compelled to support them, as they are compelled to support their unions for collective bargaining purposes when collective bargaining is legal, and when their unions have won the support of a majority of their co-workers and are engaged in negotiating and administering a contract. Of course, workers strike when collective bargaining is legal, too, but those strikes are confined to periods when they’re working without contracts. Strikes also tend to be less intense, and their repression less violent, when they’re legally permissible.
These are contingencies Lane doesn’t address. We may infer, I suppose, that he thinks public employees should be as forbidden from striking as they would be from bargaining collectively. But he should know that workers banded together usually don’t win anything save through collective bargaining or striking, and that sooner or later, workers denied the right to bargain collectively will go in for work stoppages and the like. It’s not clear if Lane is okay with that, or if he thinks such strikes should be suppressed, if needs be by force.
Lane also takes issue with my last week’s column in defense of public employee unions and its “argument … that public-employee unions, with their large campaign donations and political staffs, have become ‘the all-around linchpin of the modern Democratic Party’ and the progressive causes for which it stands.” In fact, the reason the Democratic Party takes progressive stands is often due to union pressure on issues that actually have little or nothing to do with the interests of unions. The AFL-CIO, for instance, began calling for the legalization of undocumented immigrants in 1999, well before it became the Democrats’ priority, and the Service Employees International Union has funded and organized many pro-immigrant campaigns. Unions, both public and private, played a key role in the fight to better regulate Wall Street, and the campaign to eliminate the cloture requirement to confirm presidential nominees and pass legislation in the Senate. No organizations can even approach the record of unions in turning out minority and working-class voters in elections. Without such efforts, it’s hard to envision how progressive legislation of any kind could be enacted.
For all that we may differ on collective bargaining for public employees, however, I note with some hope that Lane affirms the importance of collective bargaining in the private sector. In recent decades, as Lane must surely know, private-sector employers confronting the efforts of their employees to unionize have violated the law with complete and increasing impunity in their usually successful efforts to thwart their workers’ wishes. I welcome, then, Lane’s affirmation of this fundamental American right, and look forward to his joining me and others who seek to reform labor law and stiffen the penalties for employer violations, so that workers can join unions without fear of being fired. See you on the barricades, Chuck.