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Solidarity with Workers in Wisconsin and Across the Nation
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
People supporting Wisconsin workers' rights, including UUSC staffperson Daniel Karp, at the Boston solidarity rally on Tuesday, February 22.
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 [PDF] into state law on March 11, he disregarded the passionate pleas and sensible compromises of thousands of union workers and their supporters who had been peacefully protesting for weeks at the state capitol in Madison. UUSC recognizes this new legislation — currently blocked from taking effect due to legal challenges — as a grave threat to workers' rights in Wisconsin and throughout the country.
In its enacted form, the bill will limit collective bargaining for most public employees, put a cap on wages, and require that members vote every year to recertify their unions. While 14 Democratic state senators delayed the bill's vote for nearly a month by preventing a quorum, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a modified bill by removing its fiscal provisions to make the quorum unnecessary. The bill had initially been put forward as a measure to close the state's budget gap, but the Republican legislators' legislative maneuver sent a strong message: this was not about fiscal responsibility, it was about curbing the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.
Why unions are important
The right to organize and bargain collectively is a human right upheld by article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is fundamental to the mandate of the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations. Vibrant union participation is critical in upholding that right and ensuring that other labor rights are protected.
With unions, workers experience higher wages and safer working conditions. In 2010, among full-time workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $917, while nonunionized workers had median weekly earnings of $717. Union workers are twice as likely to have quality health insurance and three times more likely to have pension benefits. Moreover, non-union workers benefit from union strength; where unions are strong, nonunion workers receive better pay than in areas where unions are weak.
Through unions and collective bargaining, workers balance their voices against the power of employers and build a strong economy. According to a report by the Center for American Progress[PDF], "If unionization rates were the same now as they were in 1983 and the current union wage premium remained constant, new union workers would earn an estimated $49 billion more in wages and salaries per year. If union coverage rates increased by just 5 percentage points over current levels, newly unionized workers would earn an estimated $25.5 billion more in wages and salaries per year." These increased wages would be recycled into local economies and — since consumer spending makes up 70 percent of our economy — act as an economic stimulus. Unions also help small businesses, which benefit from competition based on sustainable business practices, rather than being forced to compete with other companies in a race to the bottom.
The changing face of unions
Several decades ago, the average union member was typically middle-aged, white, and male and worked in the manufacturing sector, but the face of union membership has changed in the past 30 years. A report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research highlights new trends in the makeup of unions:
- While many groups' unionization rates fell in 2010, Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in organized labor, increasing 5.8 percent since 1983, and Asians are second, increasing 2.1 percent since 1989.
- African-American workers are more likely to be union members than white, Asian, or Latino workers and have maintained a constant share of the total unionized workforce, while white membership has declined.
- Women now make up over 45 percent of the unionized workforce and are predicted to be the majority of union workers by the end of this decade.
- The union membership rate for public-sector workers (36.2 percent) far exceeds the rate for private-sector workers (6.9 percent), and in 2010 half a million more public-sector employees belonged to a union compared to private-sector employees.
- Today, only about 1 in 10 union workers are in the manufacturing sector.
With approximately 61 percent of unionized women working in the public sector and a greater share of all unionized employees working in government, recent efforts to curtail public-sector workers' right to organize is now increasingly affecting women and people of color.
Increasing challenges to unions — and human rights
While the U.S. labor movement has a rich history, the United States lags far behind in formal recognition of international labor standards: it has ratified only 14 of the 188 ILO Conventions, which does not include two fundamental conventions upholding freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Not only has the United States failed to sign onto the human-rights framework that protects collective bargaining, the current legal and political environment has significantly decreased unionization of the American workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in 2010 dropped from 12.3 percent to 11.9 percent — a striking decline from 20.1 percent in 1983. Stagnating wages and a widening wealth gap have accompanied this long-term decline in union density.
Governor Walker's efforts to restrict collective bargaining may not be surprising, since union busting is already a well-documented strategy among private corporations seeking to maximize profit at the expense of their workers. In fact, 80 percent of companies hire expensive union-busting law firms or consultants to advise them on how to remain union-free, and 49 percent of companies threaten to close down their business if workers organize a union. Every year, an estimated 20,000 workers are illegally fired or discriminated against for trying to form a union. Many more are illegally harassed or threatened by employers, and half of employers have illegally coerced workers into opposing unions through bribes and favors. Some say that recent efforts by state governments — because it's not only Wisconsin — to limit collective bargaining are a concerted effort to weaken organized labor in the public sector as it has been in the private sector. And it may be just the beginning of the further erosion of human rights in Wisconsin and other states.
Wisconsin as catalyst for change
Recent debates over the situation of public-sector workers are mobilizing working people across the country in support of their right to organize. While it has gotten comparatively less attention than the precarious position of collective bargaining, the movement against this affront to workers is building across the nation. In the days following the passage of the bill in Wisconsin, up to an estimated 100,000 people turned out to protest in Madison alone, the largest protest the city has witnessed. According to some accounts, nearly 100,000 people have participated in solidarity rallies to support Wisconsin's public workers in all 50 state capitals and other cities across the country. And people are launching dynamic campaigns to recall Wisconsin Republican senators. These demonstrations of public support for workers' rights deliver the powerful message that while organized labor has weakened significantly in recent years, the fight for workers' rights — for human rights — has new strength.
As an independent nonprofit human-rights organization, UUSC operates on the principle that it should uphold its mission both externally and internally. The staff members of UUSC are represented by Human Rights Workers Local 2661, a member of the New England Joint Board of UNITE-HERE.