An 18-day-old revolt led by the young people of Egypt ousted President Hosni Mubarak on Friday, shattering three decades of political stasis here and overturning the established order of the Arab world.
Egypt’s future is mightily uncertain, but for now, this largely non-violent revolution, fueled by young Egyptians, has all the makings of an historic moment for human rights and freedom of association.
Wisconsin (and America) on a different path
Tucked inside the Times‘s national edition is a story headlined “Wisconsin May Take an Ax to State Workers’ Benefits and Their Unions.” As reported by Monica Davey and Steven Greenhouse, the newly-elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, is proposing significant benefit cuts for public employees and to take away most of their collective bargaining rights.
In addition to calling for benefit cuts, Walker’s plan involves “limiting collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to the issue of wages (instead of an array of issues, like health coverage or vacations).” He claims:
“I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Mr. Walker said. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.”
If necessary, he is ready to call out the National Guard if protests threaten to become violent.
Collective bargaining is a basic human right
I will put aside for now the question of whether these benefit cuts are necessary and fair. It is a complicated subject, though suffice it to say we are hearing only one side of it in the mainstream media.
Of equal, perhaps even greater concern is the full frontal attack on the very right to engage in collective bargaining, an effort so blatantly anti-worker that it betrays any attempt to characterize this as a budget-cutting measure.
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms, among other things, the right to association. The International Labour Organization, a part of the UN, holds that collective bargaining is a core human right (link here):
The right of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their own choosing is an integral part of a free and open society. In many cases, these organizations have played a significant role in their countries’ democratic transformation. From advising governments on labour legislation to providing education and training for trade unions and employer groups, the ILO is regularly engaged in promoting freedom of association.
In 2000, Human Rights Watch, in an extensive report titled Unfair Advantage, concluded that the state of labor rights in the U.S. was so abysmal that it constituted a violation of international human rights standards.
The demonization of public employees
To be sure, there are some comparative excesses in terms of pay, benefits, and pensions in the public sector. Certain arrangements carry a heavy whiff of back room deals and political thuggery. It also is true that state budgets everywhere are in crisis, part of the ongoing wave of aftershocks from the Great Recession.
However, the vast majority of public employees earn modest compensation and will receive modest pensions. One major national public employee union estimates that pensions for its members average $19,000 a year, hardly a windfall.
Nevertheless, the demonization of public employees has begun, for doing so helps to justify taking away their basic rights to bargain collectively for themselves and their families. But folks, listen up, this isn’t about budget control or balancing the books. This is part of a broader attack on the right of everyday people to associate and to join together to advance their common interests, make no mistake about it.