The attack on human rights in Wisconsin

This is a fast-developing news story, so I’ll try to stick to basics: As I wrote several days ago, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed legislation that, in effect, would outlaw collective bargaining by the state’s public workers.

In doing so, he is advocating the denial of what the International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has deemed a core human right.

Governor Walker’s attack on human rights is unlike anything I’ve seen in the U.S. during my adult lifetime. He is using the state’s budget woes as a pretext to justify denying workers the right to bargain over their compensation and benefits. Hard bargaining at the negotiation table in the midst of tough economic times is one thing, but moving to deny workers a collective voice is pure thuggery.

Ready to put down protest

Gov. Walker has indicated his willingness to call out the National Guard to stand against protesters, and he has exempted from his legislation the police and firefighters unions that backed him for election. In other words, like powerful abusers of human rights elsewhere, he’s making sure that he can demonstrate a show of force against everyday citizens whenever necessary.

National significance

Tens of thousands of citizens descended upon Madison to protest Walker’s legislation, and 14 Democratic legislators left the state in order to block consideration of the bill. This quickly has become an event of national significance, and whatever happens here will reverberate throughout state capitols across the country.

Rick Ungar, writing for Forbes magazine (link here), calls the Wisconsin legislation the “Final Battle” in the war against unions and urges its defeat:

Without the collective bargaining powers that unions bring as the only real offset to corporate greed and without the organizing strength unions bring to political action, there will be no counter-balance to corporate power. I promise that you will not like the result if our unions should disappear – even if you are not a union member.

For these reasons, I would argue that anyone who does not find themselves among the 5% of the wealthiest in America, should stand up and declare, “Today, we are all Cheeseheads.”

Follow the story

Here are some links worth checking out:

1. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute puts the Wisconsin situation in the context of worker dignity, here.

2. For today’s news coverage, see the Wisconsin State Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post. (Hat tip to Workplace Prof blog for the links.)

3. For commentary on what it means to workers in state-funded higher education, see the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Disclosure note: I have added my name to a statement submitted by labor relations academicians, protesting the proposed legislation.


Addendum: Marquette University law professor Paul Secunda, writing in the Capitol Times, calls the legislation to shut down collective bargaining un-American, here. Hat-tip to Workplace Prof blog for the link.

Addendum: If you don’t believe that the Wisconsin GOP’s real intention is deprive the state’s public workers of human rights, then check out this story from the Milwaukee Business Journal (with a hat tip to Alternet for the link), explaining that the unions had agreed to pay and benefit cuts in exchange for retaining the right to collectively bargain, but their offer was refused:

Although union leaders and Wisconsin Democratic Senators are offering to accept the wage and benefit concessions Gov. Scott Walker is demanding, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said today a bill taking away collective bargaining rights from public employees is not negotiable.


2/21/11 update — Scott Bauer of the Associated Press (link here, via Yahoo! News) reports a continuing standoff in Madison:

As the standoff entered its second week, none of the major players offered any signs of backing down in a high-stakes game of political chicken that has riveted the nation and led to ongoing public protests that drew a high of 68,000 people on Saturday. Thousands more braved cold winds and temperatures in the 20s to march again on Monday, waving signs that said “Stop the attack on Wisconsin families” and “solidarity.”

13 responses

  1. This is me not understanding. I’m not taking sides. BUT why is the public sector so much more disrespected by this action than those of us who have worked in the private sector, lost our jobs through no fault of our own and had no one stand up for us at all.

    • Collective bargaining rights for private employees are regulated through federal law, whereas state workers are covered by state law. That’s why the legislation is limited to state workers in Wisconsin. Wisconsin private sector employees would retain the right to join unions and collectively bargain if the legislation is enacted.

    • Mary, also I don’t think it’s a matter of taking sides. Labor unions, however imperfect some of them are, serve as bases of mutual support among workers. More public sector workers are unionized, which means their unions have the power and resources to organize protests and generate political support. That’s why, in addition to the sheer audacity of attempting to take away fundamental rights, this is getting so much attention.

      By sad comparison, the paucity of unionized private sector workers is one of the many reasons why private sector workers don’t have political allies when there are layoffs and other threats to job security. The idea of worker solidarity in the private sector is pretty much a non-starter, which means it’s everyone on their own.

  2. The drastic reduction of union membership in private sector has left private sector workers without much support. We do stand together with union workers in private sector, we walk the picket lines and support with strike funds. Unfortunately greedy union busting thugs have made it difficult to organize. We need to change and enforce laws that allow unions to organize in private sector.

    • Alas, there was a window of opportunity to address the problems with federal labor laws in the aftermath of the 2008 election, but the political leadership was missing. Now, you’ve got the President making nice with the Chamber of Commerce, which virulently opposes unions, not to mention workplace bullying legislation. It’s all rather depressing.

  3. Pingback: Ethics Roundup 2-20-11 « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  4. Pingback: Did Gov. Walker hand the labor movement a silver lining? « Minding the Workplace

  5. Pingback: Bloggers Take Sides in the Wisconsin Standoff | MMC-NEWS

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