A bold solution exists to the current infringement on worker rights by radical right-wing governors and conservative state legislatures. A National Public Employee Rights Act would take the decision of whether to allow public employees to collectively bargain out of the hands of State Governments and instantly grant freedom to every public servant in America. This Type of Federal Law would permanently change the way that state and local governments interact with their employees and would guarantee the rights of all public sector workers to collectively bargain.
By codifying the basic right to negotiate with one's employer in the public sector, millions of employees would be guaranteed their constitutional right to freely associate with a union. While the AFL-CIO and Several Unions are now recognizing the advantages of making a civil rights/constitutional argument for collective bargaining, there is still some work to be done on the messaging front; the ACLU says it best when framing the issue:
Unions facilitate and enhance the ability of their members to exercise core civil liberties, such as the First Amendment rights of association, speech, and petition.
Association: The First Amendment right of association protects the right of individuals to come together over issues of mutual interest. A union fundamentally is an association of individual workers seeking to address common workplace issues. When workers form a union, they are exercising a basic civil right. But because of anti-trust laws, workers who choose to exercise this right face potential legal liability, absent statutory protections. The statutory right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining is necessary to ensure that workers can continue to exercise their civil right to associate with other workers on issues of mutual concern.
Speech: The right to communicate with co-workers about workplace concerns comes from the statutory right to join a union and bargain collectively. Absent a statutory right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining, workers could lose the right to talk about the key issues that affect their daily lives, notwithstanding the importance of the issues to the workers, or the benefit to society from learning about those issues. The First Amendment does not protect private sector employees from efforts by their employers to censor speech, and public employees have only very limited protections when discussing workplace issues. The statutory right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining is therefore necessary to protect basic free speech values.
In addition, unions provide a vehicle for their members to participate meaningfully in the public debates that are critical to a democratic society. By combining their voices with other union members, workers can get heard.
Petition: Unions exist to defend the rights of their members, including by lobbying the government to defend the interests of the overall membership and by going to court to protect the rights of individual members. These are classic examples of the exercise of the First Amendment right to petition the government, but also activities that individual workers would likely lack the resources to undertake on their own. By combining resources with other union members, workers have the opportunity to exercise the critical right of petition through their unions.
A national law that guarantees the rights of ALL public employees to collectively bargain with their employer (even if your governor is a right wing nut-job or you live in GOP stronghold like Texas) would solve many of the problems that we are having in states like Ohio and Wisconsin. Governor Walker, his fellow governors, and forthcoming predecessors would be forced to negotiate with their employees in good faith and Public Employees would not live in fear of losing their rights every few years when hostile anti-worker politicians are elected. The newly granted right to organize for millions will set off a firestorm of organizing that will effectively change the plight of American workers everywhere.
Unfortunately, Unions have yet to win the passage of any significant pro-union legislation since the National Labor Relations Act became law in 1935. Not including Congress's most recent failure to pass the Employee Free Choice act under President Obama, four major attempts at labor law reform have failed to make their way through Congress. The United States Senate presents a monumental hurdle where the threshold for cloture, along with the challenge of uniting the corporately influenced democratic party appears insurmountable. To summarize:
Employee Free Choice Act, 2007 (failed)
Workplace Fairness Act (Striker Replacement Bill), 1993 (failed)
Labor Law Reform Act, 1977–1978 (failed)
Repeal of Section 14(b) of Taft-Hartley Act, 1965–1966 (failed)
During the four out of five attempts, a "union-friendly" President occupied the White House. Sadly, Presidents Johnson, Carter, Clinton and now Obama have refused to expend the necessary political capital for congressional passage and all of them appeared lackluster in their support. President Obama at times seems terrified of the word "union" and one cannot see a situation where he would actively campaign for a change in the status quo. By not lifting a finger for EFCA, and refusing to use the 'bully pulpit' to begin a serious national dialogue, President Obama has negligently passed on a incredible opportunity to become the first president to pass labor law reform.
A National Public Employee Rights Act may be a pipe-dream. Without a doubt, republicans will continue to unite against such efforts and corporately influenced democrats like Blanche Lincoln (the former senator from Arkansas) and Ben Nelson will continue to betray working families. Yet we owe it to the millions of public and private sector workers throughout the country to pass meaningful reform. One should not envision a scenario where this happens overnight. But, this is the perfect time to begin organizing for a more permanent solution to the tyrannical rule of anti-worker politicians.