31 July 2014

Where does collective bargaining come from?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has predictably rejected a constitutional challenge to the law passed by Republican legislators and signed by Gov. Scott Walker that drastically curtailed public employees' collective-bargaining rights. The result was predictable not because the state's court is stacked with conservatives or Republican appointees, but because many observers, including many opposed to the law, accepted that there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining at either the state or federal level. In Wisconsin, the majority opinion states, "collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation." However, this remains an incomplete picture. The idea of collective bargaining didn't begin with politicians, after all, but with workers. What Wisconsin's public employees ought to remember is that while collective bargaining may not be guaranteed them by any constitution, it remains a legitimate goal of collective action. It may be up to partisan legislators to recognize or not recognize collective bargainers, but it is also up to workers to force the issue if they so choose. Collective bargaining is always as much a creation of collective will, at least, as it is a creation of legislative grace or the good will of private-sector employers. Wisconsin Republicans have told the public-employee unions that you can't take collective bargaining for granted anymore. As many others had to in the past, the unions will have to fight for it if they want it badly enough. They may hope to win the fight in the voting booth by electing a Democratic governor and legislature, but that is never workers' only option -- or else the court would be correct, after all.

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