I don’t know much about what’s going on in Wisconsin, but I just read this article by Lauren Knapp, entitled Wisconsin, Other State Legislatures Consider Eliminating Collective Bargaining. Knapp writes:
Republican state senators in Wisconsin tried for a second day Friday to vote on a bill that would take collective bargaining rights from public workers.
The fight over Wisconsin state workers’ right to collective bargaining came to a dramatic halt on Thursday when fourteen democratic state senators left the state to avoid voting on the controversial bill. The state senate issued a “Call of the House,” which allows them to send out state troopers to retrieve the missing senators.
The bill, proposed by newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker, would strip government workers of their right to collective bargaining and require that workers pay for half the cost of their pensions and 12.6% of their health coverage.
CHINA, HAN DONGFANG and COLLECTIVE BARGAINING
Consider, in the same conservation, the following:
In 1989, in Tiananmen Square, 26-year-old railway electrician Han Dongfang helped form the first independent trade union in China in 40 years, and fight for the right to have collective bargaining. For his trouble, Han spent 22 months in prison, was treated brutally, and in the process, acquired TB and lost a lung.
That 40 years without independent unions, of course, is just one of the many putrid side-effects of Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese communists coming to power in 1949. Improved literacy was a positive. Mass murder another negative.
For those who choose to see, the Chinese communists and the Soviet Union offer us prime examples of the absurdity of so-called Left and Right politics.
Are Unions of the Left or Right? Left. Right?
Are the Soviet Union and communist China considered Left or Right? Very Left. Exactly. That’s completely right.
What did these two politically Left nations do? They smashed and crushed anything resembling a labour union, anything resembling workplace democracy, anything resembling the right of assembly, and at times murdered or imprisoned those who tried to gain rights for workers.
But heck, I thought the Left were in favour of labour unions. Turns out the Communist Chinese and the Soviet Union both despised labour unions.
So repeat after me:
What we’re left with here is the mistreatment of workers that isn’t right.
But not being right doesn’t make it Left, right? Unless you’re Right and you hate the Left, which is the right way to be Right. Then you think that anything that’s left with the Right that isn’t right is Left.
But the Left thinks that things that aren’t right aren’t Left but Right, right? Either way, how can it be right to be left with this Chinese/Soviet Right-hating Communist disdain for labour unions being called Left, when that’s the right way to think to be called Right, and what’s left to the Left is unions, because those who are right on the Left say labour unions are right, and it’s the Right who hate labour unions because they’re “supposedly” Left, right?
So the right meanings of Left and Right are left meaningless by Right and Left ideologues and the mainstream press, Left and Right, who left the right nuance too far behind to grasp that we don’t know what’s right or what’s left—let alone what’s Left with the Right and Right with the Left, right?
TREATING HUMAN BEINGS RIGHT
I had the chance to interview the gracious Han Dongfang last summer (I have a short clip that I will post soon). Here’s what he said, referring to collective bargaining and the dictatorship of China:
In my understanding, democracy should be meaning, in the workplace, the workers should have the equal position, in front of the employer. The chance to speak, the chance to discuss about our salary, our benefits, so it’s a mutual respect relationship based on collective bargaining.
The  Honda Factory Worker strike [in southern China broke] the ice completely and the labour movement in China now looks much brighter than ever. The most important message they brought out was the idea of collective bargaining.
We have at least 500 million workers in China. If one-third of them have the rights to have real, workplace collective bargaining, we will be able to change the whole way that globalization develops and the whole world develops based on cheap labour without workers’ unions.
There are, of course, unions and union employees who actually contribute to some of the negative ways people and the press speak about unions. A guy I know, for example, a temporary shop steward in his union, was able to end the shift for his workers an hour early one day. A couple of folks happened to have to work, literally, a few minutes more to finish up. For having done so, they filed a grievance.
This kind of bullshit, evidently, is not unusual, and limits external empathy. I would be a liar not to admit that.
Some teachers that I know, and damn good teachers, feel little or no affiliation or solidarity between themselves (as the rank and file) and their Union (as bureaucracy). The relationship, for many, has gone cold. So Unions have problems and a lot of work to do, and maybe size is one of the problems (those teachers are, nonetheless, guaranteed a lot of union-fought-for advantages).
In the same vein, the massive bureaucracy and the non-democratic nature of some unions or aspects of unions definitely bother me, along with the corruption of some unions. The Teamsters leap to mind—for everyone. But there are many others, worse, as a rule, in the US than in Canada or Europe. Corruption sucks.
And, of course, wages that are too large for a company to pay, and still compete, are a problem. Of course, they’re competing with other companies working in dictatorships where their workers are treated like beasts of burden—poverty cheap pay under horrifically long hours and inhuman conditions. So is the problem actually high wages or competing with slave wages?
And these same companies, of course, while fighting unions, and fighting minimum wage laws, are also constantly fighting to put caps on CEO pay and bonuses (see the Financial Sector pre- and post-bailout), and shareholder profits.
The last half of that sentence (the italicized part) was unadulterated sarcasm.
And in that bleeding vein of CEO bonuses, how much of this attack in Wisconsin simply serves as a fantastic distraction from the truly criminal stealing and ongoing thievery by large parts of the financial sector on Wall Street and all over the world?
But the essence of unions, it needs to be remembered, has been and always will be (or should be), as I have been told over and over, “a self-defence mechanism against the brutality of Power.” History shows this to be so often true.
ANIMAL RIGHTS AS OPPOSED TO HUMAN RIGHTS
One could then rightly ask, ‘Well, what about a good employer? Is that not enough?’ I asked Han the same question. His answer was enlightening. He said human beings are not equal if they have to hope to have an employer who treats them well, who hopefully allows communication et cetera.
And granted, some non-union employers are fantastic. But hoping for a fantastic employer is not human rights, or civil rights, Han told me, this is animal rights—where hopefully the animal is treated well (and you’ll notice how often animals are treated brutally).
For humans to have a semblance of equality, of dignity, they need to have the right (and the opportunity) to freely and safely air grievances—in this case with their employer. This is, by definition, collective bargaining. The right to negotiate collectively with the employer.
Without this, it is a dictatorship—even if a benevolent one. It is certainly not democracy, and it is not free speech. Many massive corporations already exclude or de facto exclude this right of negotiation—a situation deeply exacerbated for workers when only no or limited or unenforced legislation is available, like in much of the Third World—or even with, say, Canada’s own Orwellian-labelled Permanent-Temporary workforce.
This explanation between Animal Rights and Human Rights from Han Dongfang—who risked everything to fight for what Wisconsin is trying to end—made sense to me.
And whether one agrees with ‘unions’ or not, name a single country in the world with decent workers’ rights that doesn’t have a decent union history and unions in place today.
Unions need to evolve, of course, but they were and are themselves a vital part of the evolution of the West towards free speech, towards the right of assembly, the right to discuss freely with one’s employer, and all that offers.
These rights are vital to plant the necessary seeds for even the semblance of a decent society, for dignity amongst the largest portion of the population.
To say it again, you’ll notice that countries without unions are invariably (always?) really shitty countries that also don’t have, for example, freedom of speech or any tangible legal recourse for the non-elites. That, in my opinion, is not a coincidence.
WALL STREET JOURNAL, HEAVY ON THE WALL STREET
Finally, this questionnaire came from the Wall Street Journal on-line, and is typically disjointed:
Ohio and Wisconsin are considering a bill which would strip state’s public employees of most collective-bargaining rights. What do you think? Would the end of collective bargaining for public workers means [sic] new savings and efficiencies for taxpayers? Or would it be unfair to state workers?
First of all, only a newspaper as unjournalistic as the Wall Street Journal (and all the others) would make this an and/or question.
Question One—Would the end of collective bargaining for public workers means[sic] new savings and efficiencies for taxpayers?—is controversial, but let’s just leave it alone for now.
Question Two—Or would it be unfair to state workers?—is simply an intentionally misleading, manipulative question that separates the worker here from almost everybody else (who just so happen to be workers, too).
To echo the brutally-lived experience of Han Dongfang—not to mention millions of workers in the Canadian and American past and, yes, present—the Question could just as easily be:
Would it be unfair to state workers to give up their human rights (the right and opportunity to safely negotiate grievances with an employer is collective bargaining) and thus abandon gains fought for over centuries to live instead under ‘animal rights,’ where the worker, at best, can only hope and pray for a decent employer?
I, personally, have limited faith in some benevolent dictator curing, say, the misery inside factory farms. Indeed, the reality of Power (backed by the State) is why Unions formed in the first place. I have not seen any sort of systemic, innate benelovence by multi-national corporations working in the Third World, either, when First World laws no longer apply. Have you? The main function of a corporation, for better or worse, is to maximize profit, and profit expands wherever it can. That is the DNA of profit.
For CBS News, I’m Dan Rather, as in Rather Concerned. Actually, I’m Pete McCormack, and I hope a little of Han Dongfang’s story makes us pause.
Love more! Fight for the innocent underdog!