There is a power in a union.
Conservative political pundits prognosticate about the onslaught of austerity facing our nation. Many of these same pundits–often analysts of the Fox News variety, but also fiscally corporate members of the Democratic Party–believe that labor unions are an impediment to economic prosperity and argue that collective bargaining sets wages and work conditions above what the free market demands.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Collective bargaining is a civil right. Unionized employees’ compensation and work protections are essential to creating an upwardly mobile middle class and accelerating economy. As economist Paula Voos of Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations notes, “It is no accident that the prosperity and consumer boom of the 1950s–a period of unprecedented middle class expansion, broad business growth, increased home ownership, rising consumer spending, and the shared expectation that a college education was within the reach of everyone and that the lives of our children would be better than our own–followed the greatest sustained expansion of unionization in American history.”
Unsurprisingly, decreasing American middle class incomes and the rapidly widening wealth gap in our country parallel a significant decline in union membership. It is imperative, then, that we promote higher productivity by strengthening labor relations. Through their unions, employees may expose workplace problems, inefficient processes, unfair work conditions, and unsupportive compensation without fear of reprisal. Unions also increase the recruitment and retention of highly experienced employees, creating circumstances that favor professional development and mutual trust in the workplace. Perhaps most importantly, labor organizations foment understandings of democratic government and solidarity, resolving conflict and differences through negotiation, consensus-building, and participatory rulemaking. In other words, unions mold engaged and responsible citizens.
Gov. David Ige would, thus, be making a big mistake in vetoing SB 410, as he has threatened. According to Ige, “This bill directly impacts the ability of state departments to effectively manage its workforce by negating management rights to direct its workforce and requiring union consent on such matters as assignment, transfer and discipline.” Ige’s logic was echoed in a recent Honolulu Civil Beat editorial, in which the news group’s editors stated:
But conducting major surgery on a collective bargaining law that has served the islands and its tens of thousands of public employees for nearly 50 years is not funny. That’s why opponents of SB 410 include James Nishimoto, director of the Hawaii Department of Human Resources and the person who led recent collective bargaining talks that have resulted in significant pay increases for some of those very same unions—HGEA, the HSTA and the HFFA.
Civil Beat’s editors go on to suggest that the historical tie between unions and the Democratic Party led to the bill’s passage and, further, that the contracts awarded to Hawai’i’s workers this year–along with lawmakers’ efforts to buoy the Maui Health System and provide separation benefits for unionized medical professionals at state-run hospitals being taken over by Kaiser Permanente–show that the islands are “uncritically” friendly toward labor.
Ige and Civil Beat’s shockingly myopic assault on wokers’ rights couldn’t be more wrong. Far from distorting labor-management relations, SB 410 attempts to prevent “the employer” from blocking bargaining on issues that should be or traditionally have been negotiated. While media reports have focused on how the bill would make discipline, training, and terminations subject to collective bargaining, the measure would also apply to other items impacting work conditions. Consider, for example, public school teachers, who are often oversee more than 30 students per class in triple-digit temperatures. Seldom are teachers given adequate resources to meet the needs of each child, a tragedy that’s especially traumatic for special needs students. Negotiators from the Hawai’i State Teachers Association might want to discuss these workplace issues during contract talks, contending that ballooning class sizes, blazing classrooms, and impoverished resources degrade teachers’ ability to provide a quality education. Yet, Hawai’i Revised Statues 89-9, the law amended by SB 410, currently contains no language requiring the employer–in the example above, the Hawai’i State Department of Education–to consider these concerns during the collective bargaining process, effectively empowering the employer to dictate working conditions without consequence.
Moreover, issues of discipline, due process, and reemployment rights are top priorities for all labor movements, while any notion that the aloha state has been unduly sympathetic to labor recklessly discounts the causes for which local unions are fighting. To again cite Hawai’i’s hardworking public school teachers, in its recent contract agreement, HSTA secured annual raises of totaling nearly 14 percent over four years, a healthy deal that warrants the respect of teachers, the state, and the general public. As the following chart demonstrates, however, Hawai’i’s teachers are grossly underpaid compared to their national peers when their salaries are adjusted by cost of living. An experienced English teacher in the prime of her career, who may also be raising a family, earns approximately $25,000 less than her average mainland counterpart. While a new funding mechanism for education is needed to close teachers’ salary gap (such as taxing residential investment properties and visitor accommodations), the sheer size of the pay gap shows that labor organizers have a lot to achieve before they reach parity, much less “uncritically” friendly status.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The same is true with regard to basic civil rights, including the rights to freely associate and bargain for fair pay and better work conditions, which are constantly under assault by a corporate mindset that puts dollars before democracy. When we hear about the supposed belligerence of “big labor,” we should remember that unions gave us child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, paid vacations, family and medical leave, minimum wage standards, and much more.
And any public officials seeking to erode the right of workers to organize should remember that there is power in a union, and that power is readily expressed on Election Day.