2012-09-15 – Those of us who live near the 42° 30’ North parallel saw two great victories for collective bargaining this week. (Those of you who didn’t recognize 42° 30’ North as the boundary between Illinois and Wisconsin should blame your teachers . . . just kidding!)
Many of you know about the victory north of the border. A court in Wisconsin struck down an anti-bargaining law passed last year by the Wisconsin legislature and signed by Tea Party darling Gov. Scott Walker. It is well established that Republicans oppose collective bargaining, particularly with public employees. So a court ruling against the Wisconsin law is a clear victory for the process of collective bargaining.
Do you know what the other victory was? It was the Chicago teachers’ strike.
How can that be a victory for collective bargaining? The buzz I heard was that Mayor Rahm Emanuel should have respected collective bargaining and signed on to teacher demands, thus averting a strike. Did Rahm disrespect the collective bargaining process by standing firm?
If you think so, you are not the supporter of collective bargain that you thought you were. Or else you are very confused. So let me help you out.
The confusion is between process and results. Collective bargaining is a process, not a result. In the legal world, a trial is a process, a verdict (guilty or innocent) is a result. In the world of fast food, deep frying is a process, french fries are the result. In the world of labor-management relations, collective bargaining is a process, the contract is the result.
Many of my liberal friends who are ardent supporters of teachers think that collective bargaining IS a favorable contract that tracks union demands exactly. So when Rahm Emanuel said no to a demand, he was thrown into the same category as Gov. Walker, a hater of labor.
But that’s not how collective bargaining works. Collective bargaining is a process for achieving accommodation between competing proposals, one from labor and one from management. Labor and management have disparate views. Like it or not, Rahm was on the management side in this negotiation. His obligation was to press management’s proposal. There is nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with management’s position. But it doesn’t advance the cause of collective bargaining to eliminate the management side.
That’s what Gov. Walker tried to do in Wisconsin.
So the first thing we learn about collective bargaining is that it is a process to accommodate differences between labor and management over an employment contract. That’s the bargaining part.
The collective part is also often confused.
Gov. Walker’s initiative in Wisconsin was said to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. And this is a true statement, but it is not complete. Walker’s initiative attempted to eliminate collective bargaining only for one side: labor. Collective bargaining was retained on the employer side.
If you wanted to completely eliminate collective bargaining in Wisconsin, you would have to eliminate bargaining rights for both the union and the state. In other words, each teacher would have to go to each family and negotiate a separate deal. The state couldn’t hire teachers at all.
Employers always get to negotiate collectively. That is never at issue. In the public arena, the state negotiates for the citizens as a collective body. In the private arena, it’s usually a corporation that negotiates on behalf of the shareholders. No one is talking about eliminating collective bargaining rights of governments or corporation. Only the right of unions to negotiate for their members is under attack.
So when I see teachers on the picket line, I think Yes! This is collective bargaining. A strike is a tactic designed to advance the collective bargaining process (aiming at a contract, as a result). The management side has its own tactics, like lock-outs and scabs. It may be messy, but I think it is an important process that needs to be supported.
You can’t win them all. Doesn’t mean you don’t love the game.