Unionists say America needs collective bargaining

LAS VEGAS – As dozens of union workers take a quick smoke break and stand outside here in the desert heat under a thickening cloud of cigarette smoke, over a thousand others are seated inside the overly air conditioned convention hall of the Las Vegas Hilton discussing the recent attacks on collective bargaining rights.

Inside the hotel the 73rd Convention of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) is taking place and a recurring topic is being discussed are the national attacks on unions nationwide – specifically collective bargaining rights.

During a speech, CWA President Larry Cohen spoke urgently on the history of collective bargaining rights throughout the U.S. and the world, how it has been on the decline and its ramifications.

“Our challenge is to build a movement that restores the American Dream by making collective bargaining a part of the fabric of our nation,” Cohen said.

“But everything changed as bargaining rights declined … Bargaining rights are critical to any functioning democracy,” Cohen said. “And bargaining rights are critical for a functional economy.”

Cohen argued that in order to build and save the economy, there must be an upholding of the right for unions to bargain for fair wages. He cited an example of when John Maynard Keynes, a top economist of the world in 1938, urged U.S. President Roosevelt to expand collective bargaining rights in order to increase wages and therefore improve the economy.

There was a peak in 1953 through 1962 in collective bargaining rights, which saw a 35.7 percent crest nationally in the American workforce, according to Cohen’s presentation on the Rise and Fall of Collective Bargaining Coverage. Collective bargaining coverage grew from 8 percent in 1930 to approximately 36 percent in the early 1960s and then fell to 22.5 percent in the 1970s and 10.9 percent in the 1990s. Eventually, it dropped down to 6.9 percent last year.

In the U.S. collective bargaining coverage is 12 percent in the workforce; In France it’s 95 percent; and in Sweden it’s 92 percent.

“We need to focus on collective bargaining rights in order to fix the economy,” Cohen said.

 FLORIDA: Down but not out

In Florida earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott made some statements against collective bargaining saying “It would be great to be able to change it [constitutional protection of collective bargaining] … If you didn’t have collective bargaining, would it be better for the state? Absolutely.”

Those statements gained Scott a lot of controversy. And shortly afterward a bill to recall the governor was introduced by Congressman Rick Kriseman, D-Florida. The bill, HB 787, would have allowed a recall of the governor and other state officials. It was short lived and eventually died in the legislature.

Dave Skinner of Orlando and President of Local 3108 sees the future of union and labor activism in the youth. Skinner speaks with enthusiasm with a rushed pace. Something that the CWA has been recently involved with is encouraging its members on “movement building,” especially among the next generation of unionists and activists: the youth, he said. There, many believe, you will find the challengers to Gov. Rick Scott and all other reactionary conservatives in office.

“Already my local is totally involved with all our constituents. We work closely with Jobs with Justice, which was created by the CWA. They help us with all types of political activism and political campaigns that we do. Like if we need to do a strike, we call Jobs with Justice and they bring people in from the colleges – so it’s a really good group. We have a group called the Next Generation Committee in our local where it’s run by Jobs with Justice and they try to get younger folks to come in. So we try to get as many young people as we can involved with the CWA movement,” Skinner said.   

OHIO: ‘Not just labor – it’s about my children and their children’

In Ohio, the state legislature and Gov. John Kasich recently passed SB 5. The bill effectively limited collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. But the people of Ohio have since successfully organized a campaign against the bill and produced 1.3 million signatures to put a referendum on the fall ballot to repeal it.

Diane Bailey, secretary treasurer of Local 4310 from Ohio is a soft-spoken African-American woman who measures-out her words. She is calm and exercises verbal diligence in speaking with people. She is like a patient soldier awaiting the next battle.

“What we’re doing: we’re working with a lot of different organizations, community activists, churches,” she said. “We’re all fighting together; we’re coming out together; we are one in Ohio. We’re dealing with Senate Bill 5, which would take collective bargaining rights away from the public workers. We have been able to put a stop on it by getting over 1.3 million signatures to put this on the ballot in November. And we’re going to stop it on November 8-and stop the attack on collective bargaining and families, on workers. And it’s not about just labor anymore: It’s about working families and my grandkids, my children, their children,” Bailey said. 

WISCONSIN: Where it began-it will end

Betsy Lafontaine is a leader and a strong mother. She is vice president of CWA Local 4621. Lafontaine knows about struggle, the labor movement and the all-encompassing class war that it has become (and has always been). She’s from the place where it all started. She’s from Wisconsin.

After Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walkers and his botched-up attempt to end collective bargaining-incidentally mass-radicalizing workers throughout the country-there has since been a movement for his recall and the rest of the legislature that worked to pass the bill.

“We’re taking to neighbors, friends and families,” said Lafontaine. “We’re working with We are Wisconsin. It’s about engaging them to get out to vote. It’s about educating them on all the issues that are being forced through the state legislature right now because of the fact that Governor Walker knows he is facing a recall later this year. They want to get as much legislation through as quickly as possible. And it’s all anti-worker and also about voter suppression,” she added.

Young people have played an essential role too, according to Lafontaine’s observations. She recalls seeing massive amount of student and youth support. 

“When have you seen university students participate like this? I mean, they went ape shit,” Lafontaine said. “It has awakened a sleeping giant.”

Photo: Luis Rivas/PW


Luis Rivas
Luis Rivas

Luis Rivas is a native of Los Angeles who lives in Echo Park and works in the San Fernando Valley.  He currently edits the non-fiction online literary journal gloomcupboard.com.