Workers win with real voice in workplace

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Riock Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, argues that public employees should have the same right to organize and strike as private employees.

I have always found it ironic that those who complain that government doesn’t run like a business are often the same individuals who oppose allowing government employees the same rights as their private sector counterparts.

This year in Olympia, several important bills sought to expand collective bargaining. Allowing employees to join a union and bargain for a contract that defines wages, benefits and other economic issues is a fundamental right granted to the private sector. But employees for the state, and our four-year colleges and universities have no such right.

It’s time to change that.

Collective bargaining is the tool used in most industrialized counties to create a way for workers to address their concerns. The most important concern is that employees have a real voice on the job. That participation often leads to higher productivity, lower staff turnover, and higher incomes and benefits. It’s a partnership that often leads to true efficiencies.

When workers have a real voice, they can speak out about job safety, equity or wage and hour issues without fear of retribution. They can meet across the table with their employer to negotiate better wages and working conditions.

They can bargain as a group for greater leverage to win decent health care coverage and pensions. Without this right, employees are forced into “begging, not bargaining.”

Why should folks who aren’t in a union, and might not even want to be in one, concern themselves about the right of other to bargain collectively? The answer lies in basic standards that have been fought for and won by those who have a union. Those standards benefit all workers, union and non-union.

But many non-union workers seem to forget, or maybe they never realized, that their benefits were gained because unions and their members struggled to set the standard. These basic labor standards remain protections for all of us. Consider how important just a few of them are to our lives:

n Hourly workers have a right to overtime pay after forty hours of work in a week.;

n All employees are covered by industrial insurance, a no-fault system of benefits for all workers who are injured on the job;

n Workers have a right to a safe and healthful workplace, and may file complaints against unsafe conditions;

n Child labor rules protect our kids from dangerous jobs and work hours that hurt their school attendance and performance.;

n Unemployment insurance benefits are available to many workers who are laid off through no fault of their own; and

n Most employees have a right to take family leave to care for a sick child, parent or spouse.

Not one of those rights would be in place today if it hadn’t been for the untold work of unions to pass, enact and defend them. Almost every year, serious proposals to roll back, exempt or otherwise weaken those standards must be answered and defeated in the legislature.

In other words, establishing the standard is only the first step. The harder, longer job is to maintain and defend these standards from erosion or full frontal assault. Unions and their members are the front line defenders of these basic standards both in state law and in their contracts. You can bet that business interests maintain a constant pressure to roll back and reduce them.

Last fall, voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative that granted homecare workers the authority to bargain collectively. Bills in the legislature this year would grant a similar right to state employees, employees and faculty at four-year state colleges, university teaching and research assistants, and chiropractors who must negotiate with health maintenance organizations. This effort is part of the long, hard job of expanding rights to all workers.

It’s easy to forget. We are so busy trying to make ends meet and meet all our obligations that we lose sight of the long-running effort to steadily improve the wages and working conditions for all. For the last 100 years in our state, organized labor has pushed to improve basic labor standards.

But unless workers have a fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively, that effort will falter.

As the public sector has developed to provide services such as education to our citizens and their children, more employees are working for the state or our state’s system of education. But collective bargaining rights have not kept up with this growth. The current restriction on state employees, faculty members and graduate students who are employed by the University of Washington has led to an all out effort to expand the right to bargain.

With likely layoffs and budget cuts in store for these employees, it’s more important than ever that they have a seat at the bargaining table to find true solutions to the state’s financial problems. With a real voice on the job, they can help provide better services and accountability for state programs. And they can join in the effort to strengthen and broaden basic labor standards for us all.

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