In North Carolina, collective bargaining in the public sector has been banned by the state for over 50 years. A statute implemented in 1959 declared collective bargaining by state and local government employees “to be against the public policy of the State, illegal, unlawful, void and of no effect.”
To unionists, it seemed like a drastic and unfair law, but for years it has protected the individual’s right to choose whether or not to join a union and the right to work without being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. In addition, it has protected the interests of the taxpayers of the state of North Carolina.
But a 2007 decision issued by a United Nations agency against the North Carolina law is back in the spotlight today, as labor unions are gearing up to use the argument in a mass campaign to repeal all currently existing Right to Work laws in response to Wisconsin’s collective bargaining outcome.
In an Emergency Labor Meeting that occurred last week in Cleveland, Ohio, nearly 100 labor leaders and activists met to construct an emergency action plan and strategy for the future to deal with what they say is an “assault on the unions.” The meeting produced plans to hold a National Day of Action on March 12th and again on April 4th, as well as a “Perspectives” document that will serve as a framework for 15 key objectives.
Within the framework document are two specific objectives that are of special concern to supporters of the worker freedom movement and Right to Work laws. Labor unions and solidarity federations in the US and across the globe intend to use the UN-based International Labor Organization (ILO) decision to put pressure on US government officials and the public to repeal the Right to Work laws that exist in 22 states.
#4: We must go to the streets to defend trade union and democratic rights, as public sector workers are now doing. The right to collective bargaining is a right enshrined in universally recognized Conventions 87 and 98 of the UN-based International Labor Organization (ILO); it is also a human right codified in the UN Charter. In fact, the United States is on trial before world public opinion for violating basic labor rights at home. The ILO ruled recently that the state of North Carolina was out of compliance with international labor standards for denying collective-bargaining rights for public sector workers, and the ILO called on North Carolina and the U.S. government to repeal this ban on collective-bargaining rights.
#14: The call to protect the right to collective bargaining must include the demand to repeal all laws that prevent workers, such as those in the U.S. South, from having the right to bargain collectively and arrive at enforceable contracts. All laws, such as the Taft-Hartley Act, that prevent the consolidation of strong unions in the Southeast and other regions of the country must be repealed.
While the action in 2007 was not widely reported in mainstream news accounts at the time, the United Nations agency decision strongly condemned the 1959 North Carolina law and urged the US to repeal it. Although Congress never ratified these conventions, labor leaders and activists are nonetheless invoking the ILO decision as a model for rectifying the recent Wisconsin legislature’s actions. From the UN International Labor Organization’s April 2007 decision:
In a strongly-worded decision made public today, the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, issued an unprecedented call for the United States to “promote the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina,” and called specifically for the repeal of North Carolina General Statute 95-98, the state law that prohibits public employee collective bargaining.
The complaint charged the U.S. with failure to uphold its obligations, as a member state of the ILO, to protect the internationally-recognized rights of public employees in North Carolina to freedom of association and collective bargaining. North Carolina General Statute 95-98 prohibits collective bargaining and declares any agreement between a labor union and any city, town, county, or the state to be illegal and null and void. The union alleges in the complaint that, by failing to take actions to overturn this law, the U.S. government is violating international law and ILO rules. The ILO’s decision sustains these charges.
The complaint was investigated by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA), its division for investigating violations of workers’ rights to form unions and collectively bargain. The U.S. government filed responses to the complaint in November 2006 and January 2007. The ILO CFA’s report concludes with the following recommendation:
The Committee[CFA] requests the [United States] Government to promote the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina – with the participation of representatives of the state and local administration and public employees’ trade unions, and the technical assistance of the [ILO] Office if so desired – and to take steps aimed at bringing the state legislation, in particular through the repeal of NCGS 95-9895-98, into conformity with the freedom of association principles, thus ensuring the effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining throughout the country’s territory. The Committee requests to be kept informed of developments in this respect.
“We are very excited and gratified that the ILO has endorsed what our union had been saying for years,” said Angaza Laughinghouse, a state worker and president of UE Local 150. “This ruling by an important body of the United Nations adds tremendous weight to the push for collective bargaining rights for all North Carolina workers. We call on Governor Mike Easley to provide leadership to bring our state into harmony with international principles of democracy and human rights for working people.”
With the recent debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining by government employees, it is important to emphasize that there are stark differences between the public sector and private sector when it comes to the collective bargaining process for labor unions.
The public generally accepts that in the private sector, workers have the right to organize a union. While some may challenge the functional benefits of today’s unions in the workplace, given the modern safety and employment laws that have evolved over the years, the US labor laws protecting workers’ rights to organize are clear in the private sector:
The National Labor Relations Act (the “Wagner Act”) gives private sector workers the right to choose whether they wish to be represented by a union and establishes the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold elections for that purpose. As originally enacted in 1935, the NLRA, then also known as “the Wagner Act”, makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers because of their union membership or retaliate against them for engaging in organizing campaigns or other “concerted activities”, to form “company unions”, or to refuse to engage in collective bargaining with the union that represented their employees.
However, despite the common misconception that union organizing and collective bargaining are inalienable rights, this is NOT the case in the public sector.
Federal law does not provide employees of state and local governments with the right to organize or engage in union activities, except to the extent that the United States Constitution protects their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. The Constitution provides even less protection for governmental employees’ right to engage in collective bargaining: while it bars public employers from retaliating against employees for forming a union, it does not require those employers to recognize that union, much less bargain with it.
Most states provide public employees with limited statutory protections; a few permit public employees to strike in support of their demands in some circumstances. Some states, however, particularly in the South, make it illegal for a governmental entity to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with a union.
Patrick J. Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that advances individual freedom and the rule of law in Michigan, has a great, informative post that further elaborates on this topic, titled Public-Sector Bargaining Privileges Are Not Inalienable Rights.
People frequently ask me my stance on labor union organizing, since it is a specialty area of mine. Personally, my view is very Libertarian: “free persons should have the right to associate or not associate in labor unions, and an employer should have the right to recognize or refuse to recognize a union.” Above all else, however, I feel very strongly that no individual should be forced to be in a union as a condition of employment. I have been in such situations, and have found them to be damaging to my personal morale and stagnating for my career. My belief is that government’s first priority is to protect the rights of the individual, and by forcing a government employee to be a member of a union as part of any collective bargaining agreement when it’s applied seems to me to be a major conflict of interest.
There are a whole host of additional reasons why allowing government unions presents many conflicts of interest and creates volatile situations for local and state governments, and for the taxpayers. They are too numerous to detail in this post; I recommend you read some of the history on public sector unionizing, including the opposition from Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former AFL-CIO president George Meany.
The propaganda from the left about public sector collective bargaining being an inalienable right, and a basic pillar of democracy is hard enough to swallow. That labor leaders would further exacerbate an already divisive situation by attempting to use non-ratified conventions from a United Nations International Labor Agency as a pressure mechanism to override the sovereignty of our state and federal laws, including the repeal of Right to Work laws in 22 states, is absolutely shameful.
Nationwide Day of Action on March 12th info here at Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Also follow for Nationwide Day of Action on April 4th.
Click here for complete list of 15 Perspectives Adopted by the Emergency Labor Meeting.