opinion: Protect working families by protecting collective bargaining rights
During the past few months, you may have been asked by fellow community members to sign a petition in support of a constitutional amendment to protect jobs and collective bargaining rights for all Michigan workers. More than twice the number of people necessary signed the petition in order to put this initiative on the ballot this November. Whether or not you signed the petition, you may have asked yourself why you should support this amendment.
In the current political climate, it is easy to forget that collective bargaining is, at its simplest, when two or more workers come together with their employer to negotiate hours, compensation, and working conditions. Workers democratically decide among themselves what to bargain for, and often address safety, quality standards, and due process in hiring and firing in their contracts. Many of the basic workplace rights and protections we take for granted today are the result of decades of collective bargaining efforts: the base 40-hour work week, the weekend, the minimum wage, and child labor laws.
Often, but not always, collective bargaining takes the form of unions. The Graduate Employees’ Organization and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization at the University of Michigan are two examples of successful volunteer-run unions. We have achieved a degree of job security and respect not usually enjoyed by teachers in similar positions at other universities. We represent two groups of workers who are usually considered cheap, expendable labor by colleges and universities, and who are often paid poverty-level wages with no benefits. By bargaining with the University, we have achieved living wages, child care, and better healthcare benefits.
But it’s not just about wages and benefits. We have used bargaining to guarantee class-size limits on a departmental basis, which means that we are able to give our students the individual attention they need. We also bargained for a guarantee of adequate safety training for instructors conducting classes in sciences labs. Over time, the fair wages and benefits we have fought for have also helped to recruit and retain talented and diverse teachers who provide the quality education for which the university is renowned.
Overall, workers who bargain collectively help establish a baseline of expectations for wages, benefits, and safety that ripples outward to affect all of our workplaces. Fair wages enable workers to support a strong local economy that strengthens communities. Historically, collective bargaining has particularly helped increase wages for women and people of color.
Whatever your opinion on the leadership or actions of a particular union or unions, it is important to remember that the current majority of politicians in Lansing, along with many corporate CEOs, are intent on wiping out any form of collective bargaining. In the past year alone, more than 80 bills curtailing workers’ rights and collective power have been introduced in the Michigan legislature. If they succeed, no group of workers, from the biggest to the smallest, from the wealthiest to the poorest, would be able to negotiate the conditions of their employment.
These politicians and CEOs want to take power out of the hands of workers and give it to the wealthy few, who have no problem outsourcing jobs or cutting wages and benefits. It is no coincidence that in the same four decades that collective bargaining has been eroded by anti-labor legislation, income inequality has soared, public education has been systematically de-funded, and austerity budgets now threaten the basic services that keep our communities safe and productive. That’s why this amendment is vital, not only to our economy, but to the quality of life of all Michiganders. Help protect collective bargaining and protect good jobs: vote yes when this initiative is on the ballot this November.
Bonnie Halloran & Kathryn Frank
Bonnie Halloran is the President of the Lecturers' Employee Organization, representing 1,400 Lecturers at the three University of Michigan campuses. She has been a Lecturer in the Anthropology Department at the University of Michigan-Dearborn for 15 years.
Kathryn Frank is the President of the Graduate Employees' Organization, representing 1,800 Graduate Student Instructors and Graduate Student Staff Assistants at the University of Michigan. She is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Studies.