The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 06, 2011

Unions ‘instrumental’ in building middle class

By The Building Tradesman

By Sander Levin, U.S. Congress - 12th District)

The king can do no wrong.

I first heard that maxim when I was a young labor lawyer in Michigan in the early 1960s. I had called an official of a public institution on behalf of their employees who wanted to be represented and engaged in collective bargaining.

“As a public entity,” the official responded, “we cannot bind ourselves.”

Public institutions regularly bind themselves through contracts to construct buildings, I noted: “Why are conditions of work for employees different?”

Referring to English common law, he answered: “Because the king can do no wrong.”

That saying has stuck with me ever since. From the days that I wrote, as chairman of the Michigan State Senate Labor Committee, the first comprehensive public employment labor relations bill in the nation. Through the moment shortly after, when I sat face-to-face with Republican Gov. George Romney working out the final language for the legislation.

And it sticks with me today –46 years after Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act passed with broad bipartisan support – as I watch the governors in Wisconsin and other states try to eliminate state workers’ collective bargaining rights.

Before that historic bill in Michigan, which was followed by similar action in a number of state legislatures around the country, teachers in the state made an average salary of $6,745 – about twice the poverty rate for a family of four. Little more, often less than $500 a year, was provided for health insurance.

Firefighters made about $6,300 a year, regularly working 24-hour, six-day stretches without time off.

The right to collectively bargain changed public sector workers’ lives for the better – just as it had done to the lives of their private sector counterparts only years earlier. Teachers, firefighters, police officers and everyone from state prison guards to local maintenance workers all strove for better wages and working conditions. They bargained for some health care coverage and retirement income. And they sought safer working environments.

These efforts were instrumental in helping to create Michigan’s burgeoning middle class. Workers’ voices were heard and represented, bringing a vital element of democracy to the public sector workplace.

As one fire chief recently told me, collective bargaining gives firefighters and him – as the management – the chance to sit down and work out issues. “I don’t want to be a dictator,” he said.

Today’s ballooning deficits within many state and local governments must be faced head on. Public employees and their representatives are willing to help. In many cases they already are, making the kinds of sacrifices familiar to many of their private sector colleagues, including those in the automotive industry just a few years ago.

What is indefensible is to use the deficit problem to return to the days in the public sector where employees did not have a seat at the table in the workplace.

We should not return to the days when teachers, firefighters, police officers and so many other employees were left out in the cold when working to help their families become part of the middle class.

We should not return to the days when the king could do no wrong.