Collective Bargaining as a Human Right

A slight diversion from the normal content of this blog, I’d like to take just a moment to highlight the protests here in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker’s desire to eliminate most collective bargaining rights of most public employees. (Note: I am a state employee, but UW System faculty are not unionized).

The Governor’s so-called “Budget Repair Bill” will require state employees to make larger contributions to their pensions and health care coverage, and will also remove collective bargaining rights except for wages, which would be limited to be not greater than the Consumer Price Index. (Police and fire fighters would be exempt from this provision.)

While most public employees appear ready to make financial concessions to help ease the State’s budget crisis, the push to eliminate collective bargaining rights has not, to say the least, been well-received.

Wisconsin, of course, has a proud history of progressiveness and organized labor: Wisconsin was the first state to give its public workers the right to bargain collectively; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the largest public employee and health care workers union in the United States, was founded here; and the state is often credited as the birthplace of progessivism. For such reasons, this dispute between a conservative state government and its public employees has been described as a defining moment in the labor movement nationwide.

We are 5 days into the organized protests, and it remains unclear if/when/how this will be resolved.

But I wanted to use this space to give credence to the argument that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right, recognized internationally in various conventions, constitutions, and courts.

For example, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the ability to organise trade unions as a fundamental human right, while item 2(a) of the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work defines the “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining” as an essential right of all workers.

Consider the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution, which guarantees that “Every trade union, employers’ organisation and employer has the right to engage in collective bargaining.”

In 2007, the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri held that Missouri’s state constitution also protected the right to collective bargaining for public employees.

And most strongly, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a case disputing whether a constitutional guarantee of freedom of association includes procedural right to collective bargaining, finding that collective bargaining is indeed a human right:

The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work… Collective bargaining is not simply an instrument for pursuing external ends…rather [it] is intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government… Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Workers gain a voice to influence the establishment of rules that control a major aspect of their lives.

I do hope, in the coming days, the State of Wisconsin will also support dignity, liberty, and autonomy through the continuation of collective bargaining rights among public employees.

UDPATE: Please read this excellent post by UW-Madison’s Greg Downey: “On public employees and the right to organize

UPDATE 2: I found this letter from Archbishop Listecki [PDF] compelling, where he repeats the Catholic Church’s position that there is a moral imperative to protect workers rights, including collective bargaining. Listecki quotes section 25 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (which itself builds from section 60 of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum), which argues:

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

Listecki also quotes Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, which states “[a] union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.” (#20, emphasis in original).


  1. “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.”


  2. FDR did not technically support public sector unions, but they actually acquired significant presence during the 1930s and 1940s; it was post-FDR that they were attacked. And, Eleanor Roosevelt did support public employee unions, and their lefty organizers.

  3. Professor Zimmer-

    Your proposition -that collective bargaining is a human right- can be defeated, and I will do so right here -if you will allow me.

    Most of your argument has no direct logical bearing on your assertion; beginning with your statement that you are a college professor, ranting, ranging and roaming on through the histrionics of Wisconsin-and-the-labor movement, right on down to citing Supreme Court cases, -none of which offers anything directly logically connected to your assertion.

    Is it by the preponderance of these sorts of “believe me” shading-evidences one might assert, that such matters are decided as to their truthfulness? God save us all, if it is.

    But if it is, then there is no hope of ever finding truth, for all we are doing is divining our own assumption by placing our feet into the steps of those who agree with our assertions, forever plodding onward in bigger and bigger logical circles, never really getting any closer to the heart of the matter -TRUTH-.

    The meat of the matter is this, 1) what is a human right? 2) is collective bargaining such a thing?

    And while there are a broad range of notions being asserted by a large number of vocal social-cause aspirants -not one- I have heard or read has made a single statement telling me or anyone else -definitively- what a “human right” might be.

    I will do that right here.

    My counter assertion is then, MOST cited “human rights” are parlor tricks made with -Hoola-Hoop- social ideas that have no basis in fact, nor anything more logical than the fantasy of the infantile populist notions surrounding a modern Humanitarianism pressed into the -Outer Limits- of an increasingly strained and ever more dangerous conception of reality. “Beam me up, Scottie,” doesn’t cut it in this reality.

    Hence the ongoing social collapse (if you as a public employee -who has been thus far immune from cost-cutting measures- haven’t noticed it).

    This problem is not economic solely. This is a problem with our thinking, Professor Zimmer.

    We cannot even agree what a “human” is definitively, so a “human right” is but an abstraction at best, and most often it is a distraction in our pursuit of the truth of any matter.

    Nay, it would be a wholly heinous notion to teach our youth that they have “human rights” only to see them gunned down in the streets as has so-often been the case.

    Nay, it would be a wholly heinous notion to teach our youth that they have “human rights” only to see them beaten unconscious and thrown into the back of a paddy wagon by the local constabulary to be hauled off to the hoosegow and “disappeared”.

    A tall and imposing pile of human skulls here-and-there points out the sheer weight of the truth of such an occasional problem with these assertions about “human rights”.

    “Human rights” then are most often merely the epistemological coinage of propagandists, -not truth seekers. Politics is about today. Human, being a human being is about a lifetime, and even many, many lifetimes, Professor Zimmer.

    Let me assure everyone here, as a moral philosopher of some small renown, the ONLY “human right” you have is to turn-tail and run as fast as you can to try to get out of the way of the more common dangers while dodging the bullets and hopefully escaping to live another day longer.

    The moral imperative of life is to live a life that detracts not at all from the lives available to those who will follow us into this world.

    These dangerous assertions about “human rights” WILL detract from the future, whether these assertions endanger the greater and far more important body of humanity that will come in the future -or- these ridiculous assertions about “human rights” cause those who believe in them to lose their lives for such stupidity -today-.

    Professor Zimmer, I can fairly state I have proved my point -upending yours-.

    Your assertions -furthermore- are merely trolling for martyrs among our ignorantly altruist and wholly mortal youth. They’ll grow-up -eventually- if you don’t get them killed with your ideas about “human rights” before they get that chance.

    Life is good.

    In fact, life is so good, no one should believe any genius who says he’s going to make it better.

    What is better than life? What could be better than life?

    Don Robertson
    Limestone, Maine

  4. The public employees have killed the goose laying the golden eggs, otherwise know as the taxpayer. Taxpayers being overworked and underpaid in the private sector see their taxes being used to over pay public employees and provide outrageous pensions to retirees for decades. Screw both the unions and the politicians who used taxpayer money to bribe the unions for votes.

  5. Don R-

    You may have demolished (tax-feeder) Zimmer’s specious argument about rights, but unfortunately you left us with a sad choice. Our only right is to run away from harm?

    Seems to me self defense is another right that belongs to all organisms, not just humans.

    It’s too bad that this protest in Wisconsin is from a bunch of riled-up taxfeeders. For Pete’s sake, teachers’ unions as the deserving victims? My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me. (Dave, please source that one)

    I could argue Gov Walker’s side if I wanted to: Cutting taxes on corporations could actually keep some private sector jobs in Wisconsin. Things won’t happen that way, of course, because the slimebags who donated to his election that he and his cronies were paying back don’t care about creating jobs. We know what they care about, and it is not us plebes.

    But at least someone is making noise and getting noticed. This is good. If the people who are losing their homes and can’t feed and clothe their children, buy gas, and pay the mortgage or rent these days get involved something good will come of it. However, I doubt that the plebes who actually produce the raw materials and goods that create the economy these taxfeeders parasitize are going to get worked up about collective bargaining for State employee unions. We have all been to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    Human rights are what you can get with your own efforts, and what you can hold on to. Perhaps we agree there. Some of us would appreciate being left in peace by the sociopaths who are attracted to government, and realize that we don’t think like they do. Some of us would do fine without any government to tell us what to do and charge us for the service. Some of us like to be creative and productive and don’t feel that good about being a parasite on our neighbors. As a moral philosopher, do you have any constructive ideas re what us plebes could do to get rid of the parasites?


  6. m_astera-

    Again, you seem to want to rile the mob into some ridiculously precipitous action. Do not take offense at my cutting either you -or- the dear professor short. I come -literally and truthfully- with a better basis of knowledge, a knowledge not yet taught in university.

    We are in an age where humanity has built this huge, comical, tragic, Goldbergian, hand-cranked structure that is teetering, creaking, and already toppling over.

    It is clearly visible everywhere we look.

    It is not “revolution”.

    It is the entropy -we all should recognize- as what the infinite complexity of our reality -does- to all human knowledge. Nothing is as it seems.

    The human condition is that of a short-lived -dupe- with little cogent conception, -one no less deluded than what those humans had who looked upon wide-eyed at jiggling shaman with their painted-feathered-rattles -or- the fearful conception of those who looked upon a group of skulking men riding in a long row-boat with a small sail carrying double-bladed axes and wearing animal skulls fastened to their leather helmets.

    Regardless, we can know some few things. Life is good. Do not spend -yours- dismayed and fretting at your perception about conceptions that do not stand the real test of -truth-. Life IS good.

    There in nothing in this world -from which you cannot be shaken- as to your belief. And it is all belief-.

    Zeno knew this -at the time of the Greek philosophers.

    God is not dead. Science is dead.

    It is science that demands we all believe in a benevolent god, an animism, that watches over all of us, -so that -as- these tinkerers tinker in this infinitely complex reality, they do not push the wrong button and end it all -forever shutting the large doors through which humanity enters into this shiftless world.

    We are -but fools and knaves- who believe in a benevolent god -watching over us- -guiding our hands- that might prevent us from making these horrible mistakes -we are now witnessing with ever greater frequency, and ever greater horror.

    These mistakes are due to our misconceptions about reality. And nearly all our conceptions about reality are misconceptions.

    Let me disprove the simplest -most widely accepted misconception.

    1+1 does not equal 2. -How so?

    Keep in your mind, we are trying to discuss reality, not some shaman’s fantasy. 1+1 looks simple enough, but there are -in fact- no two things anywhere in this reality that are alike enough, that if we say about them, 1+1=2 that we have accurately described them -as part of this reality-. There are always the problems of quality, distance, time, speed and an infinite number of other variables that defeat the notion -that 1+1=2

    It is just a mental crutch. It is not real, 1+1=2

    If I give you an idea, and Professor Zimmer gives you an idea. How many ideas do you have?

    You see, 1+1 can only equal two in our heads, not in reality. For no matter what we might count 1+1=2 -these things are no different from the ideas Professor Zimmer and I might -have given you-.

    Our minds have an affinity for infinity. And clearly we cannot grasp the infinite -no matter how much we deceive ourselves into believing that -we can-.

    So what can we know? These things -stand out- at the foundation of knowledge.

    1) Life is good.
    2) Only individuals have a consciousness. Anything I might know, is not likely anything you can know. I cannot even express what I know with complete definitiveness. And you -then- cannot take from my efforts -definitely- what I mean. The Zeitgeist is a myth.
    3) We will die. Each and every one of us -who is alive- will die.
    4) The moral imperative of life is to live a life that detracts not at all from the lives available to those who will follow us into this world.

    That is the nature of our cogent reality.

    My number 4) here is the great step. It doesn’t -just- demolish Professor Zimmer’s argument.

    Because this categorically true statement of morality -exists- (and no one knew it existed until 2006) a new knowledge set arises, Categorical Knowledge.

    This new knowledge set has new logic rules.

    Categorical Knowledge is that knowledge that is true in every instance, -without exception- by definition.

    It is an interesting teleological conception. But one that could only be tested in light of a statement that is categorically true. We now have that statement. And it applies to everything we do.

    This is a new age. This is new knowledge. Categorical Knowledge lauds over empirical knowledge, just as empirical knowledge -once lauded over superstition-.

    Now though -we have The Moral Imperative of Life. It is the only open door to -free will-, for we would always do what is moral -if we knew how.

    It is not a specifically religious statement, though it can be readily applied to religion.

    It is in fact a secular morality statement. It is true, categorically, both inclusively and exclusively.

    This means empirical knowledge -is headed toward the dustbin of history.

    Pragmatism, that nearly divine philosophical device of the empirical sciences, the definitional development of David Hume, is thus proved -categorically immoral-.

    Stop poking the beehive that is the infinitely complex reality within which humanity exists.

    We are not gods. There is little enough we can know of this infinitely complex reality. But we can know this.

    This reality is categorical -not scientific. Science is a fraud made of our desire.

    Go home. Stop this foolishness. Live within your means and without wasting that which will be required in the future.

    Life is good. Life is party. Do not wreck it.

    And -put Niagara Fall back the way it was.

    Don Robertson

    Limestone, Maine

  7. Not once do you refer to the American Constitution.

    No where in the American Constitution is it stated that a public servant has the right to the socialist “collective bargaining.”

  8. @hank: Correct, I do not refer to the American Constitution, as this post isn’t about U.S. Constitutional law. Regardless, the Constitution also does not specify a positive right to vote, to marriage, a fair trial, and numerous other rights. The debate over the meaning of the 9th Amendment might be of interest to you. A good starting point include these texts:

    Farber, Daniel A. (2007). Retained by the People: The “Silent” Ninth Amendment and the Constitutional Rights Americans Don’t Know They Have. Perseus Books Group. ISBN 0465022987.
    Lash, Kurt T. (2009). The Lost History of the Ninth Amendment. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195372611.

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