Yesterday at the USSC, I wrote more about the Wisconsin union dispute. I realize that anything can be a site of partisan disagreement, and therefore it’s a little fanciful to talk about what should and should not be a partisan issue, but it all rather feels to me that the existence of unions is only a partisan feud because it serves as a proxy for other policy debates (how friendly to business interests government should be) or political fights (being mean to the funders of your political opponents).
Firstly, debates about the right to organise are rarely a proxy for other policy debates. More often than not, the policy debates are the cover for union-busting. This is not something confined to America, it happened for over a decade here under Howard. The waterfront dispute, Australian Building and Construction Commission and WorkChoices are some examples that come to mind.
Secondly, it’s wrong to say the right to organise should not be a partisan issue. It is inevitable that it will be an ideologically partisan issue. Seeing the right to organise purely in terms of freedom of association completely ignores why the right to organise has been challenged since the beginnings of the trade union movement.
The battle over the right to organise is about one fundamental thing. It is about whether everyday people can band together to gain and use their economic power as workers. Unionism is so offensive to powerful economic interests because the collective power of those with far less is used to even out unequal relationships of power. It does more than just improve pay and conditions, it challenges their power and control.
Once you understand that the clash over the right to organise is actually about who has power, the reason why it always will be contested become pretty clear.