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Wisconsin Union Struggle Is All Too Familiar for Excluded Workers

March 10, 2011 ·

Rather than race to the bottom, where no one has rights, why shouldn't we work together to ensure that everyone does?

In the midst of an economic crisis that has shaken the foundations of our society, creating massive unemployment that's unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers are battling proposals to cut more jobs; restrict or destroy collective bargaining rights; revoke "prevailing wage" laws; terminate union negotiated contracts; remove required binding arbitration; and prevent unions from collecting dues from their members.

These attacks come with a sharp, racist edge — targeting a sector where more than 1 in 5 black workers are employed.

The Excluded Workers Congress represents nine sectors of the U.S. workforce, including domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day laborers, guestworkers, workers from Southern right-to-work states, workfare workers, and formerly incarcerated workers. We know very well what life is like without a union contract.

In some southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, collective bargaining is already banned outright for public sector workers. Farm work, one of the most dangerous occupations in the US in terms of workplace injuries and exposure to toxins, is legally excluded from OSHA, among other protections. Household workers, like nannies, housekeepers, and even caregivers for the elderly and disabled, are similarly excluded from the right to organize, overtime protections, and OSHA. Guestworkers, who come to the United States on work visas, not only lack the right to organize for workplace protections, but face deportation and retaliation if they speak out against violations and abuse. And workfare employees aren't even considered workers in many places.

The right to organize and bargain collectively is the basic human right to pool our individual power into a unified voice that's strong enough to stand up against unfair or abusive workplaces and to ensure fair pay and benefits. When workers are denied their most basic right to bargain collectively, rampant abuse and exploitation are inevitable.

We know this because it's already our reality.

The struggle of Wisconsin's workers has emerged as an international emblem, though worker rights are under attack across the nation. Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey, among other state governments, are using a trumped-up argument about supposed "budget shortfalls" to justify stripping workers of their human right to organize and bargain collectively. Closing tax loopholes, ensuring that the wealthy pay their fair share, and ending Wall Street bailouts are clear alternatives, but the wealthy aren't being asked to sacrifice.

Teachers, firefighters, bus drivers, and millions more are being put on trial for the crimes of investment bankers, hedge-fund managers and the corporate executives who have actually made money on the backs of the laid off, foreclosed on workers.

Scapegoating workers for the budget shortfalls that Wall Street caused diverts attention from solutions that would require sacrifice from wealthy individuals and corporations. We reject the argument that good jobs paying a living wage — those with pensions and benefits, are unfair since some workers don't have them. Rather than race to the bottom, where no one has rights, why shouldn't we work together to ensure that everyone does? As excluded workers, we stand in solidarity with public sector unions under attack in Wisconsin and across the country, even while we are still fighting for the most basic workplace protections and recognition for ourselves.

Tiffany Williams is the advocacy director of Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies, and an advisor to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Erica Smiley is the southern regional organizer for Jobs with Justice. More information on the Excluded Workers Congress is on our website www.excludedworkers.org.