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John Nichols: It is time to constitutionally guarantee the right to organize strong unions
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John Nichols: It is time to constitutionally guarantee the right to organize strong unions

Bernie Sanders at union rally (copy)

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders talks to workers March 20 at a rally at the University of California-Los Angeles. Members of a union representing research and technical workers walked picket lines at University of California campuses and hospitals in a one-day strike amid a lengthening stretch of unsuccessful contract negotiations.

Unions have been under assault for so long — directly by Republicans, indirectly by corporate Democrats — that some Americans do not know that the right to organize robust labor unions was once understood as an essential underpinning of democracy.

So let us, on this Labor Day, renew our acquaintance with a basic premise of the American experiment.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Americans preached from a gospel that understood labor rights as human rights. During the post-war occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides worked with Japanese citizens to draft a Constitution that would serve as a framework for democracy. Fully aware that strong, independent unions provide a defense against authoritarianism, they included language that explicitly announced that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”

In Germany, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides worked with German citizens to write a Constitution that would serve as a bulwark against fascism. They knew that strong trade unions had to be a part of that bulwark, so they included a provision that explicitly declared: "The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful."

When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that in 1948 would be adopted by the United Nations, Roosevelt and her team included a guarantee that: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

This is the history of American support for the premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country has counseled other countries and the international community on how to forge a civil and democratic society, it has long recognized that the right to organize a union and to have that union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies must be protected.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan embrace of this idea — MacArthur and Ike would eventually seek the presidency as Republicans; the Roosevelts were Democrats — is a thing of the past. Republican governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker assaulted labor rights throughout the last decade, as did their GOP allies in Washington. For a time, so-called “New Democrats” imagined that unions were antiquated institutions.

That’s changing. During the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other contenders embraced Service Employees Union International union president Mary Kay Henry's call for reforms that would upend anti-labor “right-to-work” laws and make it dramatically easier to organize and maintain unions.

These reforms are necessary. But so, too, are concrete guarantees. For this reason, Democrats should start talking about amending state and federal constitutions to proclaim as clearly as does the Japanese Constitution that: "the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed."

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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