Collective bargaining is a process in which working people, through their unions, negotiate contracts with employers to determine their terms of employment, including pay, health care, pensions and other benefits, hours, leave, job health and safety policies, ways to balance work and family and more. Employees jointly decide their priorities for bargaining.
Union employees choose who will speak for them in bargaining sessions with the employer, and vote to accept or reject the contract reached by the employer and employee bargaining committees. A ratified contract legally binds both sides—management and workers—to the contract terms.
In the United States, some three-quarters of private-sector workers and two-thirds of public employees have the right to collective bargaining. This right came to U.S. workers through a series of laws. The Railway Labor Act granted collective bargaining to railroad workers in 1926 and now covers many transportation workers, such as those in airlines. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clarified the bargaining rights of most other private-sector workers and established collective bargaining as the “policy of the United States.” The right to collective bargaining also is recognized by international human rights conventions.
The freedom to form and join a union is core to the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights and is an “enabling” right—a fundamental right that ensures the ability to protect other rights.
Every year, some 30,000 collective bargaining agreements are negotiated. Today, about 8 million private-sector workers and some 8 and a half million public-sector workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements.
After the 2010 elections placed many state legislatures and governorships in Republican control, a number of these newly elected officials moved to take collective bargaining rights away from public employees.
That’s what happened in Ohio, where working people from across the state mobilized to defeat a law passed in spring 2011 that took away the right of public employees to collectively bargain for a middle-class life. In Wisconsin, where a similar attack on the collective bargaining rights of public employees took place, working people launched recall campaigns to unseat state legislators and Gov. Scott Walker, who supported the law.
It wasn’t just Wisconsin. Similar measures came up in Ohio and a dozen other states. Walker and others behind these attacks claimed it was necessary to limit collective bargaining to curb spending and arrest state budget problems. But, especially as these politicians proposed draconian cuts to services for working families, it quickly became clear that they were in fact attempts to limit the power of working people, balance budgets on the backs of working families and deliver political pay-back to corporate and wealthy campaign contributors.
Members of the public overwhelmingly supported public employees’ right to bargain collectively, and working people—in the private sector as well as government employees—united to defend this basic human right at work.