When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides worked with Japanese citizens to write a Constitution that would assure Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy was replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers would need to have a voice in the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”
When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides worked with German citizens to write a Constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with a democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to have a voice in the new Germany, 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 would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
Americans have for generations accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. And when this country has counseled other countries, and the international community, on how to forge a civil and democratic society, we have long recognized that the right to organize a trade union and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies must be protected.
When Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas struck down substantial portions of the anti-labor legislation that Governor Scott Walker signed last year, legislation that was written and implemented with the express purpose of undermining trade union rights and constricting collective bargaining rights, the judge grounded his decision in a recognition of the fact that trade unionists in the United States have basic rights that must be respected.
That is a point that should not have to be made. But at a time when union rights are under assault by corporate Republicans (and even some corporate Democrats) who seek to tip the economic and political balance of the republic entirely in favor of their Wall Street paymasters, it needs to be restated—frequently. And not just in Wisconsin. The rights of working people to form unions and to be represented by them in the workplace and in the political life of the nation are under attack in Chicago, where teachers are still struggling to get a fair shake from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board; in Milwaukee, where many immigrant workers are striking in the face of crude intimidation by Palermo Pizza; in California, where unions are fighting a ballot measure (Proposition 32) that seeks to prevent them from playing a meaningful role in local and state politics; and nationally, as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan run the most militantly anti-labor campaign ever mounted by a Republican ticket.