Curtailing Public Sector Employees’ Collective Bargaining Rights Threatens Fulfillment of Economic and Social Rights


As state legislatures’ efforts to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees made news this year, those contemplating the potential longer term effects of these changes – beyond the obvious reductions in public employee benefits and union membership – have been encouraged to consider the case of Indiana.  State workers in Indiana lost their collective bargaining rights in 2005, when Republican Governor Mitch Daniels rescinded those rights by an executive order issued on his first day in office.  Governor Daniels then immediately began to reorganize, consolidate and privatize government services, which he claims saved hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars and could not have happened without the curtailment of state workers’ collective bargaining rights.

Some argue against the contention that these changes would in fact have been hindered by workers’ collective bargaining rights.  See the comments of David Warrick, Executive Director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Indiana and Kentucky as reported here. Others question the validity of the underlying justification for the changes themselves – the familiar privatization=market competition=efficiency formula – citing the admitted failure of Indiana’s contracting out of its welfare eligibility system to IBM, and the delays and error rates that resulted.  NESRI has noted elsewhere that nationwide the state and local use of private contractors to administer the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has led to processing delays and caseworker shortages that have harmed poor people. 

However, the human rights critique of the privatization of public services and the market competition model undergirding it extends far beyond the question of whether this model fulfills its promise of increased efficiency.  The privatization of public services is part of an ever increasing disdain for the public sector in the United States.  This can be seen in proposed or existing “voucher” schemes for schools, health care, and housing.  It can be seen in the handing over of urban development projects to private development corporations that determine the employment opportunities available to residents.  Despite evidence that markets fail to provide essential services for everyone on an equal basis, and that private provision of public services undermines public participation, oversight and accountability, the United States increasingly relies on poorly regulated market mechanisms to satisfy the most fundamental needs addressed by economic and social rights – including the rights to education, health, housing, work with dignity, and social security.  For further evidence debunking the idea that human rights can be fulfilled solely as a by-product of a competitive marketplace, see Toward Economic and Social Rights in the United States: From Market Competition to Public Goods.  The erosion of the public sector must be halted to ensure that the core goods, services, and infrastructure necessary to meet people’s fundamental needs are shared as public goods, rather than sold as commodities. 

Curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employees thus poses a threat to human rights beyond the clear violation of these workers’ human right to collective bargaining.  Limiting these rights threatens the fulfillment of the economic and social rights of all.