Right v. Privilege: Contesting Public Sector Labor Rights in the United States

Source: Susan Kang, Human Rights Review, Volume 13, Issue 3, September 2012
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The drama unfolding in various state legislatures since early 2011 has reopened debates about the status of public sector collective bargaining rights in the United States. This article critically examines the rhetorical strategies used by opponents of public sector collective bargaining rights. There are two types of political claims justifying these limitations: instrumental and normative. The instrumental argument claims that collective bargaining must be curtailed because of the necessity of economic crisis. The normative argument claims that collective bargaining for public servants is not a right, but rather a “privilege.” I argue that the politics surrounding the passage of the Ohio and Wisconsin laws, including the strategies of proponents and public’s response, reaffirms the residual legitimacy of collective bargaining as a right. However, it is important to note that this conception of right is limited and differs in various US communities. While human rights scholars have theoretically and strategically argued that the indivisible body of human rights represents a broad and overlapping “consensus,” the recent fights in Wisconsin and Ohio demonstrate how internationally recognized human rights remain deeply contested in the domestic sphere. Yet there is evidence that collective bargaining maintains significant legitimacy as a human right. This paper argues that the controversy of the 2011 legal changes suggests that collective bargaining rights are still considered human rights by many communities in the US.

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