Collective Bargaining is a Human Right

Article 23 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration adopted by the United Nations in 1948 reads:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

What we are seeing in Wisconsin and in Indiana is the attempt not to balance a budget but rather the attempt of elected officials to do the bidding of the corporations to strip the fundamental right of workers to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.  This is a violation of their human rights under the UN’s declaration of Human Rights.

In June of 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada  ruled:

“The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work… Collective bargaining is not simply an instrument for pursuing external ends…rather [it] is intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government… Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Workers gain a voice to influence the establishment of rules that control a major aspect of their lives.”

While Canada’s Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the US, what its ruling does do is affirm  emphatically that the right to unionize and to have collective bargaining is indeed a fundamental right as declared in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.  It is part of what a democracy looks like for its people.

Wisconsin and Indiana are not the first states to attempt to rid collective bargaining nor would they be the first states to not have collective bargaining for their public workers, including teachers.  There are five states that explicitly make collective bargaining illegal in their state for their public sector employees.  There are additional states where restrictions apply to the bargaining process.   Many more states prohibit teachers and other public employees from striking should collective bargaining efforts fail.  Again, all of these violate the fundamental right of workers to have unions to protect their best interests.  If a union is unable to negotiate with an employer on basic work conditions or to use non-violent strategies such as a strike to bring resolution to the issues at hand, their rights are being violated.

In my state of Alabama, which does not allow public employees to have collective bargaining, David Stout the president of the Alabama Education Association which is not union, recently stated, “I don’t think people in Alabama are ready for collecting bargaining laws.”   This attitude that people need to be ready is a slap in the face of workers dignity.  Similar statements have been made before regarding groups of people needing to be ready to have the vote, needing to be ready to have democracy, needing to be ready to have equality.  The fact that it comes from the organization that is supposedly best equipped to support the interests of teachers reveals just how far the AEA is from representing their constituents.  Instead comments like these represents the state’s and corporate  interests  just like the false trade unions in corrupt corporations in Mexico.

The essential right for the workers in Indiana and in Wisconsin to be able to sit down in negotiation with their employers is about reclaiming and resurrecting our most treasured American values of democracy.  We have seen in the last 40 years such a deterioration of democracy in this nation while we pandered to the wishes of corporations as if they are people under the law with rights and privileges inherent in their being.   Our nation has stripped away through this pandering all avenues of upward mobility for the poorest of the poor in this country and for the middle class.  The divide between 90 % of the people and the top 1% has never been greater.  The average income for the bottom 90 % is $31, 244.  The average income for the top 1 % is 1, 137, 684.  The average income for the top 1/100th percent is $27, 342, 212.   Further the income of the bottom 90% has decreased significantly per year over the last decade while the top ten percent have seen astronomical gains in income.   Stripping the right to collective bargaining from employees will ensure this trend not only continues but accelerates at an alarming speed because unlike a democracy, it places an imbalance of power into the hands of the government and corporations.

The Corporations are not people.  They are only a vehicle towards sustaining our lives in what hopefully will be one with a certain level of quality of life.  If they no longer serve the people towards the advancement of a quality life for all who work for them, then corporations and governments should be held accountable for their actions against human rights.  Our elected officials must represent the people and not the corporations who line their pockets.  If they do not then they must be removed from office and replaced with elected officials that will represent the best interests of the people.

This is one of many moral issues facing our nation today.  It is essential that we stand with our workers in this fight because the survival of our democracy depends on it.

My Brother’s Keeper

Several months ago, I responded to a relative of mine who sent me one of those viral emails about the state of affairs in America.  I had grown tired of receiving the tirade of complaints against what immigrants have done to this country, what Muslims are wanting to do to this country, and how disastrous “a foreign born Muslim” [sic] President Obama was for this country.  So I responded and stated that in this country we believe in the American Dream where everyone can grow up to become President, where everyone has the opportunity to forge their own destiny.  I further stated that since we held these ideals and values that we needed to do everything in our power to ensure that those opportunities continued to exist for everyone and if they were thwarted in anyway, we had the responsibility and the obligation to right that wrong.

The response I received was that my relative was not his brother’s keeper.  In short if he could not have it, then his brother could not either.  And the only way to keep his brother from having it was to ensure that laws were passed that were restrictive, punitive against the other from receiving what allegedly was kept from him.

The Biblical story where the brother’s keeper is mentioned is a painful story where two brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve, were at odds.  Everything that Abel did was pleasing in the eyes of God.  Everything that Cain did was displeasing and so Cain grew angry at God and angry that his brother always got what he did not get.  Cain surmised if he couldn’t get what he desired then his brother should not have it either.  And so in this story, Cain kills Abel.  When confronted by God as to where Abel was, Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”   God exiles Cain and in order for him to  survive he will need to depend on the kindness of strangers, in short other brothers will be his keeper.  The answer to this question is yes and so are we all.

A recent article on regarding the protests against the Wisconsin Governor’s  proposal to do away with collective bargaining of the unions, ends the article with this quote: “The Right has made great political progress getting Americans to ask the question: “How come that guy’s getting what I don’t have?” It’s the crux of the politics of grievance. Progressives need to get Americans to ask a different question: “What’s keeping me from getting what that guy has?”

It is a good question but the question does not go far enough.  It is not enough to know that white privilege is rampant in America and is used to keep others from the good life.  It is not enough to know that continued tax cuts for the top 2% income earners keeps the financial burden of government on the poor.  It is not enough to know that our corporations have moved factories and jobs to other countries where they do not have to comply to our labor laws or environmental regulations. It is not enough to know that cutting spending on health care, human services, education will keep people in poverty.  Many people know these things keep them from the same opportunities  that the other guy had to fill his coffers.

What they are not doing is demanding a government that lives up to its ideals of being of, for, and by the people.  Where the basic needs of the people are met.  They have not realized that when we seek for our brothers and sisters to thrive we are seeking for ourselves to thrive as well.  When corporations begin to take care of their employees’ basic needs such as a living wage, health care, pensions, life insurance, sufficient vacation and sick time;  the incentive for the employee to be loyal, to be productive, to be innovative increases which benefits the corporations. Ensuring the best for our brother helps ensure the best for us as well. 

It is time the people begin speaking up on what kind of government we want here in America.  Will it be one that only benefits the rich and powerful or one that fulfills our American Creed so that everyone has the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  We are not living Abraham Lincoln’s dream of being a government of, by, and for the people.  We have moved far from that dream to being a plutocracy of corporations whose only use of the people is enslavement to sell their products and to line their pockets with gold.  And if you think these words are too harsh, look at the work conditions in the countries where these corporations have set up shop to produce products.   Those conditions would be here if they could get away with it.  There are already some states that want to do away with child labor laws.

What we are seeing in Wisconsin is only the tip of the iceberg of what needs to happen across this nation. We need to send a strong message that in order for America to fulfill its creed of equality, that we need to begin by supporting the least of these in our nation; the children and the infirmed,  the workers and the laborers, the poor and the immigrant.  They are our brothers and sisters.  To paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth, what you do to the least of  my brethren, that you do also to all of us.

Acceptance vs Tolerance

Acceptance v Tolerance

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

13 February 2011 © Rev Fred L Hammond


There was a long pause on the phone.  Then, “What did you call me?” I was flabbergasted, I had to think; did I say something derogatory and not realize it? “I called you Sir.”   He sputtered, “No one has ever called me sir.  I am not a sir.  I am called lots of things but Sir is not one of them.”  “Well,” I replied, “I just did and therefore you must also be, a Sir.”

Keith was many things in the eyes of the world.  He was a convict, a violent criminal, an addict, a street bum, a con artist, abusive to his girlfriend, and infected with HIV/AIDS. All of these labels were met with fear by most everyone he encountered. This is the person parents warn their children about. Good people do not associate with the likes of him. He was the other to everyone he met.  At best he would be tolerated by the social service workers who would help with food stamps, clothing vouchers, rental assistance.  Rarely would he be accepted for his essential self, a fellow human trying to find his way through this maze called life.

The definition of tolerance has broadened over the centuries but its earliest meaning had to do with enduring, endurance as in something painful or abhorrent.  A newer connotation of the word is to offer a permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, culture, race; sexual orientation is different to ones own.  But the underlying denotation of enduring or forbearing something abhorrent remains.

Accept is the root word of acceptance and it has many definitions as well, including “to receive or admit formally, as to a college or club; and to regard as normal, suitable, or usual.” So the matter of acceptance means to welcome in as one of us or to consider as typically everyday normal.

The difference between tolerance and acceptance reveals a strong contrast:  endure something painful or welcome as one of us.

There is in our society lots of conversation about tolerating our diversity.  We are asked to be tolerant of gays, lesbians, and transgender folk.  We are asked to be tolerant of our religious differences.  We have heard specifically to be tolerant of Muslims in our country.  So given the definition of the word what are we really asking when we ask for tolerance of those who are different from us.  Are we asking to simply put up, endure people that we do not like, whose very presence might be painful, offensive to our set of morals or cultural mores?

It could be said that in the 20th century Euro-Americans were tolerant of African Americans as long as African Americans remained in their scripted place of being at the back of the bus.  As long as African Americans remained in their prescribed societal role of a second class citizen, then Euro-Americans could tolerate them.  Tolerate them with total indifference. This was not acceptance of African Americans, but it was tolerance. When African Americans refused to remain at the back of the bus, tolerance of African Americans went out the window and the south went up in flames, quite literally.  African Americans wanted acceptance as equals.  They no longer would stand for the tolerance of indifference which on a good day is what they received. We all know what happened on the bad days.

Martin Buber, 20th century philosopher, wrote a ground breaking text called I and Thou.   He describes the person who declares I as having two basic word forms, I-It and I-You or I-Thou.  We experience it. What ever that something is, it is experienced by the I.  He writes, “I perceive something.  I feel something. I imagine something. I think something. …The world as experience belongs to the basic word I-It.”

We do not experience You, instead I-You is in the realm of relationship. There are no boundaries, no borders to the I-You basic word form.  There is a border with the I-It experience.  The I-It has shape, it has definition, and it may also have a past tense.    However, the I in the I-You dyad impacts upon the You only in the present, in the here and now, likewise the You impacts on the I.  The I-You relationship must be dealt with; the relationship cannot be ignored or placed into the background like an I-It experience.

In the movie Avatar there is within the Na’vi culture this notion of seeing the other.  The Na‘vi do not experience their world in the I-It sense but rather in the I-You relationship.  They see their world in the full essence of life unfolding. Their world embodies an entity of being.  They do not experience their world they are in relationship with the world.  In the movie it is stated that the skypeople, the humans, cannot see.  When Jack Sully finally embraces the culture of the Na’vi he and his Na’vi mentor say to each other, “I see you.”  They are finally in an I-You relationship.  Buber suggests that in these moments the I-You relationship is also addressing the eternal You.  I see you.

The skypeople, the humans, are not in relation with the world Pandora.  To them the world is an It.  They experience the world.  They know what the world can offer them in resources and in potential experiences.  But the world is an It and all the beings living on the world are an It, as well.  Pandora to the skypeople is of no consequence to them. They therefore are blind and do not see Pandora.

Extrapolate this not seeing the other as a You to the United States stance and quest for oil in the Middle East or our stance on immigration and undocumented citizens.  Or our long embattled history with the indigenous people of this land. All of these are I-It experiences.  This is not simply a political analysis this is as spiritual as it gets.


There is a Hindi word that also expresses this I-You relationship, Namasté.  It has been translated in many ways from the simple “The god in me recognizes the god in you.” To “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.”  Saying Namasté, the person is acknowledging the I-You relationship.

In the last 18 days we have seen something remarkable happen in Egypt.  We saw a people rise up, realize that they are people of worth and dignity and peacefully remove a dictator who saw them only as his objects. They claimed an I-You stance in this revolution and demanded that their government see them for who they are.

In the 1950’s, when Rosa Parks sat down in the bus, when the college students sat down at the lunch counter, when Ms. Lucy walked into the University of Alabama, they were declaring an I-You stance and demanded to be seen as the same as any other person.  They were to be known as the I-You and no longer as an I-It.  There is a lot of courage and fortitude to insist to be in relationship with another who does not see you but only tolerates you as a piece of landscape in the background.  Tolerance as experienced in America is an I-It paradigm.

There is a video that has been making the rounds on Face Book. It is sponsored by a bible church in Arkansas. It opens with a young man in a hurry to work and he is complaining about every inconvenience, the kid next door on his skateboard that isn’t paying attention to cars, the traffic, the car that cuts him off, and the long lines in the coffee shop.  He is handed a pair of glasses and as he puts them on he suddenly sees the problems that is weighing down on each person. One person is fighting addictions; another just had a blow up fight with their spouse, the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet, the man who just lost his job and trying to save face with his kids.  Suddenly these people are no longer in the I-It experience.  No longer are they barriers to his getting to where ever he is rushing to but I-You individuals that if he so chooses might serve as a difference in their lives.

Does acceptance mean embracing the opposing behaviors, values, and beliefs to our own?  Contrary to popular argument, no.   I can accept the person before me as one with dignity and worth and still not like their behaviors or belief system.  Acceptance is not carte blanche.  Parents can accept their children universally but this does not automatically mean they accept their children’s behaviors that are disrespectful or harmful to themselves or others.

What it does mean is that we are seeing the whole person as a person of worth and dignity. Before us stands a person who deserves to live their life as fully and as abundantly as possible. We are in relationship with them instead of simply tolerating their presence.   This is spiritual work.  When all the forces around us insist on making others I-Its in our landscape, it takes a disciplined soul to see the other as I-You.   And when the person is oppressed by society, it takes even more fortitude to insist on being recognized as part of I-You.

Unitarian Universalist Zach Wahls, whose testimony before the Iowa state legislator on the zero impact of his parents being a lesbian couple on the development of his character was an I-You testimony.  He declared that his family is not so different from any other family in Iowa.  Their sense of worth as a family is not derived by the state declaring his parents married. “Sense of family comes from commitment to each other, it comes from the love that binds us,” Zach told the chambers.  Acceptance of his family as equal partners in contributing to the positive development of Iowan society is far different than tolerance of his family.  Zach told the council that not one person in his 19 years of life ever independently deduced that he was raised by two women instead of a heterosexual couple.  He was passionately arguing that his parents were not I-It but were worthy of being I-You because he could declare, I see you to his parents.  He was asking the council to join him in seeing, truly seeing his family as any other family in Iowa that receive the fair and equal treatment from their government.

Remember Keith, the hardened street criminal I called sir?  He died many years ago just before Thanksgiving.  At his funeral, his older brother told me that I was able to reach Keith in a way that no one in the family could.  He thanked me for seeing Keith for who he was at his core being.  He suggested that this made the difference in how Keith chose to live his final days surrounded by family, welcomed and accepted home.

Live with an attitude of acceptance, of welcoming in people where they are instead of an attitude of tolerance, of putting up and enduring the pain of life’s diversity.  By so doing you may enter into the realm of I-You and even encounter the eternal You in the process.  Namasté.