Political Minutes: Campus Groups Debate Unions

On Tuesday, March 27, the Columbia Democrats and the Columbia University College Republicans held their final debate of the year, hosted and moderated by the Columbia Political Union.  Representing the Democrats were Sejal Singh, CC ’15, and Austin Heyroth, CC ’15, while Jamie Boothe, CC ’15 argued alone on behalf of CUCR.  Capping off an academic year that has seen wide-ranging CPU debates on the minimum wage, religion in the public sphere, and affirmative action, the two groups clashed over the resolution, “Resolved: Public sector employees should not be allowed to form unions.” Singh opened debate by attempting to preempt Republican arguments, saying that numerous laws and Supreme Court decisions provided a clear legal basis for the rights of public-sector workers to unionize and collectively bargain.  She added that these rights exist for all, implying that no restrictions on these rights could be imposed simply because the workers affected are government employees and not private-sector workers.

In response to these arguments, Boothe stated that “liberal icon and New Deal mastermind” Franklin D. Roosevelt staunchly opposed the right of public sector workers to unionize, and that as government workers are performing a service in the public interest, their own interests should be set aside for the good of the country.  He went on to argue that the allowing government workers like firefighters and air traffic controllers to strike could endanger national security and disrupt the basic functions of government.

Heyroth’s rebuttal included a reference to Ronald Reagan, who, he claimed, had upheld the rights of public sector workers to unionize during his tenure as the governor of California.  At this early stage of the debate, Heyroth also introduced the idea of collective bargaining and unionization as “fundamental rights,” effectively guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  This became a central point of contention between the two sides as the night wore on.

As the debaters were subjected to both prepared questions from moderator Emily Tamkin, CC ’12, and from the audience, the focus on constitutional rights continued.  Boothe argued, in response to an audience question, that it was not fundamentally wrong to curtail rights of collective bargaining for government workers because the government represents the people and the national interest – as civil servants, he continued, it would be disastrous on grounds of both fiscal solvency and national security for them to be given the right to form a union.  He further added that individuals can adequately advocate for their own interests in the workplace, and failing that, “They can just leave."

The Democrats were especially pointed in their response to Boothe’s argument about individual, as opposed to collective, bargaining. They argued that without progressive and New Deal-era reforms, it would have been impossible for workers – in all fields – to achieve humane working conditions.  They again made an appeal to universal human rights, saying that the ability to assemble and the ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances were both guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and that the right to unionize followed closely from these basic, enumerated rights.

In closing arguments, each side essentially rehashed the same ideas that had been lobbed back and forth all night.  Closing for the Democrats, Heyroth reiterated his previous statements about the fundamental human rights at stake, while Boothe insisted that such rights, in the case of public-sector workers, could be subordinated to the national interest, particularly in times of crisis.

After the event was over, Tamkin, the outgoing general manager of CPU, remarked that she was pleased with the tone of the debate, while the president of the CU Democrats, Janine Balekdjian, CC ’13, said that the Democratic debaters “did a great job of explaining how the First Amendment guarantees a right to collective bargaining – for all workers.”  Boothe noted that the course of the debate was dominated by the notion that collective bargaining was a fundamental right for public-sector workers, a notion he dismissed simply as “hogwash.”