Fifty-five years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set forth basic standards for what many hoped would be a new world emerging from the devastation of World War II and the horrors of colonialism. Among the rights articulated in that document is, “to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
This was in line with U.S. law; the 1935 National Labor Relations Act declared it the nation’s policy to encourage “the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and protect “the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.”
Unfortunately, the principle on the books is not the typical workplace reality in the United States today. Existing laws are inadequate, and employers routinely violate even those.
As the world today [Dec. 10] observes Human Rights Day, Americans should heed the conclusion of a Human Rights Watch report in 2000: “[W]orkers’ freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States, and the government is often failing its responsibility under international human rights standards to deter such attacks and protect workers’ rights.”
A study by a leading labor researcher, Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, found that when faced with employees who want to join a union, 92 percent of private employers force workers to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 80 percent require supervisors to attend training sessions on attacking unions; 78 percent require that supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee; and 75 percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns. Her study, commissioned by the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, also found that half of employers threaten to shut down if employees unionize and that in a quarter of organizing campaigns, employers illegally fire workers because they want to form a union.
Bronfenbrenner also discovered why these tactics are so common — they are effective, increasing employee insecurity and applying downward pressure on real wages and benefits. The negative effect on communities is widely felt; a 2000 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that American families, on average, work 247 more hours per year than they did in 1989.
Workers whose rights have been violated can try to use the law to fight back, but these days that’s a thin reed on which to lean. Business owners know that the federal government long ago abandoned serious enforcement, and cases brought before the National Labor Relations Board can drag on for years before workers get justice.
One simple way to give workers more meaningful organizing rights would be to establish the right of workers to start a union through the “card check” process. If a majority of workers sign a form authorizing union representation, the company would have to recognize the union. Under current law, companies can ignore the workers’ wishes and demand an NLRB election, which gives managers the opportunity to engage in these coercive anti-union activities and create an atmosphere of fear.
Legislation introduced in Congress last month, called the “Employee Free Choice Act,” would give workers the right to unionize through card check, as well as provide mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes, and establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights during organizing drives and first contract negotiations.
Such a law is hardly radical; it’s a small step toward reversing the assault on workers’ rights in this country and bringing the United States closer to basic international norms. In addition to the Universal Declaration, such norms are also articulated in the “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” of the International Labor Organization, an independent U.N. agency of which the United States is a member. That document states that member nations have an obligation “to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith” four key principles, the first of which is “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”
The key term is “effective” — rights in the abstract mean little to workers who are coerced into abandoning a union campaign or fired for organizing activities. It’s time for the United States to make those rights real for all workers.
Pat Youngblood is coordinator and Robert Jensen is on the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin, Texas. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.