Human Rights at Work

Human Rights at Work

Labor issues involve not only economic rights, but also human rights, in the US, but especially in nations around the world where the right of free speech and assembly is not a given.


Earlier this year Danette Chavez, a janitor in Austin, Texas, decided she wanted to join a union. But her employer called her into a private meeting–as nine out of ten employers do in such situations–and tried to intimidate her into rejecting the union. After receiving a dozen citations for labor law violations, the company fired her, then was ordered to rehire her. Still out of work, Chavez says, “I thought, ‘I’m 40, and I’ve dealt with this all my life. I’ve got to speak out.’ Somehow your worker rights, your human rights, aren’t what they used to be when this country was founded.”

Chavez is not alone in seeing her rights at work as a human rights issue. Around December 10, International Human Rights Day, in actions organized by the AFL-CIO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, thousands of workers and their supporters were demanding the right to organize freely at nearly 100 locations in the United States and around the world.

Mainstream human rights groups have only recently argued consistently that forming a union is included in the human rights of freedom of speech and association. “One thing ignored in the human rights movement was the right to assemble,” says Jamie Fellner, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Labor rights weren’t seen as a human right. It was just two economic powers, and there’s a battle. But when workers seek to get together to talk about their work, that’s not just an example of economic interest but of fundamental rights.” With the growth in power of transnational corporations, there has also been growing recognition that private actors, not only governments, can violate human rights.

In the past, US unions attacked Communist and developing countries for abuses against workers, but they did not turn the same critical eye on US policy. And mainstream human rights organizations focused on individual civil and political rights in relation to repressive governments rather than on the right to collective action against private businesses. They also gave less attention to the social and economic rights that were enshrined in international agreements but that often went unrecognized by the United States. However, as AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff observes, “without a countervailing force on economic rights and justice, political democracy gets overwhelmed by economic inequality.”

In recent decades human rights groups have begun paying attention to the killing of unionists; the rights of migrant, child, women and domestic workers; and the role of transnational corporations in abuses, such as Shell’s implication in the execution of Nigerian dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa. Also, they’ve recognized that the International Labor Organization had little power to enforce the labor standards it promulgated.

Then in August 2000 Human Rights Watch published a report by Cornell University lecturer Lance Compa, Unfair Advantage, demonstrating that the labor protections in a wide range of international agreements–such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–were violated in the United States. “Reframing the basic issue as the right of workers to associate with each other, to choose their own leaders and to bargain together brings a fresh perspective,” Compa argues. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it adds to the arsenal and helps with mobilization and building coalitions,” such as with religious, student, civil rights, environmental and human rights groups. It also pushes unions “to rethink their own roles as human rights activists,” which they did in 2003 by launching American Rights at Work, a broad-based coalition.

The human rights perspective gives moral weight to labor’s claims, putting discrimination against workers for organizing on a plane with discrimination on the basis of race or gender. It provides a foundation for the proposed federal Employee Free Choice Act, which would facilitate organizing and now has 247 Congressional sponsors, and it buttresses legislation planned for several states that would prohibit employers from forcing employees to hear their political or religious messages. But the United States has a long history of exempting itself from international norms, even as it claims to promote them. Conservatives adamantly object when courts refer to those standards, as the Supreme Court did regarding gay rights and the execution of minors. And the US government argues in current debates at the United Nations Human Rights Commission that businesses should not be held accountable for human rights violations.

Some recognition of labor rights as human rights has crept into US jurisprudence, especially with cases brought by the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of workers in other countries, under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims Protection Act. Yet the courts have often ruled narrowly, allowing only claims of physical torture or forced labor (the heart of a lawsuit against Unocal’s operations in Burma, settled out of court this past March).

There are disputes about the human rights approach. Some strategists favor basing labor rights not only on regulation of interstate commerce, as at present, but on US constitutional guarantees of free assembly, equal protection or freedom from slavery. Others argue that labor’s goal should be framed more broadly as democracy (or at least guaranteed collective bargaining) at work, not just freedom to associate. But emphasizing the human rights connection does not preclude using other political or legal strategies to buttress workers’ rights. And ultimately the guarantee of any rights will only come from workers actually organizing themselves, politically and at work, and demanding the human rights that now exist on paper–and often only there.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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