The right to workplace democracy, that is the right to form a union and collectively bargain, is a human right. Perhaps it sounds overly grandiose to say this, but that alone shows how far labor rights in the this country have fallen. Labor rights are internationally recognized as part and parcel of the broader litany of human rights that constitute the kind of international norms that the US govenrment professes to support. It’s not coincidental that that one thing nearly all autocratic and repressive regimes — from the Communist Party of Poland of the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein, to the current mullahs running Iran — share is antipathy towards organized labor. It makes sense. Workers coming together to have a say in their workplace is fundamentally a democratic exercise and once they start doing that, who knows what else they’ll try to organize around.
For this reason, it’s more than a little troubling that a new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research concludes that one in seven workers who try organize a union right here in the US are illegally fired. While the CEPR finds that situation has gotten worse under Bush, the dismal state of labor law enforcement isn’t new. Six years ago, even before the Bush administration ushered in an even more anti-union era at the NLRB, Human Rights Watch released a report titled UNFAIR ADVANTAGE: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards. HRW found that the US fell short of many international labor rights standards. For instance:
The basic international norm protecting the right to organize is stated in ILO Convention 98: “Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination . . . more particularly acts calculated to cause the dismissal of or otherwise prejudice a worker by reason of union membership or participation in union activities.” The NLRA’s Section 8(a)(3) appears to meet this goal, making unlawful any discrimination against workers for concerted activity, including union activity.
Firing a worker for organizing is illegal but commonplace in the United States. Many of the cases examined by Human Rights Watch for this report reflect the frequency and the devastating effect of discriminatory discharges on workers’ rights. An employer determined to get rid of a union activist knows that all that awaits, after years of litigation if the employer persists in appeals, is a reinstatement order the worker is likely to decline and a modest back-pay award. For many employers, it is a small price to pay to destroy a workers’ organizing effort by firing its leaders.
None of this is going to even begin to change until we reform the way unions are certified. As the labor movement has argued repeatedly, the current NLRB election process makes it nearly impossible for workers to form a union because it’s so easy for employers to simply fire or threaten to fire the troublemakers. That’s why we need card-check elections. Here’s to 2007 being the year of the Employee Free Choice Act.