Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis have proposed legislation to protect union organizing as a civil right. “As go unions, so go middle-class jobs,” says Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who serves as a Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair. “That’s why I’m proud to introduce the Employee Empowerment Act with civil rights icon John Lewis. This ground-breaking legislation will give workers the same legal options for union organizing discrimination as for other forms of discrimination—stopping anti-union forces in their tracks”
Amending the National Labor Relations Act to allow workers who face discrimination for engaging in union organizing to sue for justice in the civil courts—and to collect compensatory and punitive damages—is a sound and necessary initiative.
But it is certainly not a radical initiative—at least by American standards.
Indeed, the best way to understand what Ellison, Lewis and the cosponsors of their legislation are proposing is as a reconnection with a very American idea.
Despite the battering that unions have taken in recent years—in Wisconsin, Michigan and states across the country—Americans once encouraged countries around the world to embrace, extend and respect labor rights.
There was a time, within the living memory of millions of Americans, when this country championed democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to organize in the same breath.
When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides encouraged the country to adopt a constitution designed to assure that Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy would be replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers and their unions had a role to play in shaping the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”
When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides urged the Germans to write a constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with muscular democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to organize and make their voices heard in the new nation, the Germans included a provision that explicitly declared: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”
When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
For generations, Americans accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country counseled other countries on how to forge civil and democratic societies, Americans explained that the right to organize a trade union—and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies—had to be protected.
Now, with those rights under assault in America, it is wise, indeed, to recommit to the American ideal that working people must have a right to organize and to make their voices heard in a free and open society. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said fifty years ago:
History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.
History remembers, as should we. The formal recognition of labor rights as human rights—and the extension of civil rights protections to prevent discrimination against labor organizing—is long overdue. Keith Ellison and John Lewis are renewing ideals that have historically enlarged America and made real the promise of democracy.