Somehow it seemed fitting that the week former President Ronald Reagan died, the United States was named as one of the world’s most serious violators of worker’s rights. The other countries included some of the world’s most repressive governments–China, Burma, Belarus and Colombia. According to an annual survey by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the US, “far from being a shining beacon of labor practices,” is a country in which “trade union rights violations continue unabated.” The report cited the “fierce anti-trade union behaviour” of several American companies, including firings, layoffs and threats of closure after workers sought better pay and conditions. ICTFU also reported that 40 percent of America’s public employees, or 6.9 million people, are denied collective bargaining rights.
The same week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it is considering a radical change in the law that could further inhibit workers from exercising their freedom of association. The Board–three of whose five members were appointed by Bush–announced that it will review a case that reconsiders the long-used practice of forming a union through voluntary recognition. (In this process, companies agree to recognize a union that has collected signature cards from a majority of workers indicating their desire to join, without forcing workers to go through potentially contentious elections.) According to a statement from the newly formed group American Rights at Work, the NLRB’s move could further expose workers to potential intimidation and harassment by employers,a common practice during union organizing drives. “Workers who want a voice on the job need more protection, not less,” said David Bonior, Chair of American Rights at Work.
The modern war on labor, ruthlessly waged today by the Bush Administration, was launched by Ronald Reagan. His firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 set the tone for labor relations for years to come. And he appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board who were hostile to union organizing. As Harold Meyerson observed in the Washington Post, “Roughly a quarter of American workers belonged to unions when Reagan took office. When he broke the PATCO strike, it was an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got the message loud and clear–illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad.”
This past week, the United States joined some of the world’s most repressive regimes as a violator of working peoples’ rights and the NLRB threatened to radically weaken workers’ freedom of association. That is Reagan’s real legacy to the working people of America.