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4 Ways Workers Are Boldly -- and Successfully -- Fighting for Their Human Rights

A wave of new energy and bravery in recent labor actions is building momentum for a solid labor reform agenda.

In the past month, clerical workers in California shut down the two busiest ports in the country.  One hundred and twelve workers were killed in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh.  Fast food workers walked off their jobs all across New York City, while Walmart workers protested in front of stories across the country.  Hundreds of Michigan union members crowded into the state capitol to protest anti-labor right-to-work legislation.  Brooklyn parents are partnering with nannies and housekeepers to make the law protecting domestic workers a reality.

Workers are taking action and the media is paying attention. Today, International Human Rights Day, is a good time to stop and consider what's going on. 

Human rights are about more than stopping torture and securing free elections; they are also about social and economic rights. Article 23 of the International Declaration of Human Rights, designed by Eleanor Roosevelt, declares that everyone has the right to a decent job with fair pay and without discrimination. And everyone has a right to protection from unemployment and the right to join a union to protect their interests.        

These basic rights were agreed to on December 10, 1948, by the General Assembly of  the United Nations.  Forty-eight countries voted in favor, including the United States, and none voted against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the Declaration had no enforcement power, Eleanor Roosevelt noted that “One should never belittle the value of words…for they have a way of getting translated into fact, and therein lies the hope for our universal declaration."

Recent news stories show such a translation of words into facts.  After decades of decline, unions and workers are showing signs of change.  Mrs. Roosevelt wrote in her My Day column in 1937 that “there were only two ways to improve working conditions, unionization and legislation. “ Current events provide examples of both.

But why now?  We are slowly coming out of the worst recession since the great depression.  Wages have been stagnate for decades, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and  poverty is on the increase.  Occupy Wall Street crystallized growing inequality.  Hundreds of thousands of workers marching in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, brought the attack against public sector workers and the services they provide into full view. Legislation to further weaken workers and their unions in the private was on full display.  “Jobs” was a rallying cry of the presidential campaign by both candidates.  But what kind of jobs, under what conditions, and for whom? Governor Romney’s recorded comment about the 47 percent of Americans who were “takers” hit a nerve. Today’s news stories bring these themes together with increasing levels of action around four issues:  outsourcing, low wages, respect, and legislation.

1. Outsourcing:  The fire in Bangladesh and the strike at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are about outsourcing—one reactive, the other preventive. Making clothes, a vital industry in the U.S. for the first half the 20th century, has long been outsourced to other countries.  Garment workers organized into unions and fought for better wages coupled with legislation to insure against fires and sweatshop conditions.  As the jobs became safer and better paying, they soon disappeared.  In the name of keeping clothing cheap for the consumer, as well as improving profits for the owners, jobs went to lower wage workers first in the south and then to other countries altogether: Mexico, China, Bangladesh to name just a few. 

One hundred and twenty-six workers were trapped in the Tazreen Fashion factory in Bangladesh.   The exit doors were locked.  Young women jumped out the windows.  The scene is eerily reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911, when the exit doors were locked and 146 workers, mostly young women, were burned or jumped to their deaths.  Following several decades of union organizing and safety legislation the sweatshops didn’t end, they just moved.  It should come as no surprise that Tazreen  was making clothes for Walmart, Sears, and Disney.  Now we learn from the New York Times that Walmart led the effort to stop safety improvements there because the costs were too high.