As Labor Struggles, Have the Big Rights and Liberties Groups Like the ACLU Deserted Unions?
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Progressive intellectuals have been acting very bipolar towards labor lately, characterized by wild mood swings ranging from the “We’re sorry we abandoned labor, how could we!” sentiment during last year’s Wisconsin uprising against Koch waterboy Scott Walker, to the recent “labor is dead/it’s all labor’s fault” snarling after the recall vote against Gov. Walker failed.
It must be confusing and a bit daunting for those deep inside the labor movement, all these progressive mood swings. At the beginning of this month, New York Times’ columnist Joe Nocera wrote a column about having a “V-8 Moment” over the abandonment of labor unions, an abandonment that was so thorough and so complete that establishment liberals like Nocera forgot they’d ever abandoned labor in the first place!
The intellectual-left’s wild mood swings between unrequited love towards labor unions, and unrequited contempt, got me wondering how this abandonment of labor has manifested itself. While progressives and labor are arguing, sometimes viciously, over labor’s current sorry state, one thing progressives haven’t done is serious self-examination on how and where this abandonment of labor manifests itself, how it affects the very genetic makeup of liberal assumptions and major premises.
So I did a simple check: I went to the websites of three of the biggest names in liberal activist politics: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU. Checking their websites, I was surprised to find that not one of those three organizations lists labor as a major topic or issue that it covers.
Go to Amnesty International’s home page at www.amnesty.org. On the right side, under “Human Rights Information” you’ll see a pull-down menu: “by topic.” Does labor count as a “Human Rights topic” in Amnesty’s world? I counted 27 “topics” listed by Amnesty International, including “Abolish the death penalty”, “Indigenous Peoples”, “ “Children and Human Rights” and so on. Nowhere do they have “labor unions” despite the brutal, violent experience of labor unions both here and around the world. It’s not that Amnesty’s range isn’t broad: For example, among the 27 topics there are “Women’s rights”, “Stop Violence Against Women” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. There’s even a topic for “Business and Human Rights”—but nothing for labor.
Puzzled, I called Alex Edwards, Amnesty’s Media Relations guy in Washington DC, to ask him why labor unions didn’t rate important enough as a “topic” on Amnesty’s “list of topics.” Edwards was confused, claimed that he was totally unaware that there was a “list of topics” on Amnesty’s home page, and promised to get back to me. I haven’t heard back from him.
Next, I checked Human Rights Watch. From my experience in Russia and Eastern Europe, I’ve learned to expect less from HRW than I would from Amnesty—my memory of HRW during the Kosovo conflict and in others is that, when called to, HRW acts as a propaganda arm for the liberal hawk war party. But HRW has also done a lot of important good work in areas not covered by the press, and they’re certainly better than most—so does Human Rights Watch consider labor unions an important human rights issue?
Checking Human Rights Watch’s homepage (www.hrw.org), there’s a tab listing “topics”—14 topics in all. Once again, labor is not listed among Human Rights Watch’s covered “topics.” Instead, Human Rights Watch lists everything from “Children’s Rights” to “Disability Rights” to “LGBT Rights” and “Women’s Rights”—along with “Terrorism”, “Counterterrorism” and, I shit you not, “Business”—as vital human rights topics. But not labor. “Business”—but not “Labor.”
On the advice of an old friend, Jan Frel, I read an excellent book on the human rights industry, James Peck’s “ Ideal Illusions,” which helps answer why labor rights have been airbrushed out of the language of human rights. It wasn’t always this way: Economic rights and workplace rights were for decades at the very heart of the human rights movement. This was officially enshrined in 1948, when the United Nations adopted a 30-point “ Universal Declaration of Human Rights” putting labor rights and economic equality rights alongside those we’re more familiar with today, like freedom of expression, due process, religion and so on. But somehow, labor rights and economic justice have been effectively amputated from the human rights agenda and forgotten about, in tandem with the American left’s abandonment of labor.