America's Hidden Human Rights Problem

Human Rights

"Unions -- the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend," reads a popular union T-shirt. It's true enough -- and we could add a sizeable list of other benefits that most people associate with social progress: employer-sponsored health insurance, pensions, and paid vacations.

But unions in the United States find themselves increasingly having to fight for their very existence. This week, on International Human Rights Day (December 10), thousands of union members and their allies around the country will demonstrate for the right to organize.

This is something that was supposedly established here in 1935 during the New Deal. But this right has been so eroded in recent decades that -- to the disgrace of the world's richest democracy -- it hardly exists at all.

That was the conclusion of a 213-page report by Human Rights Watch, one of the world's largest human rights organizations, written three years ago. And it keeps getting worse. Tens of thousands of workers are fired each year for joining or attempting to organize a union, in violation of U.S. law. But the penalties for employers are so slight that they have what Human Rights Watch calls "a culture of near impunity."

Employers can also refuse to negotiate for years with a union even after it is recognized, effectively negating their legal obligation to bargain. And while they can't legally fire workers for striking, they can hire "permanent replacements" -- a distinction without much difference.

From high-tech computer programmers in Redmond, Washington, to minimum wage employees in South Florida Nursing Homes, Human Rights Watch found that workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively were routinely denied.

Abandoning this basic right to freedom of association has had enormous economic consequences. It is no coincidence that the United States, with one of the lowest rates of unionization in the developed world, is the only high-income country without a national health insurance system. Or that Europeans enjoy five weeks of vacation on average as compared to less than three for Americans.

Perhaps more drastically, the decline of organized labor -- from 30 percent of the labor force in the 1960s to 13 percent today -- has contributed greatly to the most massive upward redistribution of income in American history. The majority of the U.S. labor force has barely seen any of the enormous productivity gains of the last thirty years reflected in their wages.

This is in sharp contrast to the first half of the post-World War II period (1946-1973), during which productivity gains were broadly shared and the median wage rose by nearly 80 percent. The United States is each year becoming more like Latin America and other much poorer countries in its economic and social division into haves and have-nots.

Legislative reform is long overdue, and there is currently a bill in Congress (S. 1925 in the Senate and H.R. 3619 in the House) that could make a big difference. The "Employee Free Choice Act" would allow for unions to be certified on the basis of member signatures, or "card check." In other words, if the National Labor Relations Board certifies that a majority of employees have signed up to join a union, this would be sufficient.

Under the current system, signature gathering is followed by a vote on whether to approve the union. Very often a large majority of employees does indeed sign up for the union, but the employer then uses coercion (firings, warnings of re-location and other threats, "captive audience" meetings) to force a "no" vote.

The bill would also attempt to enforce workers' rights to organize by allowing the courts to use injunctions and fines against employers who break the law. It also provides for mediation and, if that fails, binding arbitration in negotiations for a first contract. This is necessary to prevent employers from stalling for as long as 12 years after a union is certified.

The right to freedom of association is a fundamental human right, and it is a national embarrassment that our society and legal system do not recognize this right for American employees. A recent Peter Hart poll found that 47 percent of non-union workers -- about 50 million people -- would opt for a union in their workplace if they could. This legislation won't make their wish come true overnight, but it's a good start.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

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