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

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.

The strike at the ports was also about outsourcing, but trying to prevent jobs from going overseas.  Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit are well paid, an average annual wage of about $84,000 a year and they have health insurance and pensions.  According to the LA Times, these are not ordinary clerical jobs, but “logistics experts who process a massive flow of information on the content of ships’ cargo containers and their destinations.” 

The union claimed that the companies were outsourcing jobs through attrition; sending the skilled logistics  jobs to lower-wage workers in other states and countries..  The Harbor Employers Association denied this charge, but after two years without a contract the workers walked out and the thousands of other longshore workers refused to cross the picket line.  We all know about the call centers in India, but do workers in more sophisticated technical jobs face unsafe working conditions as well as lower wages?  In either case the ILWU succeeded in negotiating increased job security.

The fire in Bangladesh vividly demonstrates that the sweatshop conditions of the early 1900s in this country are alive and well around the world. The ports offer one model of the potential for strong union resistance, but that is beyond the reach of many American workers.  People who work hard everyday and can’t make ends meet are looking for new solutions.  Unions and community organizations are offering new approaches.

2.  Low-Wages:  The fast food protest demonstrates a new organizing technique called a “flash strike.”   Organizing workers in these low-wage jobs, often immigrants with little training, few technical skills, and limited language abilities, is challenging.  But in some ways they are in a stronger position than the immigrant garment workers at the turn of the twentieth century.  These jobs cannot be moved to another state or another country.  They have to be in the communities where people live.

The New York Times recently highlighted a 79 year Peruvian immigrant who spoke little English with a job at a Wendy’s and a 28 year old single father living with his aunt to make ends meet working at a McDonald’s.  “They both earn a little more than $7 an hour,” wrote the reporter, “And they both need food stamps to survive.”  Orley Ashenfelter, a labor economist at Princeton recently “calculated that the real wages of McDonald’s workers in the United States hit about 2.2 Big Macs an hour last year.  That’s 15 percent less than in 2000.” There are over two million workers in jobs like this in the US today.  Some risked their meager earnings to go on a short strike.  With massive community support none of the striking workers lost their jobs -- yet. We can build on this kind of action to move toward real change.

3.  Respect: The Walmart walkout on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, built on several earlier demonstrations.  Walmart is the largest private employer in the country, with 1.4 million employees and 4,500 stores in the U.S. alone.  The company's business model affects not only their own employees, but the companies in their supply chain and their competitors.  For some, they are the business model of the 21st century.  The company earned $16 billion in 2011.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, the founding Walton family now has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of American families combined.  But “associates,” as workers at Walmart are called, complain of low wages, as low as $8 an hour, poor working conditions, not enough hours, constantly changing schedules, and sexual harassment.  These workers, too, rely on government assistance. Just last year women workers took their grievances to the US Supreme Court (which didn’t decide on the merits, but on the failure to establish a class action) and new suits are emerging. 

Yet the group challenging Walmart is not a union, but over 1,000 workers across the country calling themselves “OUR Walmart, Organization United for Respect.”  Like thousands of workers before them, it is not all about the money.  It is about dignity and respect and having a voice in decisions that affect their lives every day. 

4.  Legislation: The web of labor laws that determine workplace wages, hours, and health and safety standards are a mix of state and federal laws. Our most comprehensive wage and hour controls, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, however, excluded large segments of the workforce including domestic workers.  To this day they are not covered by federal law.  In 2010 New York became the first state to pass a wage and hour law for domestic workers; nannies, housekeepers, care workers.  But legislation is only as good as its enforcement at the workplace.  Domestic workers have all the same challenges as the fast food industry in that many of the workers are immigrants with few skills, but in addition they work behind the closed doors of their employers’ homes perhaps seeing fellow workers only informally at the park. 

Domestic Workers United, a grassroots organization based in New York City, has started a program called the Park Slope Education Program to help educate workers, mostly women,  and their employers, mostly women,  about their rights and responsibilities.  These are often new mothers with no clue about how to be an employer in their own home. Hand in Hand is a new effort to improve the work lives of those who care for our children, the elderly and sick, and our homes. 

A new survey of 2,0486 workers in 14 cities found that one in four of the workers, mostly women, made less that the state minimum wage. For live-in workers it was two out three workers.  Health insurance and paid sick days were rare. 

Legislation is a two way street.  Workers can secure  rights and protections through legislation, but their rights and activities can also be curtailed through that same process.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the effects of the Taft-Hartley law which amended the National Labor Relations Act to limit workers ability to join unions.  Section 14 b, known as the so-called right-to work-work law, is a case in point.  This section allows states to pass laws that permit workers in a unionized workplace to partake of all the advantages of unionization, including having the union collectively bargaining for their wages and working conditions, but they are not required to join the union or pay dues.  They are essentially “free riders.”  Twenty-four states have now passed such laws and unionization in those states is even lower than in the country in general.  The Republican legislature in Michigan, a stronghold of the labor movement since the organizing of the auto industry in the 1930s,  is now introducing such legislation and the governor has said he will sign it.    

In 1958 in her late seventies with her health failing, Eleanor Roosevelt rallied to the call to defeat state right-to-work laws.  As co-chair of the National Council of Peace, established to defeat such laws in six states, she declared it was time “for all right-thinking citizens, from all walks of life” to come together to protect the economy and union security from the “predatory and misleading campaigns now being waged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. “  When California ballot language suggested FDR would support right-to-work laws she responded that “The American public understands very well that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would never have supported such a reactionary doctrine.”

On December 6, President Obama issued a statement opposing the Michigan right-to-work legislation.  “President Obama has long opposed so-called ‘right to work’ laws and he continues to oppose them now,” said the White House spokesperson.  He voiced support for good wages and good benefits and gave workers in the US automobile industry as “a prime example of how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy.”

The events of the past few months offer the President and his Secretary of Labor a strong platform on which to initiate a solid labor reform agenda that will help to not only stop the decline of the labor movement and with it workers wages and working conditions, but much like the 1930s begin to rebuild the legal structure to strengthen workers voices.  Included on the agenda are removing barriers to joining unions, encouraging alternative types of labor organizations, and enforcing significant penalties on employers who violate the labor laws. Legislation, executive orders, technical assistance, and law suits are all avenues to be explored.

Critical to success will be rallying public opinion, using old and new media, and reaching out in strong coalitions to civic, social justice, and religious communities.  We all have a role to play.

In this era of globalization labor, as well as business, operates in the world-wide context.  We can rebuild a high quality manufacturing base at home, while also helping low-wage workers in this country and in the rest of the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the framework.  As Eleanor Roosevelt told the delegates to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Convention in 1944, the United States needs to take a “world view,” giving people all over the world “hope for better economic conditions.


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