The rights of workers to organize, to strike and to bargain collectively are essential attributes of human liberty, recognized as such by treaties, court opinions, papal encyclicals, government officials and every major international rights treaty. One is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United States ratified in 1992 but has done little to implement.
Bush administration officials do not dispute the importance of these rights. They would probably even agree that sustainable growth and political and social stability all require free and democratic labor movements. They claim that worker rights are adequately protected and recognized in the U.S. After all, our basic labor statute, the National Labor Relations Act, sets forth that workers have “the right to self organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations to bargain collectively ... and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” It also makes interfering with these rights an unfair labor practice.
But the reality is far different. The rights enunciated almost 70 years ago are constantly challenged and frequently denied. Those who oppose the right of workers to organize and strike have learned to phrase their opposition in the language of liberty and to justify it in terms of the best interests of working people. There are few areas where hypocrisy is more firmly entrenched.
This hypocrisy has been woven into the structure of our labor laws. The right to organize is frustrated by the election system used in deciding whether employees are to be unionized. Firing of employees involved in union campaigns is common today. Though the law declares such firing to be illegal, anti-union discharges are difficult to prove, and the remedies are woefully inadequate. Even when the National Labor Relations Board finds that employees have been illegally fired, they rarely return to their jobs.
And even if the union election is not preceded by unfair labor practices, the law gives employers a significant advantage. Before the election is held, employers have the right to deliver speeches to a captive audience of employees. These speeches, typically written by anti-union consultants, play upon fear and ignorance. The union has no right to reply, and its organizers usually are barred from the premises.
Our national hypocrisy is even greater when it comes to the fundamental right to strike. The law specifically proclaims such a right, and our system of collective bargaining requires it. But employees who exercise that right can lose their jobs to permanent replacements.
In Jay, Maine, an entire force of 1,200 production workers was replaced in 1988 by International Paper Co., and in Decatur, Ill., in 1992, a similar fate befell employees of Caterpillar. Those communities were devastated and remain so today. Families were divided. Workers lost their savings, their homes and their sense of dignity. As the former town manager of Jay stated to the Senate Labor Committee: “What Jay once was -- a proud, caring community -- is now a divided, closed society which judges each individual on the basis of which side you may have taken in this labor dispute.”
Unions today are afraid to strike, and many workers are afraid to join or support them. We all lose when workers are denied an opportunity in workplace and political decisions.
The United States has no reason to be proud of its labor relations system and its lack of protection of basic human rights.