Restoring A Human Right

The words in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights are unequivocal: “Everyone has the right to form and join a trade union.”  Few rights are more important. Yet few rights are more widely violated.

Which is why a coalition of labor, civil rights, political, immigrant and religious organizations and others is planning a “massive global mobilization” on Saturday. [Dec. 10]That’s been designated as International Human Rights Day to mark the 57th year since the UN issued the declaration covering unionization and other too- often- ignored basic rights.

Rallies, town hall meetings, candlelight vigils, teach-ins, and more on the anniversary date and the days preceding will make clear the considerable obstacles faced by workers who are trying to form or join unions. And they’ll lay out strategies aimed at overcoming the obstacles.

U.S. participants will above all be demanding thorough overhaul of the 70-year-old National Labor Relations Act. It’s supposed to guarantee American workers union rights, but is barely enforced and is, in any case, in great need of strengthening.

“For all practical purposes, Americans have lost the freedom to form unions,” says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. ” Our labor laws are so weak and so feebly enforced that workers join the union in spite of the law.”

The lack of firm legal rights is a main reason only about 13 percent of the country’s workers belong to unions, compared to the high of 35 percent in the 1950s.

Studies by government, academic and union researchers show that thousands of employers regularly intimidate workers who support or attempt to organize unions, often threatening to fire or otherwise punish them despite the provisions against such actions in the Labor Relations Act-and often carrying out those threats.

Employers have been able to blatantly violate the law because the legal penalties are slight, usually small fines at most, and often not even imposed. And workers fear complaining to the government, knowing it usually takes months – if not years – for the government to act and that meanwhile they will lose their jobs. That keeps many from even attempting to exercise their supposed union rights. Other workers, such as the millions holding temporary jobs, aren’t even covered by the law.

Surveys indicate that more than 50 million non-union workers want to unionize but won’t try, mainly because they fear employer retaliation. Every year, more than 20,000 who do try to organize unions at their workplaces are punished, half of them fired.

Employers faced with union organizing drives commonly order supervisors to spy on organizers and force workers to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, often asserting falsely that unionization would lead to pay cuts, layoffs or even force them out of business. Supervisors deliver similar messages to workers one-on-one, along with threats of disciplinary action.

In one-third of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for union representation, the employer simply refuses to agree to a contract with the union. Workers who strike to try to force employers to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law face the risk of being permanently replaced.

Avoiding unionization is financially well worth it to employers. Whatever their jobs, union members are much better compensated than their non-union counterparts. Overall, they’re paid an average of 25 percent more and are guaranteed employer-financed health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations, sick leaves and other fringe benefits that most non-members lack.

Probably the most important thing members gain is dignity – the promise, as one union organizer noted, “of being treated like a man or woman, with rights and abilities that management must respect.”

Union members also are assured a greater voice in political affairs and community activities, given organized labor’s prominence in such matters.

The necessary remedies are obvious: stiffer fines, swiftly imposed, and other penalties on employers who so openly violate workers’ union rights, and extension of those rights to all workers.

There’s an obvious need as well to remove the amendments imposed on the Labor Relations Act by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. They shifted the intent of the law from its original purpose of encouraging unionization by, among other changes, allowing employers to intervene in union organizing campaigns and prohibiting union members from waging sympathy strikes and otherwise limiting their ability to act in solidarity with other workers.

Even more than that, the law should deny employers the right to replace strikers, require them to grant union organizers full access to their workplaces, force those employers who balk at reaching union contract agreements to have the terms dictated by an arbitrator, and substantially increase the fines and other penalties imposed on employers who violate the law.

It also would make sense if union recognition was granted automatically on the signing of authorization forms or union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers. That’s how it was originally, with no lengthy union election campaigns, no chance for employers to intimidate workers.

Bills to carry out those and other badly needed reforms have too long been pending in both houses of Congress. It’s time to honor our commitment to human rights and finally enact them.

Copyright (c) 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and political issues for four decades. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.


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