The right of U.S. workers to organize and bargain collectively with their employers unhindered by employer or government interference has been a legal right since the 1930s. Yet there are workers who are unaware of that, and employers who aim to keep them unaware, meanwhile doing their utmost to keep them from exercising what is a basic civil right.
Many employers often claim working people are in any case not much interested in unionization, noting that less than 15 percent of workers currently belong to unions.
But as anyone who has looked beneath the employer claims has discovered, it's the illegal opposition of employers and the failure of government regulatory agencies to curtail the opposition that's the basic cause of the low rate of unionization.
If most workers do indeed oppose unionization, then what of the recent polls decisively showing otherwise? And why do so many employers go to the considerable trouble and expense of waging major campaigns against unionization? Why do they take such illegal actions as firing or otherwise penalizing union supporters?
Could it be that union campaigners might be able to persuade workers to vote for unionization, despite what their employers might have to say? Or despite employer threats to punish them for voting union?
Some employers have now taken the outrageous step of trying to keep employees from even knowing of their legal right to unionization.
Under a National Labor Relations Board ruling last August, employers were to be required as of this April to post notices at their workplaces telling employees of their union rights.
The ruling stemmed from the labor board's finding that young workers, recent immigrants and workers in non-union workplaces were generally unaware of the labor laws' guarantees and protections – including, of course, the basic right of workers to unionize.
As the New York Times observed, "the backlash was furious." The notoriously anti-union National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed suits in two federal courts, claiming the law does not expressly permit the NLRB to require employers to post such notices. An appeals court has postponed the effective date of the rule pending further appeals.
The Times noted that the case involves more than "the legality of having to hang a poster in the coffee room. It's about industry's attempt to delay rules whenever it cannot derail them outright. It is about preventing workers from gaining knowledge and support to help them press their concerns."
So unless and until a court rules otherwise, workers will have the right to protections from the labor laws, but not the right to be informed of that through workplace notices and otherwise. Bizarre, certainly, is the word for that.
What workers need above all, even above the right to know their legal rights, is a firm strengthening of those rights. Why not add the right of unionization specifically to the Civil Rights Act? It is, after all, on a par with other basic civil rights such as the right to an education free of discrimination.
The Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against workers on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or national origin, should be expanded to include a specific prohibition of discrimination against pro-union workers.
No less a civil rights champion than Martin Luther King Jr. would agree to that. He knew that the right to unionization is one of the most important civil rights. Virtually his last act was in support of that. For he was slain by an assassin's bullet in 1968 as he was preparing to lead yet another of the many demonstrations he had led in behalf of striking black sanitation workers in Memphis who were demanding union recognition.
That was but one of many examples of King's support for workers seeking union recognition as their civil right – a right guaranteed not only by the 77-year-old National Labor Relations Act but also by the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of association.
King declared that the needs of all Americans "are identical with labor's needs: Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community."
There could be no civil right greater than the right of working people to try to meet such paramount needs, as well as to be clearly informed of their right to do so through unionization.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco writer who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.