U.S. Workers Demand The Right To Organize

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

U.S. labor laws deny workers the most fundamental workers' rights — to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the nation's premiere human rights watchdog, issued a historic report on August 31, 2000. After a year-long investigation into freedom of association among American workers, HRW concluded that U. S. workers are being denied the most fundamental internationally-recognized human rights at the workplace.

Their research showed that U.S. workers are not free to organize, bargain, or strike.

The 217-page report of their investigation, "Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards," concluded that U.S. labor laws do not meet international standards for protecting workers' rights. When it comes to labor law, compared with our trading partners in Europe, the United States is still in the 19th century.

Workers do not have the right to organize. When U.S. workers try to organize a union, their employers can fire them without fear of penalty. Each year thousands of U.S. workers are fired for trying to organize unions. And the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) says the problem is getting worse.

In the 1950s, workers punished by their employers for exercising the right to organize numbered in the hundreds each year. By 1969, the number was more than 6,000. In 1998, the last year for which official figures are available, nearly 24,000 workers were victims of discrimination that was serious enough for the NLRB to issue a "back-pay" or other remedial order.

Workers do not have the right to bargain. Employers can spend years stalling the negotiation of a contract with frivolous appeals and deliberate delays. Labor laws are so weak that companies often treat the "back-pay" orders as a routine cost of doing business, not a deterrent against violations.

We do not have the right to strike. Employers can permanently replace striking workers without penalty. To get their jobs back, often the striking workers' only recourse is to go to court. Companies can drag these cases out for years with delays and appeals.

U.S. labor laws give employers a chokehold on unions, making it nearly impossible to organize and represent workers. The HRW report listed a multitude of company practices that deny U.S. workers their fundamental right to union representation, among them:

  • firing organizers
  • "captive-audience meetings"
  • threatening plant closure if workers vote for union representation
  • permanently replacing workers who exercise the right to strike.

The report also pointed out that in the U.S., unlike other developed nations, workers cannot participate in secondary boycotts, an effective way to build solidarity. In addition, millions of workers -- farmworkers, low-level supervisors, and "independent" contractors, among others -- are excluded from all labor law protections.

None of these findings is news to us. Our union has been trying to get labor laws strengthened since 1880. Our high point was when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. Since then, we've lost ground. Employers now have more power to deny workers their right to organize than they have had since the days of blacklisting and the Pinkertons.

And the HRW report didn't even mention the most lamentable fact of current U.S. labor law: Company union-busting campaigns are subsidized by your tax dollars.

That's right. Companies get a tax write-off for their expenses when they run union-busting campaigns. They can hire union-busting consultants for hundreds of dollars an hour, buy films to show at captive-audience meetings, and pay attorneys thousands of dollars to fight the union in court. At tax time, they get to write it all off.

Meanwhile, our anti-union, anti-worker Congress keeps finding new ways to obstruct the work unions do. Unions struggle under more regulations than any other type of nonprofit organization. But many members of Congress aren't satisfied. They want to make even more rules about how we can spend our money, who we can talk to, and how we conduct our meetings.

In this election year, politicians are trying to ease workers' concerns about global trade by claiming that the U.S. will press for labor standards in the countries we do trade with.

But as Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, pointed out in this report, "The U.S. government cannot effectively press another country to improve labor standards while violating them itself. It should lead by example."

And if you think workers have trouble getting represented now, I want you to think about how tough things will get within the next few years if we elect an anti-worker president.

The next president will appoint at least three Supreme Court justices, several members of the National Labor Relations Board, and dozens of federal judges who decide labor cases.

We need someone in the White House who will lead by example and appoint pro-worker justices. We need a president who will introduce laws that protect the rights of workers to organize unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike, if it becomes necessary, without fear of reprisal.

We need a Congress that will lead by example and pass laws banning permanent replacements, imposing penalties on companies that violate workers' rights, rescinding tax write-offs for union busting, and expanding labor law protection to all workers across the entire country.

But we're only going to get leaders with the courage to stand up for workers by voting them into office.

How you vote on election day will have a greater influence on your wages, your benefits, and your rights on the job than any picket line you march in this year. What is gained at the bargaining table can be taken away by those in Washington. Make your vote count.

Vote for candidates who will support workers' rights in the workplace.