On December 10, 2003, International Human Rights Day, tens of thousands of union members and their allies demonstrated in thirty-eight U.S. cities. From Boston to Los Angeles, from Seattle to Atlanta, protesters took to the streets to highlight a shameful reality. In the United States, workers enjoy no meaningful right to organize and join unions. Employers regularly flout the National Labor Relations Act with little fear of its meager penalties. AFL-CIO leaders contend that as many as twenty thousand workers are fired annually for participating in union organizing drives. Such intimidation clearly has been effective. A recent poll found that as many as forty million U.S. workers would join unions if they felt it safe to do so. Meanwhile, as fear of retribution pervades the workplace, the percentage of private sector U.S. workers organized in unions has fallen below 10 percent—lower than at any time since such records were first kept.
The evidence is clear: fifty-six years after the United States helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.S. workers do not enjoy the right proclaimed in Article 23: “to form and to join trade unions.” Independent observers confirm as much. Recently, Human Rights Watch issued a report that found rampant violations of U.S. workers’ rights. Such violations “have systematically stolen the freedom to organize from workers,” argues AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. With the December 2003 protests, labor began to fight back. On one level, the protesters aimed to build support for reform legislation introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (DCA)that would simplify the union recognition process and stiffen penalties against lawbreaking employers. But on a deeper level they meant to frame labor’s struggle as an effort to secure human rights. As AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff put it, “We want to get into a real fight for the rights of American workers to freely form unions . . . which is a fundamental human right.”
With American workers intimidated daily by employers and the labor movement in sharp decline, it is imperative that we rally to defend the right to organize. Framing that defense around civil rights or international human rights makes sense. Doing so links the right to organize to the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of assembly and free speech. Moreover, the rights approach merges the struggle of U.S. unions with efforts to advance human rights worldwide, gaining labor new allies. Clearly, there are advantages to labor’s embrace of rights language.
But history suggests that there may also be some less obvious, though significant, disadvantages inherent in the “workers’ rights are human rights” formulation. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein has noted, the rise of rights consciousness has complex consequences for organized labor globally. Union density across the industrialized world plummeted over...
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