Column: Workers rights are human rights

In the fall of 2001, facing pervasive harassment from management including threats to their immigration status, sexual abuse and intimidation as well as ethnic and racial slurs, workers at a small bakery tried to form a union for their facility. The company responded by firing workers engaged in the campaign and with further sexual harassment and abuse, threats to close the factory if workers voted to form a union, and by physically assaulting and threatening pro-union employees.

Did this brutal repression of workers take place in some far off developing nation? Is this an example of what international trade opponents fear is the result of pitiful labor laws in poorer nations? No, this happened in New Haven, Conn., at a company called Chef Solutions, owned by Lufthansa Airlines. In the end, the National Labor Relations Board charged the company with 29 violations of labor law, with limited enforcement mechanisms and fewer penalties, but the current state of U.S. labor law gives little hope for restitution on the part of the workers.

Dec. 10 marks the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international moral code of conduct established after World War II by the United Nations. The code forcefully affirms that “human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings.” Such rights include freedom from oppression based on race, sex or religious beliefs; freedom of expression; and freedom from forced or coerced work without consent. Included among these rights, and later codified by international law and nearly universal agreement of international organizations, is the freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions and collectively bargain with one’s employer.

Despite the United States’ support of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is clear many workers in our society, while having the right to organize on paper, are effectively denied that right every day in practice. According to the 2000 Human Rights Watch report, “Unfair Advantage,” “many workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”

In the United States today, 25 percent of union-organizing campaigns in the private sector end up with a worker being fired for his or her union activity, according to research by Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner. Employees are forced to attend mandatory anti-worker meetings, endure closed-door one-on-one meetings with supervisors, face physical and mental intimidation during organizing drives and make a decision on whether or not to join a union in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation rather than of open and fair debate.

As we push for democracy abroad, it is startling that millions of workers in this country are denied basic citizenship rights as soon as they enter the workplace. Freedom of speech applies only outside the factory gates. A presumption of innocence is denied to workers on the job and instead left up to the benevolence of employers. Finally, the right to govern one’s own life is sadly denied to workers every day.

The experience of workers at Chef Solutions, while egregious, sadly represents the obstacles and barriers workers face in trying to create a meaningful and powerful voice about their economic lives. Our own labor laws violate the terms and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights of workers that we supposedly endorse abroad. We should not forget that workers in our own backyard, including parking lot workers right here on campus, deserve the right to a free and open choice over whether or not to form a union.

To learn more about this issue, please join us for a teach-in Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. in the Marvin Center Continental Ballroom featuring AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff and many other speakers, including an area parking lot worker.

-The writer is an assistant professor of sociology.

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