An Outsider's View of the One-Sided Class Warfare in the U.S.
and Robert Weissman
"While in theory U.S. law provides for workers to have freedom of association, the right to join trade unions and participate in collective bargaining is in practice denied to large segments of the American workforce in both the public and the private sectors."
That is the central conclusion of a new report issued by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) .
Sometimes it takes an outsider to put matters in perspective. Those living in a society may become dulled to its everyday injustices; or key elements of society may be hidden from the view of many; or people may come to view their culture as the natural state of things, rather than the particular result of a certain social arrangement.
It was this outsider's point of view that enabled Alexis de Tocqueville to write one of the still-great political sociological critiques of the United States, Democracy in America.
And this same perspective enables the ICFTU researchers to plainly, directly and concisely convey the widespread sabotage of worker rights in the United States.
Here's what the report details with piercing clarity:
"Employers receive legal protection for extensive interference in the decision of workers as to whether or not they wish to have union representation. This includes active campaigning by employers among employees against union representation as well as participating in campaigns to eliminate union representation."
"Penalties for breaking the law are so limited and ineffective that there is a high level of corporate lawlessness with respect to labor law. At least one in 10 union supporters campaigning to form a union is illegally fired."
Employers engage in widespread harassment and intimidation against union supporters. Often the consultants, detectives and security firms used to intimidate workers engage in "surveillance of union activists in order to discredit them. In some cases, court, medical and credit records of union activists are obtained and the family lives of activists are studied for possible weaknesses."
Many government workers, the report notes, are denied the right to strike or bargain collectively over hours, wages and other critical issues. Nearly half of public workers suffer from full or partial denial of collective bargaining rights.
Union supporters who suffer from illegal firings, harassment, surveillance or improper employer electioneering do not have adequate remedies at the National Labor Relations Board. NLRB procedures, ICFTU correctly states, "do not provide workers with effective redress in the face of abuses by employers." NLRB delays and inability to award damages more than job reinstatement and lost wages (minus earnings during the period between illegal dismissal and NLRB order) are so severe that many wronged union supporters simply do not bother filing a case with the NLRB.
Employers also routinely eviscerate the rights of those workers who are unionized:
"The law gives employers the 'free play of economic forces.' If employers cannot get what they want through collective bargaining, they can unilaterally impose their terms, lock out their employees, and transfer work to another location, or even to another legal entity." The ICFTU reports refers to Crown Central Petroleum's lockout of 250 Texas workers as an example.
"An increasing number of employers have deliberately provoked strikes to get rid of trade unions. Unacceptable demands are made of workers and are often accompanied by arrangements for the recruiting and training of strike-breakers."
Strike-breakers are also used to prevent unions from ever reaching a first contract.
And, in one of the great travesties of the U.S. legal system, while the law does prohibit the firing of workers for exercising collective bargaining rights, at the same time it permits employers to lock out and "permanently replace" those workers.
The ICFTU report also criticizes the United States for permitting widespread use of child labor, especially in the agricultural industry and among migrant workers; and, in a growing number of cases, permitting prisoners to be compelled to work for pay (for rates as low as 23 cents a day).
"A series of far-reaching measures need to be taken in order to establish genuine respect for core labor standards within the United States, particularly with regard to trade union rights," the ICFTU report modestly concludes.
Because the report was prepared as a submission to the World Trade Organization, it emphasizes the importance of the United States ratifying International Labor Organization conventions on core worker rights.
But something much more fundamental is needed before the systematic assault on U.S. worker rights is ended. Comprehensive labor law reform is imperative; even more important is an upsurge in labor organization and militancy, with workers forcing employers to recognize their rights irrespective of legal enforcement.
The awesome challenge, of course, is how to generate that militancy and organizing burst when U.S. corporations are ruthless enough to fire one in ten union supporters.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org.)