Labor Rights on Labor Day

In this guest blog post Susan L. Kang, author of Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Trade Unions in the Global Economy, points out the value of labor rights and looks at recent opposition to collective bargaining in the United States from an international perspective.

Celebrating Labor Rights on Labor Day

As we celebrate the 188th Labor Day, commemorating the struggles of the American labor movement, through picnics, parades, or the simple enjoyment of our leisure, we should also consider the gravity of the recent coordinated attacks on union rights. Commentator Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post recently claimed that collective bargaining “as a right” is a “failing issue,” evidenced by the unsuccessful recall efforts in Wisconsin. Supposedly, citizens concerned with budgetary problems now regard public sector union rights as neither necessary nor politically feasible. Rather than a “right,” which implies a universal and fundamental protection, public sector collective bargaining is merely a “privilege.” And since privileges are legislatively provided, it is legitimate to legislatively remove them in response to political and economic conditions.

We would be better off understanding the situation in Wisconsin, and similar events in Ohio, as a demonstration of the fundamental importance of union rights, both in the United States and internationally. Both sides of this political contest recognize that workers' right to organize affects election results and public policy. Furthermore, thinking internationally about the current struggle over union rights in American can help us understand why this conflict is so intractable. It can also help us see how advocates of union rights might strategize in their struggles.

Human Rights and Labor SolidarityMy book, Human Rights and Labor Solidarity, explores similar political dynamics in the 1990s and early 2000s in other economically developed, democratic countries–South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Canada. These cases share many political dynamics with the current situation in the United States. Just as state legislators seeking to reduce union rights in Wisconsin and Ohio found themselves involved in a political circus of legally and ethically questionable practices and dirty tricks, the lawmakers in these other countries passed similar laws through often undemocratic, backroom deals. This suggests that lawmakers understand that limiting workers’ union rights is a politically risky move, even when such a position has majority support within a legislature. Closed-room brokering prevents public debate and limits democratic accountability, revealing lawmakers' reluctance to consult citizens about how best to deal with fiscal crises.

Another similarity between the cases in my book and the recent fights in the United States were lawmakers' rhetorical efforts to limit what constitutes workers’ rights. The governments of the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Canada played down the collective elements of workers’ organizational rights to the International Labor Organization and other international human rights bodies. For example, the U.K. government under Tony Blair told the European Court of Human Rights that allowing an employer to discourage a worker’s right to collective bargaining was acceptable, as long as that worker could freely hold union membership. Similarly, Governor Walker, in a testimony to Congress, claimed that workers’ “freedoms” meant the choice of union membership, not representation by a union. The American advocacy groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, calling for limiting workers’ rights have claimed economic conditions necessitate the limitation of collective bargaining. Likewise, South Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom also repeatedly provided economic justifications for limiting protection for workers’ rights to form, act, and join within unions.

Yet the history of the international human rights system contradicts the political claims of those seeking to limit rights for workers. And while Tony Blair and President Kim Dae-Jung of South Korea claimed to promote human rights while limiting workers’ union rights, one cannot understand human rights separately from the protections of human beings in their capacity as workers. As human rights scholar Micheline Ishay argues, the International Workingman’s Association, or the First International, was the first international federative human rights organization. The International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations Specialized Agency and perhaps the oldest human rights organization in the world, has repeatedly specified that the rights of workers to form and join unions to protect their interests are fundamental rights. The United Nations Human Rights organizations, such as the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, have supported this idea multiple times in their review of country reports. In fact, the International Labor Organization's Committee on Freedom of Association, a unique body that takes concerns from unions about shortcomings in member states' protection of workers' rights, has criticized the United States for its failure to protect public sector workers' union rights in North Carolina. These kinds of campaigns have become increasingly relevant even in Global North countries. And while condemnation by international organizations alone is not enough to compel governments to protect rights, such evaluations can be politically useful for activists seeking to promote such changes.

We should be doubly concerned about the recent attack on union rights in the United States because of the important role that unions have played in American politics and economics. Protecting workers’ rights is often cast as economically detrimental. While some economists have argued that unions led to increased inequality, as union members typically enjoy higher wages than non-union counterparts, recent empirical research has demonstrated the opposite effect. Economist Richard Freeman found that higher union membership helped to lessen general wage inequality in America. Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker have argued that the decline of unions, given their role in promoting the interests of middle and working class Americans, has led to profoundly unrepresentative political outcomes that favor corporate interests. The loss of strong protections for unions (and the economic, political, and social benefits they bring) undermines the viability of representative government. In other words, we should regard workers' collective rights as the canary in the coal mine of democracy.

Susan L. Kang teaches political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

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