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"‘Deck is Stacked' Against U.S. Workers," says Report from Human Rights Watch

Violations Undercut U.S. Position on Labor Rights and Trade

(New York, August 31, 2000)-Workers' basic rights are routinely violated in the United States because U.S. labor law is so feebly enforced and so filled with loopholes, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 217-page report, "Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards," was based on field research in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Washington and other states. Human Rights Watch examined workers' rights to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike under international norms. It found widespread labor rights violations across regions, industries and employment status. The report is being released on the eve of the annual Labor Day holiday in the United States.

The U.S. government has called for "core labor standards," including workers' freedom of association, to be included in the rules of the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. But Human Rights Watch charged that the United States itself violates freedom of association standards by failing to protect workers' right to organize.

"The cards are stacked against workers in the United States," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. government cannot effectively press another country to improve labor standards while violating them itself. It should lead by example." Each year thousands of workers in the United States are fired from their jobs or suffer other reprisals for trying to organize unions. Millions of workers are excluded from labor laws meant to protect workers' organizing and bargaining rights, and their number is growing, according to the report.

Employers can resist union organizing by dragging out legal proceedings for years, the report said. Labor law is so weak that companies often treat the minor penalties as a routine cost of doing business, not a deterrent against violations. Some workers have succeeded in organizing new unions in recent years, the report said, but only after surmounting major obstacles.

According to statistics from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency created to enforce workers' organizing and bargaining rights, the problem is getting worse. In the 1950's, workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1969, the number was more than 6,000. By the 1990's, more than 20,000 workers each year were victims of discrimination that was serious enough for the NLRB to issue a "back-pay" or other remedial order. There were nearly 24,000 such workers in 1998, the last year for which official figures are available. Meanwhile, the NLRB's budget and staff have not kept pace with this growth.

Among other conditions cited in the report that impede workers' freedom of association:

  • workers fired for organizing and bargaining often wait years for their cases to be decided by labor boards and courts, while employers pay no price for deliberate delays and frivolous appeals;

  • one-sided rules for union organizing unfairly favor bosses over workers, allowing such tactics as "captive-audience meetings" where managers predict workplace closures if workers vote for union representation;

  • millions of workers -- including farm workers, domestic household workers, low-level supervisors, and "independent" contractors who are really dependent on a single employer -- are deliberately excluded from labor law coverage for organizing and bargaining rights. They can be fired with impunity for trying to form a union;

  • many workers find themselves caught up in a web of labor contracting and subcontracting, which effectively denies them the right to organize and bargain with employers who hold real power over their jobs and working conditions;

  • employers have the legal power to permanently replace workers who exercise the right to strike;

  • harsh rules against "secondary boycotts" frustrate worker solidarity efforts.

Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. Congress to ensure rapid reinstatement and full back pay for workers fired for organizing, as well as faster elections and expedited appeals to resolve unfair labor practices more quickly. The U.S. Congress should also ensure that protection of the right to organize be extended to farm workers, household domestic workers, and others not currently covered by federal labor laws.

Human Rights Watch also called on Congress to ratify International Labor Organization conventions on worker organizing and collective bargaining, and to strengthen U.S. laws protecting these rights.

The full report can be accessed at the Human Rights Watch web site.

This report uses, as one example of failure to protect the right to organize, the recent election at Cabana Potato Chips division of Jenkins Foods in northwest Detroit.

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