U.S. Tramples Worker Rights

by Robert Weissman

Multinational Monitor, July/August 1999


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 report issued by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in July.

The report paints a devastating portrayal of labor rights abuses in the United States:

* "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).

NLRB procedures, ICFTU 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 report finds:

* "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, while U.S. Iaw 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 concludes.

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