Celebrate International Human Rights Day by Promoting Workplace Rights

Today, Wednesday, December 10, is the annual observance of International Human Rights Day. This day commemorates the 1948 ratification of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. One of the many rights guaranteed by this document is the right of workers to form a union and collectively bargain with their employers. That is why the union movement has selected this day to promote workers’ rights to unionize, which seems to be constantly under assault, and has scheduled a number of activities designed to promote workplace unionization. We hope that you will support these efforts in any way that you can today.

International Human Rights Day is a celebration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, today celebrating its 55th anniversary. The UDHR and its signing nations pledged a “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” In addition to championing the idea that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” the UDHR promises freedom from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, political opinion or property. It also forbids slavery, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. (See Amnesty International Press Release.) Enforcement of the UDHR is overseen by the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, staffed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The U.S. government in 1935 recognized the right to unionize with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. Thirteen years later, this right was established internationally as part of the UDHR’s ratification. Article 23 of the UDHR declares that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to fair pay, to protection against unemployment, and to equal pay for equal work. Part four of this article says: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” But while workers have had the legal right for almost 70 years in this country to form unions to negotiate for better workplaces through improvements in benefits, pay, safety standards and working conditions, their efforts often meet with threats, coercion and intimidation from their employers and even coworkers.

As acknowledged in a recent Boston Globe editorial,

Sadly, even in America, this right exists only on paper for many workers. Employers violate the union rights of thousands of workers every year, according to the monitoring organization Human Rights Watch. Those harassed include pork processors, nursing home workers, product packagers, so-called apparel workers employed in sweatshops, ship builders, and hotel workers. These and other workers have been threatened, transferred, or fired. Even after unions are formed, some companies refuse to negotiate contracts. (See Rights at Work.)

One-quarter of private sector employers fire at least one worker during a campaign to form a union, according to research conducted by Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner, who also found that almost all private-sector employers–92 percent–force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda.

(See Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages, and Union Organizing (PDF format)).

Just one of the many examples out there was highlighted in an article in today’s New York Times. Larry Lee of Houston, a night stocker at Wal-Mart, a company notorious for its anti-union stance, reports that since he started talking about forming a union a few months ago, he has been assigned to work alone in areas of the store away from his co-workers and is monitored when he walks to his car or goes to the bathroom. But he is continuing his efforts to form a union. “The worst thing you can do is not try,” said Lee. “I’m dead serious about what I’m doing here. I’m committed to what I’m doing here.” (See New York Times article.) Unlike many others, Lee still has his job and is able to continue his efforts, instead of fighting his termination.

This kind of activity is what has prompted the AFL-CIO spotlight on workers’ unionization rights, and the impetus behind over 90 events scheduled for today’s International Human Rights Day commemoration. If it’s too late to participate in one of today’s local events, you are still urged to support the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which will:

· Allow employees to freely choose whether to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation;

· Provide mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes; and

· Establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first contract negotiations.

While this legislation is unlikely to pass in a Republican-controlled Congress, it is important to build public support for this legislation to strengthen the ability to unionize. We urge you to contact your member of Congress today to express your support for this bill:

Act to Protect the Freedom to Join a Union

More Information: Learn More About AFL-CIO December 10 Events

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.