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America's Call For Workers' Rights Ignored At Home
Published on Wednesday, September 20, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
America's Call For Workers' Rights Ignored At Home
by Medea Benjamin
 
WHILE THE UNITED STATES pressures countries around the world to respect the internationally recognized rights of workers to form trade unions, bargain collectively and strike, a new yearlong study by Human Rights Watch found that these basic rights are systematically violated here at home.

From apple pickers in Washington state to home-care workers in Florida, workers who try to form trade unions are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired or deported, according to the study ``Deck Is Stacked Against U.S. Workers.'' An astounding 10,000 to 20,000 workers lose their jobs each year for simply exercising the right to organize a union. When workers do manage to unionize, employers often refuse to bargain in good faith, dragging out legal proceedings for years with the knowledge that the penalties are minimal -- no fines, no jail time -- just back pay and possibly reinstatement. And the legal fees employers pay are all tax-deductible. The effectiveness of government agencies entrusted with enforcing workers rights is weakened by enervating delays, budget cuts and understaffing, obstructive laws and remedies too weak to deter unlawful conduct. The deterioration of workers' rights so meticulously detailed in the Human Rights Watch report coincides with the free-trade agenda promoted by both the Democrats and Republicans. It's an agenda that encourages employers to move jobs overseas where workers have even less power.

While most unions still cling to the Democrats as the ``lesser of two evils'' (and provide the Democratic Party with funds and foot soldiers), the Democrats have now joined the Republicans in filling their campaign coffers with corporate donations and abandoning working people. It was, after all, a Democratic administration with a Democratic-controlled Congress that passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, the first of a series of trade agreements that put downward pressure on wages and environmental standards.

As workers rights are eroded and bargaining power declines, it is no wonder that union membership in the United States has plummeted to the lowest level in 60 years and the lowest rate in the industrialized world -- a mere 14 percent of the total workforce. If unionized government workers are excluded, the percentage drops to just about 9 percent. While business sectors portray unions as ``old-fashioned'' and out of step with today's economy, surveys show that one- third to one-half of all workers would welcome the opportunity to join a union.

The precipitous decline in unions, which historically have been the engine that pulled workers into the middle class, has been particularly devastating at the lower end of the wage ladder. In California, more workers earn poverty-level wages now than a decade ago. The minimum wage nationwide has fallen from about $7 an hour in 1969 (in today's dollars) to the current level of $5.15 an hour or $10,712 a year, leaving millions of full-time workers and their families living in full-time poverty. In Europe, where union membership is considerably higher, the typical low-wage worker earns 44 percent more than in the United States and has government-provided health care and a host of other benefits.

The obscene inequality in compensation between workers and CEOs is another reflection of the shifting balance of power between workers and employers. In 1980, chief executives made 40 times more than the average worker's wage. Today, that figure is 475. If production workers had experienced the same proportional gains over the past decade as CEOs, their wages, on average, would be $114,000, not $23,750, and the minimum wage would be $24 an hour!

The present disequilibrium between workers and employers represents a serious danger to our democracy. We need to fight for changes in our labor laws that will shift the scale to restore workers rights. These include: requiring employers to remain neutral during union organizing drives with a card-check system through which workers can show their support for a union simply by signing authorization cards; swift and severe penalties for unfair labor practices; an end to the permanent replacement of striking workers; and granting agricultural, domestic, contract workers, and others currently excluded from coverage by federal labor law, the same rights as other workers.

In addition to reforming labor laws, we need to enforce existing wage, hour, health and safety laws, which means giving the enforcement agencies adequate funds to monitor compliance and to prosecute offenders.

To demonstrate to the world our renewed commitment to workers rights, we should ratify the many International Labor Organization conventions we have thus far failed to ratify, especially the Convention on Freedom of Association and Protecting the Right to Organize.

As a society, we must understand that respecting workers' rights and achieving a more equitable balance of power between workers and employers will go a long way toward reversing the troubling and dangerous economic polarization that now exists.

It will give workers a voice in the public debate over economic and social policy, make elections more relevant to workers' needs, and reinvigorate our democratic process. Indeed, it is essential for the long- term health of our country.

Medea Benjamin, founding director of the human rights group Global Exchange, is the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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