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
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
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
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
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
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
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