In exporting capitalism to nations as diverse as China and Poland,
Americans have argued that they also are exporting democratic ideals
such as the rule of law and respect for human rights. But what if
the United States itself sets a bad example?
That's the question raised in a new study published by Human Rights
Watch and written by Cornell University professor Lance Compa. In
"Unfair Advantage," Compa finds that American corporations routinely
break federal labor law and violate the legal rights of their employees
-- and that the government does almost nothing to stop them.
Since the 1930s, federal law has guaranteed Americans the right
to organize unions and to negotiate working conditions with their
employers. Polls show that most people still support the concept.
Yet Compa finds that thousands of workers are fired every year for
actions as simple as wearing a union lapel pin. Drawing on documents
from the National Labor Relations Board, Compa finds that the number
of workers discharged for union activity has risen from a few hundred
annually in the 1950s to more than 20,000 annually in the 1990s.
He interviewed a Florida nursing home worker who was fired during
a union campaign, won his case before the labor board, and after
five years of litigation won a grand total of $1,798 in back pay
and interest. He cites the employees of a Chicago castings company
who voted for a union in 1987, but after the company refused to
bargain for 12 years, simply disbanded the union in 1999. Perhaps
these failings should come as no surprise; the labor board's staff
was cut by one-third between 1980 and 1998.
Compa was himself a union activist before joining the Cornell faculty,
and skeptics will dismiss his study as the special pleadings of
a special-interest group. Yet findings like his would be a scandal
in most developed nations. Collective action in the workplace is
one of the central tenets enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration
of Human Rights. And a bedrock principle of most free-trade treaties
is that signatory nations will at a minimum enforce their own laws.
Unions have suffered many setbacks over the years, some of them
self-inflicted. But there are reasons why Congress granted workers
the right to organize in the first place. Unions give voice to public
concerns about job safety and workplace fairness, they narrow the
gap between rich and poor, and they bring pensions and health insurance
to people who wouldn't otherwise have them.
Americans learn valuable lessons when borders fall and they enter
commerce with far-off cultures. Among them should be a simple one:
A nation that promotes the rule of law should at least enforce its
© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune.