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Worker Rights: What if the U.S. isn't a role model?
Published on Tuesday, February 20, 2001 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Worker Rights
What if the U.S. isn't a role model?
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 own.

© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune.


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