NOBODY IS going to complain about getting a day off work today, but there's still reason to grumble about a terrible hollowness to Labor Day in America. It is supposed to be a time to celebrate the rights of American working people, but those rights are widely disrespected by employers and inadequately defended by government. Perhaps even worse, many Americans are barely conscious of how systematically their rights as workers are abused. If their freedoms of speech or religious belief were treated in the same way, there would be - let's hope - a tremendous outcry.
As the global economy makes it easier for companies to pit workers in various countries against each other, there is overwhelming public sympathy for protecting the internationally recognized rights of workers. Most people are outraged by the injustice of overseas sweatshops, but also think they pose unfair competition for American workers. But the rights of even American workers, especially by comparison with their counterparts in other industrial countries, are hardly secure. Last year, Human Rights Watch found that many features of American labor law and practice violate international norms and that there is a need for more protection of workers' free speech and right to organize in particular.
Employers quite typically make exhaustive efforts to discourage workers from joining unions, even though both federal and international law protect that right. One study, by Southern Methodist University law professor Charles Morris, concluded that in the 1990s employers illegally fired more than 20,000 workers a year for engaging in union activity and that one out of every 18 workers involved in an organizing campaign suffered such discrimination. Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner found that more than two-thirds of employers in potentially mobile industries threatened to close their operations during organizing drives, even though such threats are illegal. Around 90 percent of employers force workers who are thinking about organizing to sit through meetings, often one-on-one with their supervisors, that attempt to discourage support for a union.
Increasingly, American workers are recognizing that their rights at work are precarious. In a survey conducted in July for the AFL-CIO and just released, Peter Hart Research Associates found that more than two-thirds of the entire workforce think that there's a need to better protect rights at work today. Nearly as many don't fully trust their employers to treat employees fairly and want new laws to hold corporations accountable. Over the past five years, Hart found that there has been a 10-percent increase - to 57 percent - among workers who think management has too much power compared with workers. Even as workers think they should have more rights, however, they actually overestimate the protections that they have at work. For example, four-fifths of workers surveyed thought - incorrectly - that their boss couldn't fire them for expressing their political views.
Even when employers seem to agree to respect worker rights in theory, they continue to violate them in practice. For example, a year ago Verizon agreed to recognize a union whenever a supermajority of workers signed union membership cards. But, when the Communications Workers signed up 80 percent of the company's information services division, the company continued to resist recognition or even calling a traditional union election. Such resistance is one of the main reasons why union membership has been shrinking as a share of the workforce.
But some unions are fighting back - and recruiting allies - in what could become a new civil-rights at work movement. For example, 850 workers at the Norton abrasives factory in Worcester, Mass. - now owned by the Saint-Gobain conglomerate in France - just voted by a two-vote margin to join the United Auto Workers after decades of successful anti-union efforts by the employer. Norton brought in professional anti-union consultants, threatened the jobs and benefits of its employees, conducted private propaganda sessions with individual workers and organized an anti-union group of workers. But the union insisted it was fighting for fundamental rights and recruited labor-backed Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) from the area to stand up publicly for the right to join a union, despite corporate threats of legal action against the congressman for simply exercising his free-speech rights.
Given the current political alignment in Washington, winning new protections for worker rights may be difficult. After all, Congress earlier this year overturned new ergonomic rules to prevent injuries resulting from poor workplace design - a measure 10 years in the making. But Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) has introduced legislation that would give workers a fairer chance to organize, for example, by requiring that union organizers be able to communicate with workers in the same way that employers do. Legislation such as that would give America's working men and women another reason - besides a day off - to celebrate on Labor Day.
David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times, a national newsmagazine
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