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Workers' Rights Inseparable from Basic Human Rights
Published on Wednesday, December 10, 2003 by the Chicago Sun-Times
Workers' Rights Inseparable from Basic Human Rights
by John Sweeney

Nora Castrejon, at age 44, is a production worker at the Cintas plant in Schaumburg. A conscientious and punctual employee, she is struggling to make ends meet even after 15 years of work. Like more than 40 million of America's workers, Nora and her fellow workers in Schaumburg want a union. They want safe working conditions, respect, and a decent wage. With $2.69 billion in sales, Cintas is the largest uniform rental provider and industrial launderer in the United States, and is vigorously resisting the desires of its employees to form unions.

Many Cintas workers fall below the federal poverty line, and Cintas has been cited many times by Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violating federal health and safety laws. Early in 2003, the Schaumburg workers, together with employees at other Cintas facilities across the country, began a campaign to join the union UNITE! and the Teamsters union. The company's response has been typical: They strongly resisted the will of their employees, using legal and illegal means to prevent the workers from coming together in a union. Now the federal government has issued complaints against Cintas for violating workers' rights.

Employer tactics range from using surveillance to identify pro-union employees, to forcing employees to attend closed, mandatory anti-worker meetings. Employers often threaten to close or relocate plants, and intimidate or actually fire employees actively working to form a union. Such violations of employees' rights are so common that Human Rights Watch, an organization that monitors abuses of human rights around the world, has declared the United States to be in violation of fundamental human rights.

''These abuses we found constitute a huge obstacle to workers' choices to try to form a labor union. There is an urgent need for Congress to take action to restore fairness in our labor relations and to improve respect for this basic right of our nation's workers,'' said executive director Ken Roth.

When employers deny workers their freedom to collective bargaining in a union, it dramatically impacts workers, their families, and their communities. Across the board, workers in a union earn 26 percent higher wages, 55 percent greater pension benefits, and 26 percent better health benefits. The discrepancies are especially large for women, people of color and immigrant workers. Strong unions mean good jobs, which in turn helps the local economy and creates a deeper tax base.

A promising start to the restoration of America's workers' freedom to form a union is the Employee Free Choice Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.), and recently introduced into Congress. The treatment of workers is a civil issue requiring political solutions. The new bill is an example of the kind of legislation we need to ensure that Nora Castejon receives fair treatment from Cintas, and that employees across the United States feel free to act on their desires to improve their working conditions and gain a say in their workplace by forming a union.

Today, tens of thousands of workers across the country will commemorate International Human Rights Day by proclaiming that ''Workers' Rights Are Human Rights.'' It has been 55 years since Eleanor Roosevelt joined representatives from most U.N. countries in signing the International Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees our most cherished rights, including the freedoms of speech, religion and association, and unequivocally states that every person has the right to form a union for the protection of their interests.

In 21st century America, we cannot tolerate workers being lied to, harassed, spied on and fired for trying to form a union. Nora Castejon deserves a living wage. She deserves the right to a voice in her workplace. She deserves the right to negotiate wages, conditions and benefits. In theory, she has those rights. In practice, she doesn't.

John Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO.

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company


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