Human Rights at the Workplace

Americans shouldn't have to check their rights at the door when they enter the workplace, but, unfortunately, this is often the case due to the state of our labor laws. One of the basic rights that workers are supposed to enjoy, under both US law and international treaties to which we are a signatory, is the right of free association at the workplace, including the right to form a union. While workers do, in principle, have a right to form a union, this right has been largely undermined by management practices over the last quarter-century.

Company managers have discovered a very simple, but effective, way to prevent workers from organizing unions: they fire the organizers. A recent study by Dr. John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer at the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that one in five union organizers can expect to be fired during an organizing drive. This study analyzed data from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that ran through 2005 to update a University of Chicago Law School study from 1991.

It is illegal to fire a worker for organizing a union. However, under current law, the penalties are minimal, even when an employer is found guilty. The average payment for a worker who loses her job for organizing is just over $3,000. Since the process can often be delayed through appeals and other tactics, workers may have to wait several years even to receive this amount.

And, of course, there is no guarantee that a worker will be able to prove that the firing was for union activities, even if this was, in fact, the case. Union organizers, like everyone else, occasionally come late to work. Employers can always find some excuse for firing a worker. Sometimes the NLRB accepts the employer's pretext, even when the worker was actually fired for organizing.

For a determined anti-union employer, the risk of a modest payment to a few fired organizers is well worth the cost. Workers are unlikely to carry forward with an organizing drive after they have seen the most visible leaders get fired. As a result, firing union organizers is now a standard response to organizing drives.

Just as the tobacco industry tried to dispute that cigarettes caused cancer, corporations have tried to conceal their practice of firing union organizers. They hired a lobbyist to create a front group, the Center for Union Facts, which claims that cases of illegal firing are rare. The front group bases its claim solely on NLRB data that the NLRB itself describes as "unreliable."

Without a union, workers have few rights at the workplace. Employers can fire workers at almost any time for almost any reason -just ask the 3,400 Circuit City employees the company plans to lay off and replace with cheaper workers. While good employers will treat workers with respect, even if they don't have a union, many workers are not fortunate enough to have good employers. That is why more than 20 million workers don't have health insurance, and nearly a quarter of the workforce has no paid vacation or paid time off. These workers can be told by their employer that they must come to work on Thanksgiving or Christmas, or they won't have a job the following day.

Union workers are far more likely to have paid time off, health care and pensions than their nonunion counterparts. They also tend to earn better wages. The decline in unions is one of the key factors that led to the enormous upward redistribution of income over the last quarter-century. Finally, union workers don't have to worry about being fired because their boss is in a bad mood.

Congress is considering a bill that would make it more difficult for employers to deny workers the right to join a union. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to organize a union once a majority has signed a card in support of a union. This prevents employers from finding and firing the organizers before an election can take place. Canada already uses this process, and, in fact, it is already used for many purposes in the United States.

There was a time when the United States took pride in being a world leader in promoting human rights. If our workers can again have a meaningful right to form unions, we will have taken a step toward regaining this status.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative NannyState: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer ( He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.

Mary Beth Maxwell is the executive director of American Rights at Work.

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