As I get ready to take in the 3-day Labor Day weekend, I have to remind myself that this national holiday has deep roots in the trade union movement and struggles (sometimes violent) for workers to secure basic human rights. In 1948, some of the fundamental protections sought by our worker-forbears were codified into the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among others, Article 23 of the Declaration emphasizes that workers’ rights are human rights:
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
In the latest issue of USW at Work, several articles remind me that we have a long way to go to ensure these fundamental rights extend to all people, both for U.S. workers and workers across the globe. One short article tells the tale of workers at the Alcoa factory in Hampton, Virginia organizing to join the United Steelworkers, and how anti-union scare tactics by the management squelched their efforts.
“Once workers signed authorization cards and filed a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the company fought back with misinformation and intimidation. At the beginning of each shift, workers reported that management held stand-up meetings bashing the union. As the election neared, captive sit-down meetings were held every other day. ‘Probably the biggest advantage that the company had was they could make us go to their meetings, look at their slides, listen to everybody,’ said Billy Mason, a worker with more than 24 years at the plant. Although two-thirds of the workers had signed unions cards, the company’s long scare campaign was successful and the election was lost.
After the vote, Billy Mason was suspended for two weeks in retaliation for his pro-union activities. With the help of the USW, he filed a complaint with the NLRB and was awarded back pay. This is exactly the kind of human rights abuse that the Employee Free Choice is designed to prevent, and why faith leaders and religious scholars support the legislation. As the AFL-CIO notes:
“…current law puts the decisions about forming unions and bargaining in the hands of corporations, not workers. In our company-dominated system, corporations deny workers the freedom to choose a union, and they have free rein to coerce, intimidate and even fire employees to keep them from forming a union to bargain for their economic well-being.”
A second article in USW at Work connects consumers’ demand for a cheap pair of jeans to abuse and death of workers on factory floors in Bangladesh. You can read about Fatema Akter, 18, who worked in 2008 at the R.L. Demin factory.
“As a helper, her job was to clean the finished jeans, which meant she used a small scissor to cut off loose threads left on the pants. She was assigned a mandatory production goal of cleaning 90 to 100 pairs of jeans each hour, or an average of one pair of jeans every 38 seconds. The pace was frantic and relentless. …She was paid one-tenth of a U.S. cent for each pair cleaned.”
When Fatema fell ill at work from dysentery, she was refused a sick day and ordered to continue working. She became violently ill, her co-workers insisted she be taken to a hospital for care, but she died soon afterwards. The jeans made at the R.L. Demin factory are sold at the UK-based Macro Cash and Carry stores, which is the world’s third-largest retailer.
The National Labor Committee has documented the experiences of Fatema Akter and many other workers employed in sweatshops around the globe. The global workers’ solidarity project Workers Uniting targeted the R.L. Demin factory for a human rights campaign. The effort has helped to stop abuses at the plant, including the sweatshop conditions and grueling hours. USW International President Leo Gerard announced a settlement this year with the firm, saying:
“The workers will no longer be beaten at work. They will be paid for overtime and maternity leave. They now have toilet paper and other basic needs.”
The NLC noted:
“This campaign is so significant in that it has broken through the isolation to reach out to some of the pooerest and most abused workers in the global sweatshop economy, providing that with the help of international solidarity, workers can now ask for their rights and win.”
Finally, USW at Work gives me another reminder that labor rights are human rights. I learned of the International Labour Organization’s report “Give Girls a Chance: Tackling Child Labor” and estimates that more than 100 million girls are involved in child labor. The report explains why girls are at particular risk of human rights abuses because their employment is hidden from view, and it comes at the expense of going to school. Without simple primary education girls face huge obstacles at achieving economic independence in adulthood, and without it, are vulnerable to many forms of abuse throughout their lives.
On this Labor Day, I’m going to be mindful of workers for whom the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is merely a dream, and be reminding family and friends that workers’ rights are human rights.