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Workers' Rights Under Attack

Workers' basic rights are routinely violated in the United States because U.S. labor law is so feebly enforced and filled with loopholes, according to a report by a respected human rights organization.

How bad is the abuse of workers’ rights in the United States? At least this bad: Human Rights Watch, respected for its independent monitoring of human rights abuses from Peru to Pakistan, finds systematic violation of basic labor rights in the U.S.

A report issued by Human Rights Watch, Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards, gives the facts in sorry detail. Human Rights Watch examines both the failure of the U.S. government to enforce U.S. law, and the failure of U.S. law to meet international standards.

Under international law, the report says, "governments must take affirmative measures to protect worker freedom of association. Governments have a responsibility under international law to provide effective recourse and remedies for workers whose rights have been violated by employers." The U.S. government fails to meet that obligation.

At the same time, U.S. labor law "openly conflicts with international norms and creates formidable legal obstacles to the exercise of freedom of association" for example, in its exclusion of many public sector workers, agricultural workers, domestic workers, so-called independent contractors and former welfare recipients.

Many workers in the U.S. have rights to organize and bargain under the National Labor Relations Act. But, the report says, "The reality of NLRA enforcement falls far short of its goals. Many workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association."

"I'm watchin, ain't I?"

Penalties are virtually non-existent. If the National Labor Relations Board decides a worker was fired illegally because of union organizing, the guilty employer only has to post a written notice promising not to repeat the illegal conduct and give the victim back pay. "Many employers have come to view remedies like back pay for workers fired because of union activity as a routine cost of doing business, well worth it to get rid of organizing leaders and derail workers’ organizing efforts," the report says.

"Any employer intent on resisting workers’ self-organization can drag out legal proceedings for years," the report states further.

"I don’t know how the law in this country can allow these maneuvers," Nico Valenzuela told Human Rights Watch. Valenzuela and his co-workers at Acme Die Casting organized into UE and faced years of legal delays in efforts to achieve a first contract. Acme is one of two UE examples among the case studies in Unfair Advantage.

The case studies look at the service sector (several nursing homes and a hotel), food processing, manufacturing, migrant agricultural workers and contingent workers. Geographic diversity matches the range of sectors. "The cases studied here offer a cross-section of workers’ attempts to form and join trade unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike. These cases reflect violations and obstacles workers met in the exercise of these rights," the report says.

These case studies are based on interviews with workers, and occasionally managers (employers frequently declined requests for comments), as well as records from government agencies and courts. These examples are not isolated exceptions, Unfair Advantage stresses.


Among the case studies are:

In three unrelated nursing homes in south Florida, unions saw organizing campaigns routed because of massive violations of law, including threats and firings. Employers have thwarted union attempts to achieve first contracts following two election victories at nursing homes; union leaders were fired in both cases.

The Marriott Corp. reneged on an agreement to honor card-check recognition when its San Francisco hotel opened in 1989; court-ordered mediation led to a new card-check agreement in 1996. When an arbitrator certified that a majority of workers had signed union cards, Marriott intensified an anti-union campaign. Key activists were fired; other workers were threatened with discipline if they talked about the union. The case is still pending.

Smithfield Foods, at its immense hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., engaged in numerous and massive unfair labor practices in 1993-1994 and 1997-1998. The company’s efforts to smash organizing included firing of key union activists, intimidation, interference, coercion, threats and discrimination — and the presence of police and sheriffs. The union lost the election; immediately after, the police beat, handcuffed and arrested a worker active in the union campaign.

Like the Tar Heel plant, Smithfield Foods workforce at the Wilson, N.C. facility includes a number of single mothers eligible for programs like food stamps. The company told them they would lose their benefits if the union "pulled them out on strike." Smithfield threatened, interrogated and spied on workers, and fired five for their support of the union.

The mostly African-American and female workers at Cabana Potato Chips in Detroit are technically "temps" — even those with many years of service — and are supplied to the company by an agency with offices inside the plant. They accrue no pension and are ineligible for unemployment compensation. However, Cabana, not the temporary agency, ran the anti-union campaign that defeated a union organizing drive which initially enjoyed 70 percent support.

Avondale Industries engaged in massive lawbreaking at its New Orleans shipyard. An NLRB administrative law judge found that management applied stricter enforcement of work rules against union supporters than opponents; transferred union supporters to more difficult and dirtier jobs; threatened to withhold wage increases; threatened to close the yard; interrogated and spied on union supporters; threatened to fire union supporters; and fired 28 union supporters. Avondale repeatedly defied the NLRB — while receiving more than $5 million from the Department of the Navy for expenses in its anti-union campaign. A new owner in 1999 agreed to recognize the union but refused to reinstate the fired workers.


In the mid-1990s Precision Thermoforming and Packing Inc. (PTP) employed more than 500 workers in a federal "empowerment zone" in Baltimore. The company enjoyed indirect state subsidies worth millions through a low-cost lease of manufacturing space in a converted warehouse. A plastic-packaging and shipping operation, PTP handled flashlights, batteries and computer diskettes. The starting wage was $5, with little chance for improvement. Since health insurance cost employees $36 a week, most declined the offer. There was no pension plan.

PTP workers contacted UE in 1995. One worker, Gilbert Gardner, had previously been a UE member. "I remember the UE was real democratic and close to the people," he told Human Rights Watch.

The day after the NLRB hearing that set the election date, PTP demoted Gardner, slashing his pay by 50 cents an hour. "When I said I thought it was because of my union work, they fired me for threatening a supervisor," Gardner said. (The Maryland unemployment compensation commission found no evidence of misconduct by Gardner and awarded him benefits.)


PTP threatened: to close the plant if the union won, to move the work to Mexico, that customers would pull their business, to fire workers who went to union meetings, to fire anyone who joined the union, to replace American-born workers with foreigners if the union won, to transfer workers to dirtier, lower-paying jobs if they supported the union.

The company interrogated workers about their union sympathies and activities, told workers not to take union flyers, asked employees to report to management on the activities of their co-workers, stationed managers and security guards (with walkie-talkies) to spy on union leafleting and denied promotions to workers who supported the union.

Vietnamese immigrants, about 25 percent of the hourly workforce at PTP, were supplied by a social service agency and bused to the plant each day. The company held separate captive-audience meetings for the Vietnamese workers. On the afternoon before the election, UE supporters held a rally at the plant gate. Bosses told the Vietnamese that the black workers were "rioting" at the plant entrance and hustled them out the rear exit.

Sixty percent of the workforce signed union cards, but UE lost the election 168-226.

The Labor Board considered the company’s behavior so outrageous that it ordered PTP to recognize and bargain with UE. The NLRB also sought reinstatement and back pay for those fired for union activity. PTP declared bankruptcy and shut down its Baltimore plant.


‘Many workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.’

— The Human Rights Watch report Unfair Advantage



The Human Rights Watch study offers a number of recommendations. Some are similar to (although others fall short of) UE’s labor law reform program. All would help remedy the current labor rights crisis.

The U.S. should recognize that its labor law shortcomings are human rights issues. The NLRB should look to international human rights standards.

The U.S. should ratify International Labor Organization Conventions 87 ("Workers and employers... shall have the right to establish and... join organizations of their own choosing") and 98 ("Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment"). Human Rights Watch says "this would send a strong signal to workers, employers, labor law authorities, and to the international community that the United States is serious about holding itself to international human rights and labor rights standards as it presses for the inclusion of such standards in new global and regional trade arrangements."

"Congress should enact legislation prohibiting the permanent replacement of workers who exercise the right to strike," Unfair Advantage recommends. The study points out that the U.S. "is almost alone in the world" in allowing this practice, which is used as an employer weapon in organizing and collective bargaining as well as strikes.

Where the NLRB finds merit, workers fired during organizing campaigns should be reinstated immediately. Victims of company lawlessness should receive punitive damages; employers who repeatedly violate labor law should pay substantial fines.

The law should be amended to allow workers to receive union information in the workplace on non-work time and in non-work areas.

The Labor Board should more often seek bargaining orders where fair elections are made impossible because of employer threats.

The NLRB should conduct elections as quickly as possible after petitions are filed.

The Labor Board needs to have "the staff and resources to carry out its mandate effectively."

"Stronger NLRB-ordered and court-ordered remedies, including punitive damages, should be fashioned for willful refusal to bargain in good faith." First-contract arbitration should be used as a remedy where workers are deprived of right to bargain freely.

Those workers who want to organize should have the right to do so — Congress should end the exclusion of public sector, so-called independent contractors, agricultural and domestic workers and welfare-to-work recipients classified as "trainees." The U.S. should protect the rights of subcontracted and "leased" workers.

These recommendations alone are a reminder of the severity of the U.S. labor rights/human rights crisis. Protections that ought to be in U.S. law, aren’t; protections that are, often don’t get enforced. As a leader of the organizing drive at Avondale told Human Rights Watch: "The law stinks."

For more information, visit the Human Rights Watch web site at The report, "Unfair Advantage" can be found at


UE News - 11/00

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