“Democracy“ Versus Human Rights
Global Unions denounce US employer deception
As part of its multi-million dollar campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, US employers, that violate - every day and on a massive scale - the basic rights of U.S. workers to organise and bargain, are invoking “democracy” to cover their misdeeds. They are pitting what they call democracy against the fundamental human rights of workers to be free to form trade unions and to bargain collectively.
In addition, they claim that allowing a majority of workers to choose to have trade union representation without being subject to the vicious anti-union campaigns that commonly accompany US “elections” for union representation would be undemocratic and contrary to the international labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Secretary of the Council of Global Unions (CGU), rejected that view, saying, “there is absolutely no way that an argument that the Employee Free Choice Act violates ILO standards can be sustained”.
The International Labour Organisation, the only tripartite body (with representatives of governments, employers, and workers) in the UN system has been charged since its establishment in 1919 with setting and dealing with international labour standards. In reacting to the ambition of US employers to assume that role, Ryder said that the ILO is responsible for its standards and “has never contracted out that central function. It is tried and trusted and it brings results. There have been literally thousands of complaints over the years. If the ILO had taken the kind of politicized approach now being adopted by the US employers, would it have helped to change the nature of the world in which we live through, for example, its action in Poland?” The full statement.
The Employee Free Choice Act would, in fact, move the United States considerably closer to being in conformity with the human rights standards of the ILO. Although workers could still have a secret ballot election if they wished, proof of majority support would be sufficient to enable them to bargain with their employers. Typically in the United States, a representation election becomes a battle ground rather than what the employers refer to as “American industrial democracy”. This procedure forces workers to campaign against their bosses even to get a seat at the table. An election implies at least two sides and puts employers into something, a decision of workers, which is none of their business.
And, “elections” do not mean free elections. Employees are forced to listen to anti-union propaganda in “captive audience” meetings while trade unions are denied full and free access to the workplace. The limitations on employer “free speech” are weak, making lies and deceit the order of the day. About 75% of employers use union busting consultants to help them generate fear and chill he exercise of democracy and ensure that workers cannot enjoy their basic rights (see “In public, Corporate America Says ‘Democracy’ – In Private, They Say War”)
Some protections for the right to organise exist in the US legislation, but their enforcement is so weak that there is rampant corporate lawlessness. For example, tens of thousands of workers are fired for union activity each year. That means that union supporters are dismissed in around a quarter of such campaigns. The Employee Free Choice Act would increase penalties for this kind of unacceptable behaviour. But, even after workers have run the gauntlet of harassment and intimidation and mustered the courage necessary to form trade unions, they may never get a collective bargaining agreement. Due to delays, stalling tactics and other forms of bad-faith bargaining their struggle is often in vain. In 44 per cent of the cases, they never get that first collective bargaining agreement. The Employee Free Choice Act would require mediation and, if necessary, arbitration, to provide an environment for constructive and productive industrial relations. Further information on the provisions of the Employee Free Choice Act.
This gaping legal and industrial relations deficit has made the United States one of the major subjects of global trade union solidarity, alongside such countries as Columbia, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh. Global Union Federations (GUF), representing trade unions by occupation and sector, receive a flood of cries for help from US trade unions. Anita Normark, General Secretary of Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) and Chair of the CGU, stated, “we and other GUFs have so many requests to talk with or put pressure on multinational companies operating in the United States precisely because the law and its enforcement is so poor there. There is no other industrialised democracy and few developing companies where the volume of solidarity action asked from trade unions is on that scale. That is one reason why the entire global trade union movement strongly supports the Employee Free Choice Act. And, the situation on the ground for American workers is also a reason why we place such a strong emphasis on non-interference by employers in trade union representation decisions when we negotiate international framework agreements. We know from experience that, without explicit provisions, the dominant American anti-union corporate culture will prevail. It is the job of governments to protect human rights. And, the United States government is not doing its job.”
Trade unionists from other lands are shocked to learn of US anti-union tactics and are even more concerned when they see some of the companies with which they have good and constructive relations behaving irresponsibly in the United States because, unlike at home, they can get away with it. Such practices should never take place in one of the largest, most important democracies in the world. And, unfortunately, workers in some others experience an unwelcome export - the US industrial relations “model”.
Although the meaning of international labour standards is distorted, if not warped, by US employers, there are some issues in which their positions may represent positive movement. In their joint letter to leaders of the US Congress, the United States Council for International Business and the United States Chamber of Commerce state, “As you know, although the U.S. has not ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on these subjects, the U.S. Government is bound by the 1998 Declaration, and its principles are cited in numerous pieces of U.S. legislation and key provisions of trade agreements.” The U.S. employers have blocked the ratification of both ILO conventions since their adoption in 1948 (87) and 1949 (98). If they now feel that the United States government is “bound” by them, there would appear to be no remaining barrier to ratification. And, in the accompanying U.S employer document, which will be published later this year by the International Organisation of Employers, they strongly, clearly and unambiguously support and defend the right to strike.
However, in spite of that progress, they are determined to spare no effort to kill the best chance in generations for U.S. workers to be free to form trade unions and bargain. With the strong support of the President Barak Obama, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is an important beacon of hope in these bleak times. As Guy Ryder concluded in his statement, “Tens of millions of working people are losing their jobs, their houses, and, in some countries, like the United States, their health care coverage. They are not asking for millions of dollars in golden parachutes. They are only seeking simple justice – the right and freedom to form their own organisations and to work and live in dignity.”