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"Mizzima" "Deck is Stacked" Against
"Deck is Stacked" Against U.S. Workers
Violations Undercut U.S. Position on Labor Rights and Trade
New York, August 31, 2000
Workers' basic rights are routinely violated in the United States
because U.S. labor law is so feebly enforced and so filled with
loopholes, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The 217-page report, "Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of
Association in the United States under International Human Rights
Standards," was based on field research in California, Colorado,
Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan New York, North Carolina,
Washington and other states. Human Rights Watch examined workers' rights
to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike under international
norms. It found widespread labor rights violations across regions,
industries and employment status. The report is being released on the
eve of the annual Labor Day holiday in the United States.
The U.S. government has called for "core labor standards," including
workers' freedom of association, to be included in the rules of the
World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
But Human Rights Watch charged that the United States itself violates
freedom of association standards by failing to protect workers' right to
"The cards are stacked against workers in the United States," said
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S.
government cannot effectively press another country to improve labor
standards while violating them itself. It should lead by example."
Each year thousands of workers in the United States are fired from their
jobs or suffer other reprisals for trying to organize unions. Millions
of workers are excluded from labor laws meant to protect workers'
organizing and bargaining rights and their number is growing, according
to the report.
Employers can resist union organizing by dragging out legal proceedings
for years, the report said. Labor law is so weak that companies often
treat the minor penalties as a routine cost of doing business, not a
deterrent against violations. Some workers have succeeded in organizing
new unions in recent years, the report said, but only after surmounting
According to statistics from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB),
the federal agency created to enforce workers' organizing and bargaining
rights, the problem is getting worse. In the 1950's, workers who
suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association
numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1969, the number was more than
6,000. By the 1990's, more than 20,000 workers each year were victims of
discrimination that was serious enough for the NLRB to issue a
"back-pay" or other remedial order. There were nearly 24,000 such
workers in 1998, the last year for which official figures are available.
Meanwhile, the NLRB's budget and staff have not kept pace with this
Among other conditions cited in the report that impede workers' freedom
*Workers fired for organizing and bargaining often wait years for their
cases to be decided by labor boards and courts, while employers pay no
price for deliberate delays and frivolous appeals;
*One-sided rules for union organizing unfairly favor bosses over
workers, allowing such tactics as "captive-audience meetings" where
managers predict workplace closures if workers vote for union
*Millions of workers -- including farmworkers, domestic household
workers, low-level supervisors, and "independent" contractors who are
really dependent on a single employer -- are deliberately excluded from
labor law coverage for organizing and bargaining rights. They can be
fired with impunity for trying to form a union;
*Many workers find themselves caught up in a web of labor contracting
and subcontracting, which effectively denies them the right to organize
and bargain with employers who hold real power over their jobs and
*Employers have the legal power to permanently replace workers who
exercise the right to strike;
*Harsh rules against "secondary boycotts" frustrate worker solidarity
Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. Congress to ensure rapid
reinstatement and full back pay for workers fired for organizing, as
well as faster elections and expedited appeals to resolve unfair labor
practices more quickly. The U.S. Congress should also ensure that
protection of the right to organize be extended to farmworkers,
household domestic workers, and others not currently covered by federal
Human Rights Watch also called on Congress to ratify International Labor
Organization conventions on worker organizing and collective bargaining,
and to strengthen U.S. law protecting these rights.