On Human Rights and Dignity
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Human Rights Watch: Employee Free Choice Is a Human Right

by Seth Michaels, Jan 27, 2009

Under current labor law, the United States is strikingly deficient in protecting freedom of association and the freedom to form unions, says a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an independent human-rights advocacy group. The solution? Congress must pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

In a new report, The Employee Free Choice Act: A Human Rights Imperative, HRW lays out the case for its quick passage to restore workers’ freedom to form unions without fear of harassment, coercion or termination. The report is part of HRW’s critical work as watchdogs for human rights, the freedom of association and the treatment of workers from Colombia to India and around the world.

The report analyzes international labor standards the United States has agreed to by treaty, points out where it’s deficient in meeting those standards and explains how the Employee Free Choice will remedy the situation and restore workers’ fundamental freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.

Congress should pass the Employee Free Choice Act to help remedy glaring deficiencies in current U.S. labor law that significantly impair the right of workers to freely choose whether to form a union. Workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively is well established under international human rights law…the United States is legally bound to protect this fundamental right. In practice, it falls far short, and failure by U.S. employers to respect workers’ right to freedom of association is rampant.

In particular, HRW’s report points to three serious flaws in U.S. labor law that are addressed by the Employee Free Choice Act:

  • Unfair election procedures that are badly slanted toward employers, giving the employer, in practice, the ultimate say over how workers form a union:

U.S. law also allows employers to refuse to recognize a union based on freely signed authorizations by a clear majority of workers explicitly indicating their desire to organize—a “card check”—and demand instead that a union demonstrate majority support through an NLRB election. The period leading up to that election, lasting at least several weeks but often longer, creates an opening for anti-union employers to make aggressive use of the tilted playing field.

  • The lack of serious penalties for corporate misconduct, including intimidation and firing of workers, and the ability of companies to indefinitely delay and deter attempts to form a union:

Penalties for breaching U.S. labor law are so minor that employers often treat them as a cost of doing business—a small price to pay for defeating worker organizing efforts. Under U.S. labor law, an employer faces no punitive penalties and few, if any, economic consequences for violating workers’ right to freedom of association.

  • The ability of companies to ignore workers’ choice to bargain collectively by refusing to reach a fair contract:

Even if U.S. workers successfully organize, however, their fundamental right to freedom of association is still not fully secure because of shortcomings in current legal provisions governing collective bargaining….Because there are no significant negative repercussions for illegal conduct…there is little incentive for intransigent employers to comply with the law.


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Maher Arar has taken bold actions to demand justice for the suffering he endured as a victim of the U.S. policy known as extraordinary rendition.  A Canadian citizen, Arar was detained by U.S. officials in 2002, accused of terrorist links, and handed over to Syrian authorities renowned for torture. During nearly 12 months of imprisonment, Arar was brutally tortured, according to an independent Canadian government investigation. Since his release without charge, Arar has successfully advocated for an official Canadian inquiry and testified before a European parliamentary committee regarding his ordeal. He is working with the Center for Constitutional Rights to appeal a case against the U.S. government that was dismissed on national security grounds.
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