Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Workers punished in war against unions

Private employers in the United States are relying more than ever on coercive and punitive tactics against workers seeking their legal and moral right to union representation.

Punishments include firing, threatening to fire, threatening to close the worksite, reducing wages and benefits, close monitoring of personal activities, and various forms of harassment, which in combination create an atmosphere of fear.

Further, employers often frustrate unionization by delaying the secret ballot vote that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducts to decide on union representation. In the most egregious cases, those elections were stalled by three to five years.

Evcn when the NLRB does hold an election and even when the union “succeeds in making it through all the hoops that it takes to win the election,” employers can fight on by actively resisting the workers’ right to a collective bargaining contract. In fact, according to NLRB data for the 1999-2003 period, 52 percent of newly formed unions had no collective bargaining contract one year after a successful election, 37 percent none after two years.
Those are some highlights of scandalous employer behavior, legal, illegal, and quasi-legal, described in the study No Holds Barred: the Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing released May 20.

“Our labor law system is broken,” Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner. author of the five-year study, concludes toward the end of her 31-page report published by the American Rights at Work Foundation and the Economic Policy Institute.

A Three-Front War

Yes, the report documents that the system is broken. But it also offers the latest evidence that many individual employers and the key employer organizations in the United States are waging an aggressive war against unions and against a basic human right – the right of workers to form a union and to have it operate as a union.

So it should be no surprise that American organized business is also waging that war on two other fronts (neither mentioned in the new report):

-- It is fighting tooth and nail against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would go a long way toward fixing a broken system.

-- It is internationalizing that anti-union and anti-worker war by its relentless opposition to having free trade and investment agreements protect the rights and interests of workers and worker organizations in the way those agreements already protect the rights and interests of business people and business organizations.

In an interview published May 20 in the New York Times, Randall K. Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president, questioned Dr. Bronfenbrenner’s objectivity, but did not address the substance of her report. As of 2 p.m. May 20, I could find no relevant statement on the Chamber’s Website.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Campaigning against 'toxic' economics

In the ‘90s college students taught their elders in academia that sweatshops were an evil in which the schools were complicit by selling sweatshop-made products in their own bookstores. Will this generation of college students again teach their elders, this time to the fact that the economic textbooks commonly used in their classrooms are promoting dangerously “toxic” economic policies?

“Toxic textbooks helped cause the economic meltdown,” states a petition being circulated worldwide to press for reforming what it calls the “mass miseducation” of millions of students each year “in a quaint ideology...cunningly disguised as a science.”

The campaign is aimed particularly at students because reform by the profession itself won’t happen “without massive pressure from the student body,” writes Steve Keen, an economist at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

Textbook reforms are blocked by “vested interests,” including economic departments whose reputations are intertwined with the textbooks they use, endorse, and (in some cases) write. A new Website, Toxic Textbooks, and a Facebook group with the same name, Toxic Textbooks, have been created to help mobilize people, especially students, “to overcome these vested interests.”

So far the campaign has not made a recommendation on alternative textbooks. The Website has a question mark under a section titled “non-toxic textbooks.”

Here is what I posted to the Facebook discussion of “What and where are the alternatives?”:

It is probably impossible quickly to find a full-blown alternative text book, or create a single Website that formulates the key points of an alternative economic paradigm. We will have to make do with pluralism in textbooks and Websites. Patch work? Well, it's a good way to start.

I would like to point to two of my own contributions to this initiative:

1. My newly published JUSTICE AT WORK: GLOBALIZATION AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF WORKERS. Its main theme: the present unbalanced global economy, especially its trade and investment regime, protects the rights and interests of business and business organizations, to the exclusion of the rights and interests of workers and worker organizations. Check it out at .

2. My Weblog, Human Rights for Workers, at, which deals mostly with the main theme of the book.
This is a continuing real-life drama. Why not join it?

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

It's no time to relax worker rights pressures

The current economic crisis has the potential of exposing and correcting two “fatal flaws” of the corporate social responsibility programs, says Garrett Brown, a health and safety expert and longtime campaigner for worker rights.

In a May 7 article for a professional health and safety publication, Brown identifies those flaws as follows:

1. “The schizophrenic business model that demands the lowest possible production costs at the same time [demanding] full compliance with national laws and corporate ‘codes of conduct,’ and
2. “The lack of any meaningful participation by workers.”
That’s the potentially good news. The bad news, Brown writes, is that the deepening economic crisis “threatens to accelerate to light speed the ‘race to the bottom’ in working conditions that two decades of globalized production has meant for most workers around the world.”

He argues that the economic crisis is all the more reason to pressure governments and companies to develop worker participation, particularly in enforcing occupational safety and health standards in offices and plants.

In the May 7 column he writes: “Even in the best of times, safe workplaces are next to impossible without genuinely empowered workers –and are completely impossible at times of economic crisis when downward pressures intensify.”

As one example of downward pressures, he cites recent actions taken by China’s government to appeal to foreign investors: freezing scheduled increases in minimum wages, reducing or suspending employer payments into the social insurance system, restoring export tax credits, and passing word that the new labor protection laws of 2008 won’t be seriously enforced.

Brown has been the coordinator of a health and safety support network with projects in Central America, China, Mexico, and Indonesia since 1993. His article, titled “Corporate Social Responsibility,” appears in the Industrial Safety and Health News.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Stop squelching real unions, Vietnam

As part of a campaign to suppress any labor union independent of the Communist Party, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has imprisoned at least eight trade unionists, two of them women, on “national security” charges in the past three years.

In a report released May 4, Human Rights Watch publicized the wide scope of the government crackdown, denounced it, and urged the United States to pressure Vietnam to end suppression immediately.

The government campaign of harassing, detaining, and imprisoning union activists is aimed particularly at two worker organizations: the United Worker-Farmers Organization of Vietnam and the Independent Workers Union of Vietnam, whose launching was announced in late 2006 during a brief period when authorities seemed to tolerate a budding civil society.

It was a temporary public posture prior to Vietnam’s joining the World Trade Organization and getting U.S. approval for that accession.

Of the eight trade unionists imprisoned since then, five have been released. One who is still behind bars, Le Thi Cong Nhan, in her early 30s, wrote a comprehensive essay in 2006 titled “Legislative Aspects of Industrial Actions and the Need for Independent Unions in Vietman.” For this and other human rights activities, the Hanoi People’s Court in May 2007 imposed a four-year prison sentence, later reduced to three years (plus three years of house arrest), on charges of “disseminating propaganda against the government.”

The Human Rights Watch report, “Not Yet a Workers’ Paradise: Vietnam’s Suppression of the Independent Workers’ Movement,” 32 pages long, is available on the HRW Website at

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Crisis or not, business-human rights link holds

Should business and government shelve human rights concerns during the current global economic crisis? Of course not. It was the obsession with money as the supreme value, trumping all other values, that got us into this mess, and it would be folly to rely on that obsession now.

A senior UN official has added his voice against the temptation to make human rights a casualty of the crisis. John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights and transnational corporations, did so in his April 22 report to the Human Rights Council.

He buttressed his argument mainly with these points:

The business and human rights agenda matters now more than ever. “Any gains Governments believe can be had by lowering human rights standards for business are illusory, and no sustainable recovery can be built on so flimsy a foundation.”

“The same types of governance gaps and failures that produced the current economic crisis also constitute what the Special Representative has called the permissive environment for corporate wrongdoing in relation to human rights.” Governments promoting greater corporate responsibility, and corporations adopting human rights strategies, both reflect “the now inescapable fact that their long-term prospects are tightly coupled with the well-being of society as a whole.”

In his report, the first in his current three-year mandate, Ruggie noted the beginnings of a positive trend in corporate law: governments and courts are introducing “more public interest considerations” into what companies do and how they do it.

He cited Denmark, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom as taking preliminary steps in that direction. As for the United States, "federal statutes require publicly listed companies to have robust programs to assess, manage, and report on material risks. None refers to human rights explicitly, but material risks clearly do encompass human rights issues."

To fill information gaps, 19 leading law firms from around the world have volunteered their services to survey corporate law provisions in over 40 jurisdictions.

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