World labor group hits U.S. on worker rights

The International Trade Union Congress, which met June 9-11 in Geneva, assailed the lack of workers’ rights in the United States, and called on the World Trade Organization to take up the issue at its biannual review of U.S. trade policy.

The ITUC, the world’s largest labor federation, represents 166 million workers in 156 countries and territories.

The Bush administration’s response, a few days later, to the WTO’s routine review of U.S. trade policy made no mention of that policy’s effect on workers. The questions that the WTO asked the administration to answer did not include any of the workers’ rights concerns raised by the ITUC. Moreover, the WTO ignored a mandate from the foreign ministers of member countries who, in 2006, had insisted that the review include labor standards and workers’ rights.

In its report, the ITUC noted that the U.S. has yet to ratify key International Labor Organization planks on the right to organize unions and the right to bargain collectively.

The group also noted that the U.S. has failed to ratify an ILO plank calling for equal pay for equal work, and pointed out that there is still rampant pay discrimination in the U.S. based on sex.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in Geneva on June 10 that the U.S. refusal to ratify these items is “clearly shameful.” He said he is hoping that the November elections will provide a vehicle to change the situation.

Describing the status of labor rights in the U.S., the ITUC report charged, “The right to strike and the right to collective bargaining are severely restricted, in particular for public service workers and for certain groups of private sector workers.”

The report also noted that at least 32 million workers, 25 million of them in the private sector, are not covered by U.S. labor law. “These figures do not include many more who have lost the protections of U.S. labor law as a result of decisions by the National Labor Relations Board,” the report said.

The ITUC document also took issue with the extent to which employers in the U.S. are permitted to interfere with union organizing drives.

“Employers have a statutory right under the National Labor Relations Act to express their views during a union campaign so long as they do not interfere with their employees’ free choice,” the report said. “In practice, however, employers have a legal right to engage in a wide range of anti-union tactics that chill exercise of freedom of association.”

The ITUC also cited “captive audience meetings” where firms that propagandize against the union “can fire workers who refuse to attend them.” The report criticized laws that allow employers to “predict,” although not “threaten,” that a workplace will be shut down if workers vote for a union.

The ITUC findings were particularly harsh in the area of rights for public sector workers:

“In the public sector, 40 percent of workers are still denied basic collective bargaining rights. While the federal Labor Relations Act covers over two million federal employees, the statute outlaws strikes, proscribes collective bargaining over hours, wages and economic benefits, and imposes extensive management rights that further limit collective bargaining.

“Only a little more than half the states allow for collective bargaining in the public sector; several more allow it only for narrow categories of workers. Even where the public sector workers have the right to bargain, they generally do not have the right to strike.”

The report noted, “In North Carolina all public employees are denied collective bargaining rights, which is in violation of workers’ fundamental rights as determined by the ILO.”

In conclusion, the report said, “The U.S. administration, rather than leading the way on protection of the rights of working people and to decent pay and conditions, has been intent on denying the freedom to join a union and bargain collectively to millions of Americans. This hurts America’s working people and has a negative impact on workers’ right in other countries as well.”

When he spoke in Geneva, Sweeney said, “Independent polls show 44 million more workers would join a union if they were not intimidated by employers. We intend to do something about that this year in the election.”

jwojcik@pww.org

PAI contributed to this story.

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