Human Rights? Not at Work

A conference in Austin ponders the odd notion that workers are human beings with rights

"Much of what we have learned tonight is illegal," said David Bonior, summarizing several personal testimonies of workers about the responses of their employers to demands for decent wages, fair treatment, and most importantly, a voice for employees in the managing of the workplace. The former Michigan congressman was in Austin as the Workers' Rights Are Human Rights Tour, gathering at University Presbyterian Church on Monday night and the UT Law School on Tuesday afternoon. The church forum brought together several grassroots union activists, most involved in local organizing, with a panel of authorities on the rights of labor – and the goal of educating the capacity audience on the relationship of current workers' struggles to the larger national and international issue.

For example, Bonior was referring to the illegal but increasingly commonplace practice of corporate retaliation against workers who try in any way to establish a union. Firing, harassing, or otherwise engaging in retribution against employees attempting to unionize is nominally illegal under federal law, but standard business practice has become to engage in preventative "union-busting" in the knowledge that enforcement, officially in the hands of the National Labor Relations Board, is so weak and takes so long that it hardly constitutes enforcement at all. "People simply don't realize," said Bonior, "that effectively we've got lawlessness in the American workplace." Other common practices – like one-to-one intimidation of a worker by his bosses – are technically legal, Bonior said, "but they are absolutely wrong." And the practices are not historical or textbook relics; although relatively uncommon 30 years ago, now roughly 25,000 to 30,000 workers are annually fired or otherwise discriminated against for trying to exercise their legal rights to unionize.

The group heard from Dannette Chavez, a janitorial worker who was fired for trying to organize a union. The NLRB found 12 violations of labor law, and forced the employer to rehire Chavez – "but they offered me more money not to return, but I wouldn't take it." Maria Quiroz, a home health care worker originally from Mexico City, testified that when she asked to be paid after several weeks' employment, she was told that her name was incorrect in the company system so she couldn't be paid. Capital Metro bus operator Bob Johnson described the current contract negotiations with the agency's subcontractor as an attempt to cut wages and benefits and "wipe out the union" by creating two salary tiers of employees.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall (now at UT) responded to the battle stories by noting, "We are the only industrialized democracy that requires workers to engage in a high stakes contest to acquire what by law is a fundamental human right." And Canadian labor rights expert Véronique Marleau wryly summed up the predicament of workers worldwide by quoting a boss who complains in a play by Bertolt Brecht: "We hired workers, but got human beings instead."

For more on the tour and on local and national labor struggles in need of support, see www.equaljusticecenter.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

labor, David Bonior, unions, workers rights, National Labor Relations Board, Equal Justice Center, Ray Marshall, Dannette Chavez, Maria Quiroz, Veronique Marleau

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