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Rights at work

THE ANNUAL observance of International Human Rights Day often brings to mind issues of political imprisonment or torture in far-off lands. But tomorrow the AFL-CIO is bringing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights home, highlighting the rights of American workers to safety and respect on the job. In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, chairwoman of the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights, helped craft a grand vision. On Dec. 10 55 years ago the General Assembly adopted the declaration with its 30 articles promoting human dignity and denouncing torture, slavery, and arbitrary arrest.


Article 23 says that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to fair pay, to protection against unemployment, and to equal pay for equal work. Part four of this article says: "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Sadly, even in America, this right exists only on paper for many workers. Employers violate the union rights of thousands of workers every year, according to the monitoring organization Human Rights Watch. Those harassed include pork processors, nursing home workers, product packagers, so-called apparel workers employed in sweatshops, ship builders, and hotel workers. These and other workers have been threatened, transferred, or fired. Even after unions are formed, some companies refuse to negotiate contracts.

These actions are illegal, and the National Labor Relations Board monitors workplaces. But the punishment for harassing union organizations is light: Companies may be asked to return workers to their jobs, provide back pay, or post a sign saying they won't repeat past violations. Some companies use appeals to stretch court proceedings out for years, delaying justice and wearing down workers.

Pending legislation sponsored by Senator Kennedy and Democratic Representative George Miller of California could help. The Employee Free Choice Act would provide several protections, including time limits and required mediation when companies and unions are negotiating contracts for the first time. This would prevent companies from delaying negotiations or refusing to bargain with newly formed unions.

The bill would also increase punishments for union busting by mandating that employers who discriminate against a worker because of union activities should pay damages triple the amount of the worker's back pay. It would also allow civil fines of up to $20,000 per violation against employers who willfully violate employees' organizing rights.

Unions have a key role to play in the United States by supporting a decent wage and protecting against race- and gender-based disparities as well as pressing for safe and fair working environments. This is as true today as it was in 1948.

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