Posts Tagged ‘workers rights’

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Why is collective bargaining important?

February 20, 2011

I am not a labor scholar. But in the midst of our posts about Wisconsin labor strife, here is a useful reminder from codified U.S. law:

It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.

(U.S. Code Title 29, Chapter 7, Subchapter II, Section 151)

Given that this was written in the midst of the Great Depression (as part of the Wagner Act), the reasons given for the value of collective bargaining are purely economic, with no mention of collective bargaining as one of the sole sources of power for the working class, or as a logical extension of the First Amendment-protected right to freedom of association. (In fact, the International Labor Organization sees collective bargaining and freedom of association as essentially the same thing.) Nevertheless, that’s some powerful language, especially when read in today’s context.

More? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 explicitly recognizes workers’ rights as human rights, including: “(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The last word goes to Georgetown’s Michael Kazin, who invokes the argument that collective bargaining is key to a democratic society:

State employees and their allies are standing up for a moral principle that ought to be self-evident: the right to have a say about the conditions that affect one’s life at work. In seeking to return to authoritarian labor relations, Gov. Walker and his fellow Republicans are revealing the hypocrisy of conservative rants about “unelected bureaucrats” and “liberal elites who condescend to ordinary Americans.”

Collective bargaining helped millions of wage-earners to hold down secure, middle-class jobs. It has a made us a more democratic nation.

Flying Whale

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Just ink, no action: the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights

November 16, 2010

In 2007, Minnesota passed the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights (PWBoR).

But congratulations aren’t really deserved.

Tonight, at an event sponsored by the Midwest Human Rights Coalition, I heard John Stiffin from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) talk about what has happened in the three years since the law’s passage.  His answer was appalling.  Basically, meat processing plants (called packinghouses here) have each been mailed an English poster of the PWBoR which they are required to post.  And–honestly–I think that’s the extent of it.

Let me start out by saying that I understand that the PWBoR was an unfunded mandate.  I understand that the DLI hasn’t been given many resources and I understand that real enforcement requires such resources.

But tonight I’m focusing in on the little things.  The inexcusable things.  The large impact-small cost failings that prevent policy changes from being as effective as they could be, even absent adequate funding.

  1. The poster isn’t included on the webpage with all other mandatory state posters from DLI for download or order.
  2. The poster wasn’t provided in any other languages, even though all other mandatory posters are.  Employers are expected to provide a translated version in the language of their workers.
  3. There has been no outreach to the Karen population, despite their recent and rapid concentration in meat processing centers such as Worthington and Albert Lea.
  4. Although the majority of packinghouse workers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Somalia, Sudan, or Southeast Asia, the single staff person was deliberately NOT hired from any of these ethnic groups to avoid the “appearance of favoritism.”
  5. There has been no collaboration with the staff person coordinating an nearly identical Bill of Rights in Nebraska.
  6. There is no proactive enforcement.  Compliance with the PWBoR isn’t integrated into OSHA’s compliance and a credible complaint is required to initiate an investigation.
  7. There is no protection for workers who file complaints, other than that the DLI “isn’t likely” to actively pursue information about their immigration status.

So maybe 6 and 7 aren’t really small cost criticisms.  But the others are.

And that’s just what I learned in a 20 minute rambling conversation.  And it doesn’t include individual-level complaints like Stiffin’s justification for not translating the poster into Spanish: Puerto Rican Spanish is different than Mexican Spanish, so translations are hard.  Right.  Because there is no such thing as Standard Spanish.  And we were really hoping the poster would be translated primarily in slang anyway.

Three years out, we should be talking about visa alternatives for workers who report violations (like the U-visa for survivors of domestic violence).  The PWBoR should be fully integrated in OSHA compliance.  And the coordinator should be able to articulate his outreach strategy to the workers, not just a one-time mailing to the employers.

Instead, we learn that there have been no complaints in three years.  Not a single one.  From one of the most dangerous industries employing some of our most vulnerable residents?  Despite John Stiffin’s reassurances, hardly proof of transformative legislation.

Jonas