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Dear President Obama, on your inauguration day my wish is for workers rights in the USA

Amnesty has issued its own to-do list for President Barack Obama, and I am fully behind the challenging but critical human rights goals that we are promoting to counter terror with justice: A 17 point checklist for President Barack Obama. Please join us by adding your name to our goals.

But I want to ask Obama and his hopefully-soon-to-be-confirmed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis,  to make a reality of Article 23, clause 4, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests” and for good measure, how about, at last, signing the core labour conventions of the ILO, which protect workers’ right to organise and bargain collectively? The US is virtually alone amongst developed nations in not having implemented (though nevertheless being obligated) to these fundamental rights.

During my ten years working at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, I had the privilege to visit Washington often, and to spend much time with American union leaders and workers all across the country. The aviation industry, whose hard-working and long-suffering employees I represented, were consistently at the front line of the political battles between labour and a deregulating government throughout the decade, under Clinton and Bush alike. Concession bargaining meant that many employees had seen no pay rises at all for a decade. Virulently anti-union companies such as Delta Airlines were using Bush and Clinton-era National Labour Relations Board procedures and decisions to avoid granting workers their wish for union representation. I witnessed the struggles of longshoremen, of Teamsters, janitors and others and the huge dispute – eventually won – that was needed to improve job security at UPS, while FedExWalmart and countless other companies continue to resist the ambition of their employees to have a collective voice in their work and in their futures. Change must come.

According to new numbers released by American Rights at Work, 33.5 million people – 24% of the workforce – have no legally-protected right to form a union. This is an embarrassing number for an advanced democracy. As a Human Rights Watch report noted, large exclusions of workers from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) “run counter to international human rights standards compelling broad protection of workers' freedom of association.”

 In the US the anti-union movement is a multi-billion dollar industry. The National Right to Work Foundation (where have we heard that before?) claims to be a workers’ advocate but is dedicated to union-bashing through legal action, while the Coalition for Workplace Democracy is nothing of the sort. The US is awash with smoke-and-mirrors corporate union-bashers.

The focus of the labour movement is on the Employee Free Choice Act EFCA, whose progress has been stalled under Bush and the last Congress. This is likewise the object of apocalyptic warnings from the US Chambers of Commerce and others. Esther Kaplan writing recently in the Nation sets the record straight. Here's my former colleague, ITF General Secretary David Cockroft, on the subject.

Here is Mary Beth Maxwell in top form on a 30 minute video CSPAN debate on the subject: a good outlet for working class sentiment, and a sharp rejoinder to critics.

Throughout his run for president, Obama was explicit in his support for Employee Free Choice and his understanding of the forces arrayed against it. "If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union; it's that simple," he told union members in Pennsylvania in April. "Let's stand up to the business lobby."

I hope he will do so. The right to form and join a trade union isn’t just about fairness and justice at the workplace – it’s usually a precondition for job security, for decent wages, for gaining health insurance, for ensuring that pain and gain are fairly shared in this economic crisis. Unions are often the route for migrant workers and domestic workers to gain their rights. In many places in the world, union solidarity is also the foundation for community organising. Just look at our trade union pages to support the people in the front line.

Obama has made much of the personal responsibility that citizens will have to exercise if “change will come” – it is about time American workers were unfettered and allowed to get on with the job of defending justice and fairness in the workplace. I saw with my own eyes that substantial players in the US aviation industry were effectively rescued from collapse only through the discipline and sacrifice of organised labour back in 1993 and again in 2001.  It was organised labour that produced blueprints for industry renewal, both globally and in the regions. At the International Labour Organisation in 2002 I was privileged to be Secretary to the Worker’s Group at a forum with employers and governments that produced a crisis action plan for aviation. This is the sort of engagement that we need more of today, as we and Obama face economic challenges of an unprecedented nature. All American workers deserve and I hope will demand, to be part of shaping their own futures.

The rhetoric of responsibility and opportunity that I hope we will hear from President Obama this afternoon can only be realized if he also gives workers a voice and a right to shape our destiny, at work, in our communities, in the companies and  the industries that our labour sustains.

I’m disappointed not to be able to hang out in my old haunts on 17th and Q, or to be with cherished friends in the Cairo, but we have Mossie there for us. Check out his blog.

On another optimistic note: here’s a site full of labour movement ideas for renewal.


Friday 23 January: The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) will receive prompt attention in this Congress, said Rep. George Miller, Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives labor committee. But more urgent matters – most importantly the deepening economic crisis – must take precedence for now, he told Reuters

Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel prize for economics, says that the US needs the Employee Free Choice Act that US unions are campaigning for. See Owen Tudor’s TUC blog.

My colleague Richard at Amnesty, reading of the corporate front organisations I mentioned in this posting, has introduced me to the concept of “astroturfing” as defined at the very interesting Sourcewatch site.


Sunday 25 January: Here is a very savvy exposé of another one of the US “astroturfers”, the lie-mongering Center for Union Facts. I urge you to read it – and then click on this link to the Center to check out what they are saying – their banner headline, for instance, doesn’t rely on workers’ voices but rather the editorial opinion of right-wing media. It helps to know your enemy.  


Wednesday 28 January: Owen Tudor of the TUC, who also blogs here, has provided a fascinating and optimistic posting on the Stronger Unions blog about the prospects for US labour as the battle over EFCA approaches: Union membership grew by nearly half a million members, their strongest growth in a quarter century, while moves are afoot that may bring unity between the two national union centres. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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