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Workers' Rights: The Big Picture

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Adapted from authors' remarks at the Urban Justice Center Human Rights Luncheon, February 3 2011

You don't have to work at a think tank to realize that these are dark days for working people. To begin with, millions of Americans aren’t working. Despite recent economic growth, we still have more than four job seekers for every available job in this country.

Times are also tough for people who have jobs. Not for everyone: pay on Wall Street broke records last year. Corporate profits are up, but wages for the typical household are flat after you factor in inflation. Some observers actually expect wages to begin falling in 2011 under pressure from all those unemployed workers who are now desperate and willing to work for a lot less.

Clearly the nation’s deep recession has a lot to do with this grim picture. But many of you are organizers in low-income communities, and you remember that the situation for working people was pretty bad even when times were supposedly good. During the last period of strong economic growth which ended in 2007, median wages barely budged. Working age households never made up for the income they lost in the last recession. The impact of the income loss was blunted, for many families, by rising home values and opportunities to borrow. But now the bill for that has come due, and families are really feeling how far behind they have fallen.

So far, I’ve talked about outcomes for working people. But we’re here today to discuss rights for working people. There’s a strong connection. When people have their rights in the workplace enforced and recognized, economic growth means broad prosperity. A rising tide lifts all boats, the way it did in the decades that followed World War II. Working people get a fair share of the growth they helped create.

Today, that’s not happening. A disproportionate share of income is going to those at the very top. Working people don’t have the power in the labor market to demand a better deal. They lack that power because their rights at work are not being recognized.

Here’s a very troubling example. Recently, a consortium of researchers surveyed thousands of low-wage workers in America’s largest cities. They found that basic workplace rights are routinely violated. 26 percent of workers were paid less than the legally required minimum wage in a given week. Most were not paid overtime when they earned it. It was common for workers to be told to work off the clock without pay, to work through legally mandated meal breaks, and to see their tips stolen. Overall, the study concluded, low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lose $56.4 million every week as a result of employment violations. Fifteen percent of their earnings are effectively stolen.

The right to form unions and bargain collectively is another key workplace right. Human Rights Watch makes the case that “forming and joining a union is a natural response of workers seeking to improve their working conditions. It is also a natural expression of the human right, indeed the human need, of association in a common purpose.” Workers who belong to unions earn higher pay, have better health benefits, more paid time off, and greater retirement security. That sounds like the kind of job we’d all like to have. And the advantages of unionization are particularly striking for women and people of color, [see additional sources here and here] -- they get the biggest boost from union membership. Yet the percentage of workers represented by unions has been falling steadily: only 11.9 percent of American workers have a union to stand up for them today. That’s partly a result of the recession which had a disproportionate impact on unionized industries like construction, but over the longer term, the decline is also the result of rights violations.

Faced with a union organizing drive, more than half of all employers threaten to close down a facility if the union wins. One in four companies fire workers involved in union activity. These practices are blatantly illegal, but because of sluggish enforcement and slap-on-the-wrist penalties, they're increasingly routine. President Obama has made some excellent appointments to the National Labor Relations Board which is supposed to protect the right to organize, but they have a tremendous task ahead of them.

I’ve painted a bleak picture of the status quo on workers’ rights and before we turn things over to our panelists, I am going to offer some hope - a peek at some of these efforts in New York and around the country to push back and assert basic rights in the workplace. But before we can get to the hopeful part, we need a brief detour into the political effort to make things worse, to attack working people, weaken their rights, and I believe, produce worse outcomes in terms of employment and the quality of jobs. Bear with me: we’ll get to the positive, encouraging news soon.

In many states, including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri we’re seeing very calculated attempts coming from the political right to attack workplace rights head-on by letting people avoid paying dues to support the unions that are bargaining for them and representing them. Clearly this undermines the unions. Research also indicates that it lowers wages across the board, for both union workers and for non-members. Workers overall lose power when these laws are passed. That’s one attack on workers’ rights.

Other efforts are targeting public sector workers, who currently represent half of all union members. The budget crunches being faced by cities and states now are a result of the recession, which was caused by risky practices on Wall Street. But states and cities, including New York, are increasingly blaming public workers for the shortfalls. In New York, we’re talking about taking away pension benefits. In other states, there is discussion about eliminating the right of public workers to organize and bargain collectively. The atmosphere has become so ugly that some commentators suggest public employees should not have the right to vote. That’s not a mainstream position or something that’s actually likely to happen, but I find it troubling that an opinion like that has circulated to the extent it has.

This is the last piece of research I’ll throw at you today, although it’s actually a number studies, all showing that when education and other relevant workforce factors are accounted for, public sector workers actually earn less than similar workers in the private sector. That data goes against the grain of a very powerful campaign to portray the guys mowing the grass for the Parks Department as somehow “overprivileged.” Yes, they have a union, they have pensions and health benefits every working person should have. But tearing public workers down doesn’t advance rights for anyone.

So we have mass unemployment and stagnant wages for American workers. Basic workplace rights violated at every turn, especially for low-wage workers. And an effort to strip away the power of unions that are the most powerful force representing workers’ rights. But here comes the hope: working people are asserting their rights. Their efforts and achievements are inspiring.

In this last year, domestic workers, including housekeepers, nannies, and other caregivers won unprecedented legislation in New York State guaranteeing their fundamental workplace rights. A basic 8-hour workday, a day of rest each week, a few paid days off a year. Protection from discrimination and harassment. Rights every worker should be able to exercise but which domestic workers, overwhelmingly women of color, were excluded from when the Fair Labor Standards Act and the nation's other basic labor laws were written. We are lucky to have Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, of Domestic Workers United, here to talk about how that victory was won at long last.

Also this year, New York State passed strong wage theft legislation, increasing penalties and strengthening enforcement for cheating working people out of the money they’re earned. After a few strong enforcement actions, corrupt employer will think twice about paying less than the minimum wage or stealing employee tips.

And the fight is continuing. Earlier this morning, there was a huge rally on the steps of City Hall to insist that Wal-Mart, a company notorious for its low wages, bitter opposition to unions, and allegations of workplace discrimination has no place in New York City. We also have a push to guarantee paid sick days for every working person in the city. We have a movement to demand that when the city gives taxpayer subsidies to private businesses, the least we can do is require those companies to pay a living wage.

Our panelists today are all working to advance these fights for workers’ rights in one way or another. And so, without anymore doom and gloom from me I’ll let them talk about how we can succeed in promoting workers rights as human rights in the current political and economic climate.