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Human Rights Watch Backs Pro-Union Bill -- Did Anti-Union Bailout Barons Break Campaign Laws?

02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the same day that The Huffington Post broke the news that financial executives receiving billions in bailout funds schemed to block the Employee Free Choice Act with campaign cash, Human Rights Watch issued a report endorsing the bill as vital to protecting workers' rights.

Now some reform groups, I've learned, are looking into whether the bailout recipients violated federal laws in using part of the bailout billions towards lobbying against the Employee Free Choice Act -- and could ask for a Congressional investigation. I'll keep you posted on the latest developments.

While best known for focusing on dictators and torture, Human Rights Watch has focused in this new report on another kind of dictatorship: the abuse of employees who seek to organize a union, a human right recognized by international charters and U.S. law. Here's what this respected, non-partisan group announced (hat tip to AFL-CIO NOW blog):

US lawmakers should back a proposed law to strengthen protections for workers who are trying to organize a union and bargain collectively, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 12-page report, "The Employee Free Choice Act: A Human Rights Imperative," details how US labor law facilitates abuses and violates international standards. Human Rights Watch has in the past extensively documented systematic interference with the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively in the United States.

"Weak US labor law effectively denies millions of workers the right to form a union and bargain collectively," said Carol Pier, senior researcher on labor rights and trade for Human Rights Watch. "Congress should bring worker protections closer to international standards by passing the Employee Free Choice Act."

A worker's right to freedom of association includes the right to organize unions and bargain collectively and is well established under international law. International norms require that workers have an effective remedy when this right is violated and that penalties for violation be strong enough to deter illegal conduct. They require employers to allow union representatives to communicate with workers and say that election procedures cannot be used to delay or prevent union formation. Once workers organize, they have the right to try to improve their working conditions through good-faith collective bargaining with their employer.

US law falls far short. Union election rules that give employers an unfair advantage impede union formation. Minimal penalties for violations fail to discourage those wishing to violate even existing rules. Endemic enforcement delays deny workers meaningful redress. And inadequate collective bargaining protections mean that, even if workers are able to organize, they may still not reach a collective agreement.

Compare that call for action with the fear-mongering over union organizing through the Employee Free Choice act, as shown by Home Depot chairman Bernie Marcus's comments in a conference call co-hosted by Bank of America, a bailout recipient:

Bernie Marcus, the charismatic co-founder of Home Depot, led the call along with Rick Berman, an aggressive EFCA opponent and founder of the Center for Union Facts. [Also known as Dr. Evil.] Over the course of an hour, the two framed the legislation as an existential threat to American capitalism, or worse.

"This is the demise of a civilization," said Marcus. "This is how a civilization disappears. I am sitting here as an elder statesman and I'm watching this happen and I don't believe it."

But the "civilization" they're seeking to defend is an essentially illegal -- or barely legal -- regime of unionbusting designed to keep wages low:

As the AFL-CIO blog noted:

In particular, HRW's report points to three serious flaws in U.S. labor law that are addressed by the Employee Free Choice Act:

* Unfair election procedures that are badly slanted toward employers, giving the employer, in practice, the ultimate say over how workers form a union:

U.S. law also allows employers to refuse to recognize a union based on freely signed authorizations by a clear majority of workers explicitly indicating their desire to organize -- a "card check" -- and demand instead that a union demonstrate majority support through an NLRB election. The period leading up to that election, lasting at least several weeks but often longer, creates an opening for anti-union employers to make aggressive use of the tilted playing field.

* The lack of serious penalties for corporate misconduct, including intimidation and firing of workers, and the ability of companies to indefinitely delay and deter attempts to form a union:

Penalties for breaching U.S. labor law are so minor that employers often treat them as a cost of doing business -- a small price to pay for defeating worker organizing efforts. Under U.S. labor law, an employer faces no punitive penalties and few, if any, economic consequences for violating workers' right to freedom of association.

* The ability of companies to ignore workers' choice to bargain collectively by refusing to reach a fair contract:

Even if U.S. workers successfully organize, however, their fundamental right to freedom of association is still not fully secure because of shortcomings in current legal provisions governing collective bargaining... Because there are no significant negative repercussions for illegal conduct... there is little incentive for intransigent employers to comply with the law.

You can read more about the contradiction between what the Human Rights Watch found about the widespread violation of workers' rights and the scheming of the bailout executives in this In These Times piece.

So while international law recognizes union organizing as a human right, the bailout barons, including Bank of America and AIG executives, were essentially seeking to use some of the billions in taxpayer funds to rob those same taxpayers of the right to fairly form a union -- and to keep the wages of working Americans artificially low. While President Obama is said to be looking to put some strings on the second half of the bailout to the banks, his economic team ought to look into limiting their ability to spend taxpayers' money to lobby for selfish political goals that hurt the American economy.

Art Levine co-hosts the "D'Antoni and Levine Show" every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., ET.