In the focus on the fight to preserve collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere, the mass media has ignored the international and human rights significance of these battles.
Under international labor law, the right to collectively bargain is considered a fundamental human right. Legislation or executive action to eliminate collective bargaining rights is, therefore, a violation of international law.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human rights (adopted in 1948 by the United Nations), to which the United States is a signatory, the right to bargain collectively is subsumed under the rights to freedom of association and the right to organize into a trade union (Articles 20 and 23). Since the Declaration has been signed and ratified by the United States it is therefore binding on state governments through the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution (Article VI, clause 2).
The right to organize and bargain collectively is explicitly covered under International Labor Organization Convention 98 adopted in 1949. While the United States has not specifically ratified ILO Convention 98, it is bound by that Convention by virtue of its membership in the ILO, as these rights are part of the ILO charter and, therefore, stand above the individual Conventions.
A 2007 decision by the ILO sustained a complaint filed by the United Electrical Workers against the State of North Carolina for its prohibition on collective bargaining for public employees. The ILO called on the United States to "promote the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina," and called specifically for the repeal of North Carolina General Statute §95-98, the state law that prohibits public employee collective bargaining. Currently pending before the ILO is a complaint filed by Transport Workers Local 100 challenging New York State's "Taylor Law," which prohibits strikes by public sector employees.
Finally, as a result of many years of advocacy on the part of human rights and labor groups, the "violation of internationally recognized labor rights" is now typically included as a prohibition in trade agreements that the United States enters into with other nations.
So while anti-labor forces in the United States have chastised Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate for leaving the state as an anti-democratic move, in truth these Senators are serving as the last line of defense of internationally recognized human rights and, therefore, of democracy.
Recent polls indicate that a clear majority of the American people support collective bargaining rights -- not because they belong to unions, which most do not, but because it is a simple issue of fairness and democracy.
It was not too long ago that both Republicans and Democrats used the lack of bargaining rights in the former Soviet Union as clear evidence of totalitarianism. What does it say about today's Republican Governors that they are making the elimination of collective bargaining their signature issue?
I would like to thank Dominick Tuminaro, Esq., for his assistance in preparing this article.