10/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Workers of the World Unite on Labor Day

(4) Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23]

Several years ago, during a social event, I had a frank discussion with a very wealthy businessman. In the course of the conversation he informed me, once he found out that I am a union activist, that if workers attempt to form a union at any of his factories, he simply closes down the factory and moves the work. This sort of cavalier activity, and more importantly, the threat of such actions is a critical image in the minds of workers, not just in the USA, but across the globe. The ability to shift production, brought about largely through technological changes, has resulted in what the late economist Bennett Harrison called a "credible threat" facing all workers.

Irrespective of the rights that an individual may have in so-called civil society, when they enter the workplace many, if not most, of those rights evaporate at the door, as if the individual were shifting dimensions in some science fiction tale. A clear example of the cynical portrayal of economic injustices to serve political ends can be found if one reflects on the 1980s. The Reagan/Bush administration gave a considerable amount of attention to the rights of workers in Poland (and other parts of the then Soviet bloc) to form or join labor unions. Yet at the same time, here in the USA, this same administration was crushing the air traffic controllers and in the US sphere of influence in Latin America, was actively cooperating with Latin American dictatorships and quasi-dictatorships that undermined any and all efforts by workers to form workers' organizations, all in the name of fighting communism.

The right to join or form labor unions is so central but so often overlooked precisely because it goes to central questions regarding power in so-called free market [capitalist] societies. The power that employers enjoy emerges through their unbridled control over the workplace and, as a consequence, through the profits that they gain as a result of the worker's daily labor. Efforts by workers at self-organization call into question such power and ultimately raise the issue as to whether the employer has a larger social responsibility, a question that most employers strenuously resist.

Anti-worker efforts come in various forms. There are the more blatant and barbaric forms of repression such as the assassinations of pro-union activists. A case in point is Colombia which, per capita, has the highest number of union activists murdered in the world. Yet the repression is not always so blatant, and it is also not simply a problem that happens "...over there..." in some other country. The repression is very evident here in the USA.

The notion, often advanced in business circles, that unionization will somehow hurt the economy or unbalance the playing field is myth. More importantly it asks the question of who should the economy serve. If the economic statistics indicate an expansion yet workers gain little, does that mean that the economy is really improving? The reality is that it does not. The economy improves when the living standard for working people improves as a result of them sharing in the social surplus. Such a result happens only through a combination of the self-organization of workers and their exercise of power both at the workplace and at the ballot box.

The International Labor Rights Forum has been working to protect the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively through its Freedom at Work campaign. This Labor Day, they have released a new toolkit that explains further how workers' freedom of association is violated around the world, but also how union rights connect to a range of other human rights and social justice issues. The toolkit also includes ideas for collective action to end union-busting.

Workers of the world unite? The answer to this question, whether one is addressing it to workers in an individual workplace trying to form a union or workers across national boundaries confronting common transnational employers, was articulated more than forty years ago by the late Dr. Martin Luther King. He stated quite clearly: we either hang together or we will hang separately.