Vol. IV, Bulletin No.13.                                                                  July 12, 1999 

Countering a Mindset That Excludes Right of Workers to Organize

'Why Unions Matter': a Message for Doubters

Many advocates of human rights oppose sweatshops and all forms of exploitation. They support the efforts of low-wage workers to improve their wages, hours, and working conditions. But support unions? No. There they draw the line in their human rights advocacy.

"Many people of faith and good will...don't understand why workers want to be represented by unions," says the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. Since the committee "believes that all workers should have the right to form a union without fear and harassment," it published a four-page explanation of "Why Unions Matter" as an insert in the June issue of "Faith Works," its bimonthly newsletter.

The statement contains much factual information about how workers form a union, what a union does once it is formed, and the "very hostile climate" that American workers face in forming a union and having it function as a union. That information covers about six of the eight pages, and it is useful.

'The God-Given Right to Participate'

On its basic theme, however, "Why Unions Matter" is relatively thin in space and ideas. It does say, for example, that

Good points indeed. But they cry for further development, not just to enlighten the poorly informed and the skeptical but to challenge the prejudiced. For example, the case for why unions matter can be more persuasive when bolstered by a quotation from a conservative like George Will.

In a November 1989 column titled "Capitalism's Debt to Unions," Will praised a new United Auto Workers contract with Chrysler for using the science of ergonomics to reduce repeated trauma disorders. It was also a time when "scientific socialism" (Communism) was crumbling, and Will tied the two events together, particularly in this paragraph:

(The June NICWJ newsletter can be ordered by email at nicwj@igc.org or through its Website at http://www.igc.org/nicwj/, where it is not yet posted.)

How Management Coercion Takes Its Toll in U.S.

In a nation-wide survey conducted this spring, 43% of employees said they would vote for a union at their workplace. That's up from 39% in the mid-90s and 30% in 1984.  In other words, some 40 million workers say they want a union today, compared with only 19 million in 1984. Those figures, reported by Aaron Bernstein in the July 19 issue of Business Week, are drawn from surveys conducted by Washington-based pollsters Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

"There is a disturbing trend of management coercion that inhibits workers," Bernstein writes, and adds:

"If even half of the employees who say they favor union representation had been allowed to vote for unions, organized labor would represent as much as 35% of the American workforce today--the same share it held at the peak of its power in 1945. Instead, owing in part to a relatively toothless NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], labor's ranks have plunged to 14%."

China: 'Not Qualified for World Trade Organization'

In a statement issued last month AFL-CIO President John Sweeney opposed admitting the People's Republic of China into the World Trade Organization until its "very serious abuses of human and labor rights are adequately addressed." Among the abuses he cited were "the Chinese government's continuing repression of democratic political discourse, its intolerance for an independent labor movement, and its continued and illegal export of goods produced in forced labor camps."

(For the text of his statement, check http://www.aflcio.org/publ/press.htm.)

In a lengthy report, "China Can Wait," the Economic Policy Institute in Washington analyzes flaws in the Clinton administration's proposed deal to bring China into the WTO. The deal "would primarily benefit U.S. companies that invest in China while harming workers in both counties," the report charges. According to the report's author, Economist Robert E. Scott:

(Check http://www.epinet.org/briefingpapers/china.html for the full text of the report.)

Diary: Opening People's Eyes to Social Realities

In a big cardboard box bulging with papers collected over the years, I found a yellowing document headed "Women Workers, a study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh."  Dated March 12, 1981, it describes how 900 women and girls, most of them without any education, "work for biological survival" in the metropolitan area of Dacca, the nation's capital. As housemaids, construction workers, and factory workers, they held "low-status jobs paying negligible wages" or, in the case of many housemaids, no wages at all.

The study was the first ever "to bring out the real-life situations of women workers at a basic level."  Students at Notre Dame and Holy Cross Colleges gathered the data through interviews with the poor. For many of the students the research was "an awakening to social realities."

The organizer of the study, and author of the 22-page report on it, was Richard W. Timm, a Holy Cross Father who has worked in Bangladesh since 1952. In 1985 he  organized another survey, one that covered the women workers employed in 54 factories of the new industry making garments for export. That survey, which Father Timm sent to me in Washington while I was working at the AFL-CIO's Asian-American Free Labor Institute, led to my making two research trips to Dacca, with particular attention to the numerous girls and boys under 14 employed by this booming industry.

Rejected AFL-CIO Petition Led to Child Labor Reforms

In 1990 the AFL-CIO filed a petition with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative detailing the widespread violations of worker rights in Bangladesh and asking that the U.S. Government withdraw Bangladesh's privilege of importing goods duty-free into the United States. Despite our extensive documentation from Bangladeshi sources (including the 1985 survey), the U.S. government denied the AFL-CIO petition, on the grounds that Bangladesh was "taking steps" to improve the situation of its workers.

While Father Timm was on a visit to Washington early this month, I had the pleasure of seeing him again. We reminisced about how one of his co-workers, Rosaline Costa, was vilified by politicians for helping to expose child labor violations in a 1992 NBC "Dateline" TV broadcast and about how garment industry leaders angrily attacked the AFL-CIO for "protectionism."

"Nowadays," he said, "they [the industry leaders] are bragging that they have eliminated child labor, meaning the employment of children under 14."
While controversial, the AFL-CIO's 1990 petition started a process whereby 40 different groups began to work together, and with the International Labor Organization, not just to end child labor in the garment industry but to make sure that the displaced children get an education.  By Father Timm's estimates,  children under 14 once comprised some 30% of the garment industry's labor force.

Moreover, the industry now has a strong union headed by women garment workers. That's one of the big changes since 1981, when Timm wrote that Bangladeshi women suffer from a deep-rooted inferiority complex, adding: "They are conditioned by their harsh life...and therefore have little to do with changing the lot of women as a whole."

(For background, check a 1997 Bulletin, at sixteen.htm, about how female "inferiority complex" was fading in the garment industry.)
At 76 Father Timm has no thought of retiring--"not while I can walk and talk." He was visiting the United States to join with relatives and friends to celebrate the golden jubilee of his ordination, 47 of those 50 years in Bangladesh. While in Washington he recorded two Voice of America radio broadcasts to Bangladesh, one in English, the other in Bengali. Both highlighted his activities for human rights, including worker rights.

The Plight of Mexican Workers in an 'Industrial Paradise'

Though sometimes touted as an Industrial Paradise, the area on Mexico's border with the United States is far from a worker paradise. For an up-to-date report, see "La Linea: Gender, Labor, and Environmental Justice on the U.S.-Mexico Border" at http://www.corpwatch.org/feature/index.html.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-13, July 12, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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