Workers’ Human Rights, Research Paper Example


“In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), established the most democratic procedure in United States labor history for the participation of workers in the determination of their wages, hours, and working conditions” (Gross, 2006). The Wagner Act was not neutral; the law encouraged as government policy the practice of collective bargaining and protection of workers in their exercise “of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment and other mutual aid or protection” (Global Forum, 2012). What was then called industrial democracy was to replace employers’ unilateral determination of matters affecting wages, hours, and working conditions.

The values underlying the Wagner act, its conceptions of workers’ rights, and most (but not all) of its provisions are consistent with human rights values. Although not using the term human rights, the Wagner Act was far ahead of its time in applying human rights principles to U.S. workplaces. The act guaranteed the right to organize and bargain collectively, core social justice issues for workers. This paper will argue regarding the historical context for labor and human rights advocacy, and reframing workers’ rights as human rights.

Historical context for labor and human rights advocacy

For most of the twentieth century, labor activities focused their demands on improving the wages and working conditions of American workers. The concept of human rights rarely entered labor discourse. Trade unions and their allies made a fundamentally economic argument for workers’ organizing and collective bargaining rights – a Keynesian case, even if they did not label it as such. If workers could organize and bargain, they could win higher wages. Higher wages would create a larger middle class, whose greater purchasing power would stimulate economic demand and growth. In the nineteenth century, U.S. justified collective action by appeal to rights of freedom of association and speech grounded in The U.S. Constitution. Nineteenth century judges countered with the common law doctrine of master and servant that justified employer claims to rule in the workplace. Many judges found that “a contract to deliver labor for money delivers the employee’s assent to serve” (International Labor Org., 2008).

These doctrines were modified by the basic labor laws passed during the New Deal. For the most part, labor relations have developed separately from human rights discourse in the United States, and workers have “only such rights as collective bargaining contracts and specific legislation stipulate” (Global forum, 2012). Because the relationship between human rights and worker rights is complex, because judicial decision leaves room for multiple paths, and because the United States differs significantly on these issues from other countries, it is worth reviewing this relationship.

My argument in this section is that so – called first generation rights, the civil and political rights of the French and American Revolutions, have a broad but not complete acceptance in American law and culture. The second generation right, social and economic rights, found a limited home in New Deal social democracy but is more tenuously grounded in the United States than elsewhere. These differences in rights concepts explain many of the disagreements between the United States and both the developing and European countries, and make an international discourse of worker rights difficult at best.

Trade unionists in the United States are generally driven by a practical focus on the issues of most concern to their membership, which is unlikely to include internationally recognized worker rights. In the past, to the extent that rights were a concern, that concern was likely to flow from protectionist or localist concerns, which are often interpreted as illegitimate by human right workers and developing country activist.

Core worker rights, as promulgated by the ILO, are not all treated similarly either in the legal case history in the United States or in the theory and practice of post world war II international human rights. The rights to freedom from discrimination and freedom from forced labor stand well within the international human rights consensus. The right to liberty of organization straddles the line, plus the appropriate to organize and deal collectively is plainly outside that consensus, really in the American context. While all types of individual freedoms have been expanded in the United States over the previous generation, employees’ collective rights to liberty of organization and collective bargaining have shrunk.

To argue that “worker rights are human rights then means that one thinks that these a slogan makes sense in the concrete circumstances we face currently. We have enough knowledge presently of how the “rights revolution” has impaired the collective strength of employees in actually existing U.S. capitalism to be skeptical about this slogan.

Reframing worker’s rights as human rights

Two communities converge

Without a human rights foundation, workers’ collective activity was vulnerable to perception as impeding economic growth, not promoting it. When organizing waves of mid century subsided then trade unions become more bureaucratic, business union role in society. “Both the general public and elite opinion makers came to see union activity simply as labor versus management, two big institutional entities with competing self interests contrary to the public good. Human rights advocates mostly accepted this labor-versus-management frame of workers’ collective action” (Gross, 2006). Responding to widespread abuses around the globe, they had scant connection to organizing and bargaining difficulties of American workers.

The two movements did share some common terrain. Earlier generations of trade unionists and their supporters had argued during the 1930s that organizing workers and collective bargaining provided “the only road to civil rights, civil rights, and real citizenship”. These unionists explitly linked workers’ rights to notions of “industrial democracy” and an “Americanism” that extended to immigrants who helped build the labor movement.

Although the human rights movement rarely took up labor struggles, the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included workers’ freedom of association and the right to decent wages – even the right to paid vacations – as fundamental human rights. And a although rights groups’ leaders and activists may not have seen labor advocacy as part of their mission, many personally sympathized with workers and trade unions.

At the turn of the new century, labor and human rights advocates holding key staff positions in trade unions and human rights organizations, along with labor and human rights – oriented academics, came together to restrategize and reframe workers’ collective action as a human rights mission rather than “pure and simple syndical action for economic gain. A new labor-human rights alliance took shape, with a wide ranging discourse and agenda to frame and diffuse workers’ organizing and bargaining not as a matter of labor versus management, but as a matter of people exercising basic human rights.

Union side and human rights side advocates and their counterparts in the academy did not just bump into each other in the dark. The emergence of a “workers’ rights are human rights” theme flowed from preexisting networks and personal relationships among actors going as far back as civil rights and anti Vietnam war activisim in the 1960s continuing through United farm Workers union grape and lettuce boycotts and opposition to military dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina in the 1970s, then to Central American solidarity work in the 1980s.

Labor’s human rights initiatives

A variety of new campaigns and organizations took shape with a labor human rights mission. The AFL-CIO launched a broad based “voice at work” project characterized as a “campaign to help U.S. workers regain the basic human right to form unions to improve their lives”. In 2005, the labor federation held more than one hundred demonstration  throughout the United States, and signs from enlisted 11 noble peace prize winners, “including the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, Jimmy Carter, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, supporting workers’ human rights in full page advertisement in national newspapers” (ILO, 2008).

Critiques of the human rights frame

Rights versus solidarity

Labor s reframing of syndical struggles as a human rights mission has not gone without criticism from all-natural allies and in addition organic enemies. In the latter camp, the National Right to Work Committee, a leading anti-union force in American labor issues, warned that human rights arguments and decisions by global bodies including the ILO Committee on Freedom of association may influence American court decisions. The Right to Work Committee recommended that the United States withdraw from the ILO because its processes “are a lobbying tool for organized labor along with a possible embarrassment for the United States”.

“For their piece, some work sympathizing scholars and activists counsel against a human rights argument for employees organizing and bargaining within the United States. They maintain a rights based process plays into individualistic, atomizing dynamics that undermine solidarity and industrial democracy as principles for labor action” (trade union, n.d.). For example, historian Nelson Lichtenstein argues that a discussion of rights has furthermore subverted the really inspiration… of union solidarity… without a bold and society shaping political and friendly system human rights would devolve into something approximation libertarian individualism. An additional historian, Joseph McCartin, advises that “rights conversation tends to foster a libertarian dialogue, where capital’s freedom of motion and employees ‘liberties to handle are tactically affirmed as opposed to questioned (Gross, 2006).

Conditions include ripened for raising the human rights system to advance employees rights within the United. Global function laws developments are fostering fresh approaches of thinking and speaking about work legislation within the United States a significant condition for changing plan and process.

“Arguing shape a human rights base, labor advocates can identify violations, name violators, demand remedies and specify recommendations for change. Employees empowered in organizing and bargaining advertisements are convinced and they are convincing the public – which they are vindicating their fundamental human rights, not simply seeking a wage heighten or fringe benefits enhancement” (Gross, 2006).Companies are tossed more found on the protective by charges they are violating employees human rights. The heavier society is much more sensitive to the notion of trade union organizing as an exercise of human rights instead of economic strength.

This might be certainly does not mean for human rights case to overstate or to exaggerate the arguments connected with all the human rights argument. Labor advocates can’t do to just cry “human rights, human rights” and become hopeful that employers will change their behavior or Congress to enact work legislation reform. U.S. labor law practitioners need 1st to discover more about international work standards. Then they need to create international law arguments in their advocacy function before the NLRB and the courts. The simple step of regularly including international labor law specifications, citations, and arguments in their beliefs will begin to educate labor law authorities plus the judiciary on the relevance of global human rights legislation to American work legislation.

Trade Union Human Rights Reports

“The new human rights mission in the labor movement is reflected in the use unions are making of human rights reports in specific organizing campaigns. Trade unionists find that charging employers with violations of international human rights, not just violations of the National Labor Relations act or the Fair Labor Standards act, gives more force to their claims for support in the court of public opinion” (ILO, 2008).The Teamsters union, by way of example, founded a human rights promotions opposing of Maersk water land, the giant Denmark based global delivery business in the violation of  rights of company for truck motorists those who carry cargo containers from one distribution center to another.


They pay attention on a liberties relying procedure encourages individuality as opposed to collective staff force, chances demands for “employees liberties as human rights interface with calls for renewed commercial democracy; that channeling employees activism through a legalistic right elevating regime stifles militancy and direct action.

Because it puts freedom before democracy, proper rights talk is likely to foster a libertarian dialogue, where capital’s flexibility of routine and staff “right to deal with are tacitly affirmed as opposed to challenged. Arguing in a rights oriented system forces employees to need no over that their right be respected along with their staff rights.

I am not suggesting that presently s function suggests must depart from their rights based arguments. These include undeniable force, talk to standard truths, and connect to appreciable traditions – concerning function s distinguished internationality. Somewhat, I am arguing that the “employees liberties are human rights formulation alone could confirm insufficient to the task of rebuilding employees businesses within the United States unless we few it with an equally passionate contact for democracy in our workplaces, economy and politics” (Trade union, n.d.).


Gross, J. A., (2006), Workers’ Rights as Human rights. Retrieved from Google ebooks.

Global Forum on Migration and development, (2012). Retrieved from

International Labour Organization at a glance, (2008). Retrieved from–en/index.htm

National Labor Committee, (n.d.). Retrieved from

A Trade Union Guide to Globalization, (n.d.). Retrieved from

American Federation of Labor