Labor Rights as Human Rights

There is a great debate currently in the United States surrounding the issue of the rights of workers in both the public and private sectors to organize into unions and collectively bargain a contract. A number of states have proposed or enacted laws restricting the organizing and bargaining rights of public employees. Laws to restrict the rights of private sector workers are being proposed at the federal level.

Economics, American history, government, global studies and English teachers can have students explore the issue of worker rights as human rights in the United States and abroad through research projects, debates, simulations and other strategies. Topics can focus in the right to organize and bargain collectively, workplace health and safety, child labor, international trade and sweatshops among others.

Students should understand that private sector workers are covered by the National Labor Relations Act while state and local employees are covered by state statutes where they exist. Federal workers are covered by various laws and regulations.

Missing from the current national debate is the issue of whether the rights of workers are considered human rights as articulated in a number of universally accepted documents.

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, it is argued, a violation of international law.

There are a number of excellent resources for teachers and students on the topic.

The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World
Recently, Freedom House released The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, an assessment of trade union and worker freedoms in 165 countries. Click Here to Read More

Democracy Web: Comparative Studies in Freedom.
This comprehensive study by the Albert Shanker Institute examines the concept of *Freedom of Association *noting that “Of all the aspects of freedom of association, it is trade union rights that have contributed most profoundly to the expansion of liberty and equality in the world.” Read More

The AFL-CIO Teach-in Toolkit: Workers Rights Are Human Rights is a handbook for faculty and students who support workers’ rights. It provides a variety of suggestions including a comprehensive resource guide.

Human Rights, Labor Rights and International Trade edited by Lance A. Compa and Stephen A. Diamond (University of Pennsylvania Press) includes a number of essays from scholars including a historical perspective, labor rights and trade and litigation issues. Read a preview.

Worker Rights as Human Rights, edited by James A. Gross (Cornell University Press) includes a number of essays exploring various views on the topic. (Read a preview.)

Human Rights in Labor and Employment Relations: International and Domestic Perspectives edited by James A. Gross and Lance Compa (Cornell University Press) covers a range of topics including worker health and safety, child labor, worker freedom of association, migrant and forced labor, the human rights obligations of employers, workplace discrimination, and workers with disabilities.

The most recent and comprehensive book is A Shameful Business: The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace by Cornell Professor Gross. He sites a number of international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights and, most specifically, International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Conventions, Nos. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) and 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining).

Gross examines the American economic philosophy that places property rights over worker rights and freedom of association rights and how American management controls the workplace. He also explores the issue of human and worker rights as they relate to workplace safety and health. His final chapter is a call to arms to place worker rights as human rights in the forefront of American policy.

Are Worker Rights Human Rights by Richard P McIntyre asserts that, in a global economy, workers must assert their collective rights in order to win human rights as individuals.

Human Rights and Workers’ Rights, prepared by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, includes a section on Teaching Aids.

Employment Rights are Human Rights from American University’s International Human Rights Law Clinic tells the story of undocumented workers and the denial of their employment rights due to immigration status.

There are also many resources devoted to specific topics such as child labor, labor law reform, and views of major religious denominations available on the American Labor Studies Center’s web site.

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