Labor rights violations widespread — in U.S.

This spring, the Sheet Metal Workers Union made a bid to represent workers at Reliable HVAC in Vancouver, Wash. When company owner Joe Martin found out about the union campaign, he took aside employee Doug Brinkley [not his real name] and asked his views on the union.

Brinkley told his boss he thought he and his co-workers needed a union.

“There aren’t going to be any union people around here after the election,” Brinkley remembers his boss saying.

The union failed by one vote, to win a majority. After the election, Martin made good on the threat, Brinkley said. At least five union supporters were fired in early September, ostensibly for other reasons. Brinkley was one of them.

“This is the first job I’ve ever been fired from,” Brinkley said. “I worked hard for the guy. I didn’t deserve what I got.”

A 20-year veteran of the industry, Brinkley said he’d wanted to belong to the union for a long time. He still would like to, he said, but the experience of being fired for it has made him wary.

“The government says you got the right ... But when they can fire you over it and get away with it, I’ll think twice about it before I do this again.”

Brinkley’s case isn’t a rarity; it’s becoming the rule. Tens of thousands of workers are fired every year in the United States for supporting a union. The number grows every year.

Last year, the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch did its first comprehensive study of workers’ rights in the United States. It found “widespread labor rights violations across regions, industries, and employment status.”

The organization found that the United States government is guilty of “a systemic failure to ensure the most basic right of workers: their freedom to choose to come together to negotiate the terms of their employment with their employers.”

“In our complacency that all is well in America, we don’t think of human rights as an issue, but labor rights ARE human rights,’ said Lynn-Marie Crider, research director at the Oregon AFL-CIO.

“We’ve realized we have to engage in a major campaign to deal with that.”

The campaign Crider refers to — to take back the right to organize — kicks off nationwide the first week in December. It’s meant to coincide with Dec. 10 — International Human Rights Day. In Portland, supporters will meet at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Machinists Hall, 3645 SE 32nd Ave., and team up in pairs to visit union members to talk about the campaign.

Then, on Wednesday, Dec. 10, the campaign will host a potluck dinner at the Rose City Park Presbyterian Church at 1907 NE 45th (corner of Sandy Blvd.), Portland. Politicians who say they support workers’ rights are invited, and after the dinner, the plan is to discuss how to build a movement to win back workers’ rights — rights that have been whittled away.

“Our own members don’t know what it’s like for workers to try to organize,” Crider said. “Our political allies don’t understand. They think if workers want a union they have one. So we have some education to do.”

Look to the Dec. 5 issue of the Northwest Labor Press for a more detailed look at how workers’ rights in the workplace are violated in the United States.

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