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Do Working People Really Have the Right to Organize in the United States?

Do Working People Really Have the Right to Organize in the United States?

At the end of his first visit to the United States, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, starkly delivered his conclusions in front of an international crowd at the U.N. office in Washington, D.C.:

The right to establish unions is an important one through which workers collectively can level the playing field with employers. It was therefore disturbing to hear all the impediments facing workers who want to exercise this right.

Kiai stated though his mission’s main focus was not on racial discrimination, it affected how safe people of color felt exercising their right to organize. “It was disturbing to learn that assemblies organized by African Americans are managed differently, with these protests often met with disproportionate force.” He also noted how police surveillance of communities of color in the name of immigration enforcement or counterterrorism efforts can cause fear in exercising this right, “Rights don’t stop at the border—undocumented workers have rights to protest and to assemble.”

Kiai spent more than two weeks in several cities in the United States on a fact-finding mission that included meeting United Steelworkers (USW) members from Novelis, in New York, and Asarco, in Arizona; carwash workers from Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in New York City; hotel workers from UNITE HERE in New York and Arizona; and teachers from AFT in Louisiana.

When he visited with Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, Kiai experienced firsthand how many obstacles workers across the nation need to overcome to organize and bargain for a better life. He was shocked when he visited the Nissan plant in Canton where the company has been aggressively fighting back an organizing drive with UAW. Kiai said:

The figure that stands out for me is this: Nissan reportedly operates 44 major plants throughout the world [including Brazil, France, Japan and South Africa]; all of them are unionized, except for two of them in the U.S. south. Why not Mississippi? These workers, meanwhile, have suffered greatly. The company no longer even hires new employees directly; they are all outsourced to a temp agency, which pays significantly lower wages and benefits.
In practice, the ability to form and join unions is impeded by a number of factors: the inordinate deference given to employers to undermine union formation; a so-called “neutral” stance on unions by authorities, when in fact international law requires that they facilitate unions; weak remedies and penalties for intimidation, coercion and undue influence by employers; and political interference and overt support for industry at the expense of workers.

Kiai was also critical of "right to work" laws:

This to be a particularly insidious way of weakening unions, because it removes any incentive for workers to join. Coupled with the intense pressure by employers against unionization, it also gives enterprises a free pass to unilaterally set terms and conditions of employment to the detriment of workers.

Kiai will write a full report on his findings that will be released and presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.

Read his complete statement.

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