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What Rights Should ALL Workers Have? – Part 1

March 31, 2011

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Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…the factory, farm or office where he works…unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.
Eleanor Roosevelt, United Nations Remarks, 1953

The most important thing any business has are its people – right?

Lately, I have thought a great deal about the rights of workers.  These days, it seems like those rights are in serious question.

Unprecedented legislation has been proposed.  The rights of public workers are being challenged. A landmark lawsuit representing the rights of female workers may be litigated in the Supreme Court.

Seems like we’ve gotten to a point where many Americans aren’t sure what they believe about worker’s rights.  We’ve been down this road before – about a hundred years ago, then 50 years ago and now in 2011 we’re again asking the fundamental question:

What Rights Should Workers Have?

America has a long and often violent history in the struggle for workers rights.   The Progressive Era (1890’s to 1920s) was an age of reform, the nation’s response to the industrial revolution. Its effects touched virtually all American society and the lives of its workers.

 While the reforms of that era did not take up the issues of race and the rights of women, it paved the way for later reforms that resulted in women’s suffrage and later, the Civil Rights Movement. The Progressive Movement succeeded because it had “support” from political parties, labor and management and the American Middle Class.

 “Enlightened self-interest,” ushered in an entirely new era of change and reform.  Independent media (muckrakers) exposed the abuses of power in government – and in business. And good government advocates (which included many politicians)  committed to cleaning out corruption at all levels of government, enabled legislative changes that allowed citizen participation to flourish.  In fact, it was Governor Robert La Follette, whose “Wisconsin Idea,” provided the leadership for open government, fair taxation, agrarian and labor reforms and the regulation of public utilities and the railroad.

2011 – Where are we Now?

Globalization, economic recession, real and contrived deficit budgeting, demographic shifts and huge technological changes are reshaping the landscape for worker’s rightsThe public is placing conflicting demands on the forces that shape our work world.

On one hand some American consumers now want to know the sourcing of their food and other consumer goods (Where were these tomatoes grown and how much were the workers paid? Was child labor used? Were the farm laborers exposed to harmful pesticides in the process?).  On the other, some Americans are questioning whether public workers should be allowed the right to collectively bargain for their pay, benefits and working conditions (Why should I, the taxpayer, pay for another worker’s health or pension benefits?)

Our already shaky social contract looks like its coming apart at the seams.

Brutal political fighting, unlimited money in political campaigns and a mostly compromised media have resulted in deeply polarized public opinions about the future of worker’s rights. Unchecked, these opinions will translate into sweeping new laws that stand to undermine many of the  gains workers have made throughout the last century.

Cooler heads and balanced fact-based critical thinking are not prevailing.  Extremes in thinking and emotions are charting a new course for the lives of American workers.   We are, in the beginning of this new century, setting the groundwork for the working conditions of the future.  It is happening – right now.

 Who are the Workers?

Discussions about the rights of workers tend to assume that we are referring solely to wage workers – those to use the awful phrase that, “Shower after work instead of before.”  We get lost in our pro and anti-union rhetoric and often cite the most extreme examples to make our case for our point of view.

There is plenty of evidence that shows that the gains made by the labor movement  over the past hundred years have benefited all workers. The impact of unions on total non union wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages.  Union gains have set a standard for all workers’ benefits including salary, sick and family leave, healthcare, retirement and vacation time.

And while we are increasingly pitted against each other in today’s knock-down-drag-out fighting over future fiscal policy, we are, more than ever, interdependent.  We are as they say, all in this together.   As the U.S. global ranking in education continues to decline, those cheap labor pools that many American companies are now chasing in “developing” countries, may supply the next generation of scientists and engineers to our competitive world market.

We isolate and segregate the state of our working conditions at our own peril.

Whether we are –  farm laborers, accountants, teachers, marketing directors, nurses, sanitation workers, miners, software developers, graphic artists, housekeepers, administrative assistants, line-cooks,  fire fighters, dietitians, cable technicians, baristas, university faculty, cabbies,  school janitors, bus drivers, human resources professionals, actors, electricians, supermarket cashiers, supply chain managers, nannies, food inspectors, pilots, plumbers or free-lance consultants – the future of our work is integrally linked.

The questions we face and decisions we make now will define how America works. While important discussions regarding advances in work-life balance, flex-time, generational shifts and gender parity are in progress – we are again facing fundamental questions of who has rights and what those rights are?

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll explore these crucial questions and examine what “rights” the 21st century worker should have

Do we believe that worker’s rights are human rights – and if so, what are they?  As citizens, do we bear collective responsibility to ensure rights for other workers – or is this a matter of personal responsibility?

How do you think the issues we face as workers now will affect us and every generation to come? 

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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