Why Labor Rights Should Be a Civil Right

Fifty years after the March on Washington, America's next great task is creating a more just economy.

Attendees visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial as they commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Washington D.C.
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Freedom House has found that among advanced industrial democracies, the United States does a very poor job of protecting labor rights. The report declared, "The United States is almost alone among economically advanced democracies in its lack of a strong trade union movement in the private sector," and cited weak penalties for illegal worker discharges as among the causes. Freedom House and other researchers find that our major European competitors – such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom – protect labor rights far more effectively than the United States. In contrast to the low ranking of the United States in protecting labor rights, Freedom House commended the United States for the strength of its civil rights laws.

The result is that workers' wages have plummeted, many have lost any real voice in the workplace, economic security is disappearing and at-will employment has become the norm. Under these conditions, the original goals of the civil rights movement cannot be achieved.

Making labor organizing a civil right would extend the real protections that workers have against race, sex and religious discrimination to workers who seek to exercise their fundamental rights of association and speech in the workplace. Workers who seek to organize or join a union will be made whole if they are discriminated against for their conduct, they will have their stories heard by juries of their peers, and they will be entitled to punitive damages for egregious employer conduct. Such protections will change the calculus of employers who now blithely violate workers' labor rights by making it more expensive to break the rules than follow them.

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Workers' share of production has been in a steep decline, at roughly the same rate as labor's decline. Civil rights protections for labor organizing would allow workers to demand more, not just from the federal government, but also from their employers.

Where the March on Washington succeeded in procuring certain political rights, it fell short in procuring the economic rights demanded. Strengthening the long-recognized right to join a union through the self-same civil rights legislation that changed employment practices carries the promise of renewing the great alliance that was represented during the March.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a Century fellow and labor and civil rights attorney, are coauthors of "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice."

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