Union Deaths Rise Around World, as Recession Heightens Attacks on Labor Rights

Akito Yoshikane

Protesters hold posters of the trade unionist Jacques Bino, killed in February 2009 during clashes on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, on February 21, 2009 in Paris. The rally was called by the 'Collectif des originaires d'outremer' (Overseas people's group) in support of residents of France's overseas Caribbean territories.

The number of trade unionists who were killed rose significantly in 2009, a year when the global downturn spurred governments and companies to use the turmoil to undermine workers’ rights in countries around the woirld — including the United States, a new report says.

An annual survey released Wednesday by the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) found a 30 percent increase in union deaths as the economic and financials crises led to millions of job losses and heightened labor violations.

More than 101 union members and activists died last year against the 76 in the previous year. Colombia accounted for 60 percent of the total union deaths worldwide with 48 killed, followed by Guatemala (16) and Honduras (12). Mexico and Bangladesh each had six deaths in a survey that documented people defending workers’ rights across 140 countries.

The findings, released just ahead of an annual conference by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, said global leaders, companies and public officials have all clamped down on labor unions and activists.

The United States is no exception, as problems in legislation and in the workplace continue to thrwart organizing efforts. While the law ostensibly guarantees labor unions, they fall short of protecting labor rights through restrictive legal barriers or non-enforcement of regulations.

From private companies to government agencies, employers are undermining unions through tactics including union busting, bad-faith negotiations, and opposition to collective bargaining.
And undocumented, domestic workers, and public-sector employees are simply excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.

Despite the rise in civil servants jobs, public workers face several restrictions on the right to organize and participate in collective bargaining. Federal employees have a limited scope of what’s covered under their contracts and are prohibited from striking. Employers are also allowed to replace workers permanently in the event of a walk-out or boycott.

Even for the 12.3% percent of workers who were in a union last year, opposition to organizing in the private sector has also continued to grow over the years. Citing reports by the Economic Policy Institute and the American rights at work education Fund, the ITUC says employers have threatened, suveiled and retaliated against union workers in large numbers:

63% of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union; 54% of employers threaten workers in such meetings; 57% of employers threaten to close the work-site; 47% of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits; and 34% of employers fire workers.

The hostility towards unions has become a big business, with a $4 billion industry where employees hire consultants to stifle organizing drives. Nearly 75 percent of employers hire anti-union strategists when their workers try to form a union, according to American Rights at Work.

Lobbying organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce representing businesses interests have also been pushing back against fair labor practices and protections. Through their strong ties big businesses, they have successfully fought off the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for Americans to join a union.

Last year also marked the 60th anniversary of the ILO Convention 98, which allowed the right to organize and particpate in collective bargaining. The United States is one of several countries who have yet to ratify the measure.

The tribulations stretch from all industries from retail, construction, telecommunications, transportation and service industry. Even if workers form a union in their workplace, employers often exploit the current regulations to challenge their right to bargain collectively. Many employers often intentionally engages in fatalistic negotiations to prevent their first contract, allowing companies to challenge a union’s status if no agreement is reached in 12 months.

The loophole has resulted in 44 percent of first contract negotiations failing, the ITUC said. They added that only one in seven petitions filed to the National Labor Relations Board are able to secure a contract.

This year’s ITUC survey shows that the majority of the world’s workers still lack effective protection of their rights to organise trade unions and bargain collectively,” said Gus Ryder, the ITUC general secretary. This is a major factor in the long-term increase in economic inequality within and between countries.”

Basically, the new report illustrates and confirms what anyone working within the labor movement already knows: Public and private workers face massive resistance around the world while risking their lives to improve their work situations. With increasing attacks from employers and unfavorable legislation, the onslaught to erode labor rights continues on all fronts.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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