Workers Rights Are Human Rights

On December 10th we acknowledge Human Rights Day. Established by the United Nations in 1948, the Declaration chronicled fundamental human rights to be protected throughout the world.  Article 23 addresses the right to work and to unionize, to have fair pay and safe working conditions and as it is written: “ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”. 

On Friday December 2cd, President Biden signed a bill into law that blocked a railroad-workers strike. The House had passed a second bill, which would have given the workers the paid sick leave they requested, but the Senate did not approve that concession. 

Clearly the passage of the bill was a win for corporate profit and dealt a blow to railroad workers and to our workforce in general. It set a dangerous precedent that Congress may strip workers of their right to strike. By ignoring the requests for seven days of paid sick leave and safer working conditions, we continue to rob workers of basic human dignity.

We must also acknowledge workers who are misclassified as independent contractors by employers seeking to cut costs. These workers lose much of the social safety net granted to those classified as employees and are among the most disadvantaged workers in our country. They are shut out of minimum wage, overtime pay, workplace health and safety requirements, and are ineligible for unemployment insurance. They are also not eligible for organizing rights or anti-discrimination protections.

The Declaration of Human Rights is a proclamation of what can be if we have the will to do so. Workers are not expendable assets to be used for capital gain. Work must be reciprocated in fair and just ways. Human beings deserve dignity. 

Not Far Enough

We’ve come far but not far enough. It pays to know history, even a bit of it. During the Great Depression, the struggle for a living wage and dignity in the workplace culminated in 1930’s Labor Laws. The imbalance of power of desperate workers and company greed forced the government to support the right to unionize and created social security. A forty-hour workweek was mandated, child labor was banned and a federal minimum wage was instituted.

Sounds good, right? While a step in the right direction, companies took to the courts for decades and successfully struck down minimum wage laws. One claim was that companies’ constitutional right to freely contract with workers was taken away.

Caveats to the law became the norm. There were minimum wages for women. There were word games like “they’re not employees, they’re independent contractors”. And there were the Southern Democrats holding on to the racial divide. There was no way they could accept an equal playing field. So the expansively written minimum wage law was whittled down by exclusions. These exclusions omitted occupations held disproportionally by Blacks, Latinos, women and poor. 

The 1963 March on Washington brought another turning point towards human dignity. The Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in public places and prohibited employment discrimination.

Yet industries still exclude workers from fair pay and decent working conditions. If you are a farm or domestic worker, you know what I mean. If you process maple syrup or work in the motion picture industry, you know what I mean. (For a great podcast on this visit Reveal).

We’ve come far but not far enough. The value of human dignity must exceed the drive of greed. And each of us must ensure it. 

A Bit of Concern

On March 10th, the state of Texas is set to re-open all businesses, lifting mask requirements and stripping local authorities of the right to enforce face coverings. People fretting over the economy and weary of state control are rejoicing.

Regardless of where you stand on vaccinations, the reality is that only 15 % of the entire population of the United States has received one and the new virus variants continue to rise. Speculation is that the common flu has been kept in check with the vigorous applications of social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. But the woes of the economy outweigh the human components.

And the Lone Star state and Ole Mississippi are heading down the path of exploiting workers for the sake of the Almighty Dollar.

So when the restaurants and bars are open 100%, and the mask-less servers are scurrying about, will they be offered paid sick leave if they contract covid? 

Will hotels offer housekeeping workers any benefits to offset the risks they run? 

Is anything in place for the caregivers in hospitals if a new wave spikes and demands their super human effort?

And no relief is on the way for the millions soon to face eviction as the federal moratorium on evictions ends this month.

Apparently the game of politics is still more important than human life. During the first year of the pandemic we were led down the path of division by a bully too afraid to face the truth. And now leaders willingly subject our most marginalized people to unnecessary harm.

Someone is exercising a bit of concern, Kroger, the grocery chain in 35 states, will maintain their mask mandate until all frontline workers are vaccinated. 

Here’s to the realization: that what happens to one, happens to all.