Labor Unions for America...or the World?

Labor Unions for America...or the World?

Bandow op ed in TCSDaily
March 30, 2007

On Tuesday House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) released "A New Trade Policy for America," which would turn free trade into ever more regulated trade. Their proposal directs the U.S. Trade Representative to "require countries to adopt, maintain and enforce basic international labor standards." <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

This approach seeks to empower a UN body, the International Labor Organization (ILO)—which promulgates rules on everything from child labor to union organizing—more than the U.S. government. This is what organized labor desires; American unions began taking labor controversies to the ILO years ago.


For instance, should employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) be able to unionize? Whether TSA employees should be able to organize is a practical policy question, and similar battles are being waged over the unionization of employees at the Department of Defense. Congress authorized the President Bush to say no when it created the TSA, but House Democrats are now pushing to overturn his decision.

Back in August 2003 the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) filed a complaint with the ILO. In case no. 2292, the ILO reports of complainants over "the recent passage of legislation and preparation of draft laws which exempt a variety of federal employees from the basic rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining."

Big Labor sometimes wins such fights. Mike Hall of the AFL-CIO recently exulted that "Federal courts have ruled against new personnel rules" involving the Defense Department and Homeland Security. In early January the House voted to allow 56,000 TSA screeners to unionize.

And TSA organizing is not the only issue unions have presented to the ILO. In October the AFL-CIO went to the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association complaining of the U.S. government's "violation of fundamental rights of freedom of association and protection of the right to organize and bargain collectively concerning employees classified as 'supervisors' under the National Labor Relations Act."


The National Labor Relations Act governs which employees are guaranteed the right to organize. The original Act mandated unionization for supervisors. But according to the AFL-CIO, "in 1947 a reactionary Congress stripped supervisors of these rights."


The union claimed that this amendment "on its face violates the principles of freedom of association," but chose not challenge this six decade old law. Rather, the union focused on a recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), created by Congress to interpret U.S. labor law. Explained the AFL-CIO:


"It means that employers can fire such 'supervisors' for trade union activity. They can fire supervisors for resisting participation in employers' anti-union activity. And employers can refuse to bargain with unions of supervisors. All this with complete immunity, since supervisors are not 'employees under the Act'--that is, workers protected by the NLRA against discrimination for union activity and workers who, with majority status in a bargaining unit, can compel employers to bargain in good faith with their union."


Managers and "supervisors" possess no such right. In October the NLRB applied this rule to some health professionals. The AFL-CIO expressed its outrage to the ILO: "the Board's 3-2 majority reached beyond the facts to fashion an ideologically driven management agenda to weaken trade unions and collective bargaining."

The union seeks to refight the NLRB case before the ILO. The AFL-CIO spent several pages detailing "ILO, U.N., and regional human rights instruments" in order to demonstrate that the NLRB decision is invalid. Indeed, the AFL-CIO contended, "At every level, the NLRB's [decision] runs afoul of the Committee's criteria."


The AFL-CIO urged the Committee to send a delegation to America. "A direct contact mission will have the added benefit of bringing dramatic public attention to the work of the Committee on Freedom of Association in a country and a labor law community that, lamentably, know little about the ILO and the authoritative role of the Committee on Freedom of Association."

Of course, NLRB decisions are reviewable in U.S. courts. But, unfortunately for the AFL-CIO, the latest agency decision actually reflects an earlier Supreme Court ruling.


In theory, international agencies can help promote individual liberty and economic deregulation. In practice, global institutions are easily captured by professional staffs with their own agendas. That has been evident throughout the UN system. If the ILO has a legitimate role it is dealing with countries where workers have no rights, economic or political. If American unions can raise $104 million to spend directly, and far more to spend indirectly, in one election, they obviously aren't helpless victims of management oppression.