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Labor Rights as Civil Rights

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Jake Blumgart with an excellent discussion of why labor rights should be considered civil rights:

It is for these reasons that Kahlenberg and Marvit argue that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act should be extended to cover labor organizing. In Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right (available April 1), the authors claim it is time to change both the broken legal system that ineffectually “protects” American workers like Ballard, and the tactics of reformers who want to change it.

Kahlenberg and Marvit first argue the legal case. Title VII provides a powerful defense against discrimination based on race, sex, age, and religion (among others). Under the Civil Rights Act the employee can opt out of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission process (close to the civil rights equivalent of the NLRB) and take the case to a federal court, before a jury, where they are provided with the means to retain a lawyer if they do not have the necessary funds.

Such suits are not an easy win. The opponent is almost always a business with substantial legal and monetary resources. But the incentives are not one-sided: Employees stand to win much more than $5,000. As Kahlenberg and Marvit note, “a plaintiff may be awarded a variety of remedies, including back pay (with interest), reinstatement or front pay, equitable relief, compensatory damages, and punitive damages.” Lost overtime, health and pension benefits are included, as are “money damages to cover emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish.” These cases also make the right of “discovery” available, opening up internal documents and data to the court and the public—a prospect many companies dread. In short, firing workers would no longer be a painless way to stamp out a union organizing drive.

The central question is this: is the decision to join a labor union one that is simply an expression of one’s work preferences or should it be part of a larger right to economic justice, to feed your family, to clothe and house yourself in a respectable manner, and the right to a job. If you believe these things should be rights and not strictly an optional program for those who capitalists decide have worked hard enough and complained little enough to earn a salary, then the categorizing the right to a union as a civil right makes a sense.

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