Fighting for the Right to Organize

What is a union anyway?

In its simplest form a union is a group of workers who have decided to bargain to protect and further their rights and interests collectively. The purpose of a labor union is to raise the standard of living for working people, including things like wages, benefits, and working conditions
Modern day unions often get a bad rap; they are blamed for rising production costs, unnecessary workforce disruptions and plant closures. Indeed, some of this criticism may be valid and usually points to an imbalance of power in the worker/management relationship. To truly understand the value of the union we need to look back to a time when a different type of power imbalance existed. There were no unions, and the workers were completely at the mercy of owners.
For a quick look at the history of organized labour from the perspective of organized labour check out this video by UFCWLocal324.

So without unions we see things like:

  • Low wages, to the point where working people struggled to earn a living wage, much less to be able to break free from rampant and persistent poverty
  • Long hours without breaks or overtime
  • Child labour and bonded (slave) labour
  • No medical insurance or maternity leave
  • No safety standards resulting in the injury or death of countless workers
  • Most importantly, no right to organize

Wait a minute, aren’t some of these issues resolved by governments? Aren’t they the ones who determine minimum wages and write workplace safety laws? Not really, in fact before unions were formed most governments actively worked with industries to prevent and disrupt their formation.
In fact, the formation of unions didn’t involve only peaceful protest and boardroom negotiation – there was police and industry violence, strike-breakers and many other horrors. The unions of course managed to persevere and became stronger. They successfully fought for higher pay and better conditions. In fact they have become so powerful and have been so successful at ameliorating conditions that some have begun to question whether or not they are still relevant in our society.
Unfortunately, the issue of whether or not unions have become too powerful is a uniquely first world problem. When you travel to a third world country, it can be like moving backwards through time.
While standards vary from dramatically from country to country, often you see a complete lack of attention paid to workers’ rights, health or safety. Industry is relentlessly driven to cut costs and provide cheaper products. Of course, many of those products end up being sold in the same rich countries where unions have been able to eradicate these problems. In order to continually consume these cheap (and often low quality) products western society has simply turned a blind eye to inhumane conditions.
One of the most glaring examples of the absolute disregard for worker safety in recent memory is the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory and the deadly fire at the Tazreen garment factory.
The media spotlight that descended on the fashion industry highlighted some of the common labour practices including:

  • Low wages, to the point where working people struggled to earn a living wage, much less to be able to break free from rampant and persistent poverty
  • Long hours without breaks or overtime
  • Child labour and bonded (slave) labour
  • No medical insurance or maternity leave
  • No safety standards resulting in the injury or death of countless workers
  • Most importantly, no right to organize

Sound familiar?

After the Rana Plaza Disaster, many international observers have focused on the garment industry in Bangladesh. Here Human Rights Watch discusses the status of some of these reforms and the reasons why being able to form a union is integral to employees being able to adequately protect themselves from the industry.

While we normally focus on the garment industry here at Trusted Clothes, the reality of the horrors perpetrated in the names of economic development are present throughout the majority of industries working in the third world including, construction, agriculture and manufacturing.
When we celebrate workers this May Day I will be trying to keep in mind that for many of us the humane standards of our working environment have become common place, but for the rest of the world the fight to organize and unionize is still just beginning.

These are just some of my thoughts.  I realize that people have complex and varied feelings about unions and their roles both in western society and the rest of the world.  I would love to hear some of your reactions to my dithering below.

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