LIVING AND working in Philadelphia, it's hard not to have a sense of history.
Every day, we walk the same streets as the founders of this great nation and look upon the buildings where they worked to shape documents that today, over 200 years later, still provide us with the foundations of our democracy. At Chestnut and Bank is a historic marker indicating that our city was also the birthplace of the American labor movement.
But few Philadelphians are likely to know that this month has a historic significance that is very much related to workers' rights. On Dec. 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt was chairwoman of the group of 11 international representatives who drafted this groundbreaking document, which is the basis for modern human-rights law.
It might surprise you even more to learn that fundamental to that declaration is the concept that all people have rights in regard to employment and economic well-being. Article 23, Item 4 states specifically that "Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests." Other sections speak of "indispensable" economic rights, equal pay for equal work without discrimination, an "adequate" standard of living, "security in the event of unemployment" and freedom from servitude.
As a founding member of the U.N., the United States made a commitment to these rights and principles when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. In doing so, we, as a nation, have said that fundamental human rights include the basic rights of workers to have dignity in the workplace.
Sadly, the U.S., a nation that prides itself on being a world leader, has not been a leader in the area of workers' rights - that is, the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.
Today, close to 60 million U.S. workers say that they would join a union right now if given the opportunity to do so in a fair environment. Yet the system is so broken and so stacked against workers that most cannot do so.
Did you know that 75 percent of employers hire law firms and consulting groups to run anti-union campaigns when workers seek to organize, and that a quarter of employers illegally fire workers for union activity? U.S. workers are frequently unable to exercise a right that, according to our support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. seeks to protect. Whether you count yourself pro-union or not, this is really about the right to make a choice.
Our country also lags behind many other industrialized nations in a whole host of categories used to measure the well-being of workers. In terms of amount of vacation time and paid leave allotted, Americans are among the lowest-compensated workers in the industrialized world, but our productivity and hours worked are among the highest! This is to say nothing of the problem of workers with no health insurance, which is well documented.
The record of the U.S. on workers' rights is unacceptable. Both Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Organization find the U.S. out of compliance with internationally recognized standards. However, it's never too late for change. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act that, among other things, calls for stiffer penalties for employers who illegally discriminate against workers who exercise their right to organize.
And last week, to commemorate the 59th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a historic meeting of over 200 international leaders convened in Washington with the purpose of addressing workers' rights as human rights and discussing how the two can be advanced around the world.
Meeting in the U.S. is a start - raising the level of protections for workers in the U.S. is the ultimate goal. *
Pat Eiding is the president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO. Ellen Slack is a member of AFSCME Local 590 and sits on the executive board of the Philadelphia chapter of Labor Union Women.