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Why Labor Organizing Is a Civil Right—and Why Ann Coulter Is Wrong

On Thursday, I published an op-ed in The New York Times with Moshe Marvit, a labor and job discrimination attorney, arguing that we should amend the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination against workers trying to organize a union. Under current labor laws, dismissing an employee for union activities is technically illegal, but the law is routinely broken because the penalties are so weak. In the op-ed and a new book, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, we argue that the opportunity to organize in the workplace is a fundamental human right that deserves protection under the Civil Rights Act, which has much more powerful sanctions than our labor laws.

Labor and civil rights leaders have generally been supportive. In the days since publication of the op-ed, Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, endorsed the concept of amending the Civil Rights Act to protect the fundamental right of labor organizing. The other big labor federation, Change to Win, republished the Times op-ed on its Web site. And gender, race, and politics scholar Melissa Harris-Perry articulated the case on her MSNBC show. The book itself has blurbs from a broad cross-section of civil rights and labor advocates, including Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Amy B. Dean, former president and CEO of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, and David Madland of the Center for American Progress.

But conservative opponents of civil rights and labor have vigorously denounced the idea. For example, commentator Ann Coulter argued on FOX Business that Democrats “have forgotten what the purpose of the Civil Rights Act was.” She suggested, “civil rights is for blacks,” and complained, “now they want to call everything a civil right, whether it’s women or immigrants, and now labor unions?”

Coulter’s argument involves a classic divide and conquer strategy.  Conservatives are terrified of the idea of a revived labor movement, which, in its heyday, brought America a host of progressive social legislation, from the Civil Rights Act to Medicare. To divide natural allies, Coulter argued not only that labor shouldn’t be included under the Civil Rights Act, but also women, and Latinos as well.

So is it proper to include labor organizing as a civil right? The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” And an ongoing case—involving Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.—illustrates the strong connection between labor and people of color in modern times.

At Pomona, a wealthy and prestigious liberal-arts college with a strong progressive reputation, dining-hall workers, many of them Latino immigrants, have been trying to organize a union for two years, an effort the College administration has strongly opposed. The National Labor Relations Board General Counsel has alleged unfair labor practices, suggesting that an employee, Christian Torres, was told to take off his union button, or he would not be promoted.

In the middle of the union drive, Pomona fired 17 workers for failing to provide documentation of their legal status. Many of these workers had been with Pomona for years. “We were here for a very long time and there never was a complaint,” Torres told The New York Times. A leader of the union movement, Torres was one of those fired. According to the Times, Pomona also began enforcing a rule barring dining-hall workers from talking with students in the cafeteria during breaks, a rule students saw as an effort to stop unionizing. Pomona officials claim that the firing of the workers during the union drive is merely a coincidence, originating from an employee complaint about undocumented workers.

The case illustrates the deep connection between the labor movement, the immigrant-rights movement, and the civil-rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that black Americans and labor unions had strong common interests. He told the AFL-CIO in 1961, “the duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.” The same can be said of Latino immigrants, who are disproportionately a working people and also disproportionately benefit from being in trade unions.

If Pomona is ultimately found to have broken labor laws and unfairly fired union supporters, it would have to pay a very small price, mitigated back wages, and would likely save a lot of money if the firings were to prevent workers from organizing and receiving a middle-class wage. If this could happen at a liberal college like Pomona, how much worse is it for average workers trying to organize amoral corporations which have powerful incentives to do everything necessary to keep unions out? Repeated hundreds of times over, these types of experiences help explains why private-sector unionization has plummeted from 35 percent in the 1950s to 7 percent today—and why the American middle class continues to shrink. They also help explain why labor organizing should be part of the Civil Rights Act.

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