Posted 11 months ago on June 22, 2012, 3:57 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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The Quiet Extermination of Labor Rights From Human Rights
Friday, 22 June 2012 09:09 By Mark Ames, The Daily Banter | Op-Ed
Progressive intellectuals have been acting very bipolar towards labor lately, characterized by wild mood swings ranging from the “We’re sorry we abandoned labor, how could we!” sentiment during last year’s Wisconsin uprising against Koch waterboy Scott Walker, to the recent “labor is dead/it’s all labor’s fault” snarling after the recall vote against Gov. Walker failed.
It must be confusing and a bit daunting for those deep inside the labor movement, all these progressive mood swings. At the beginning of this month, New York Times’ columnist Joe Nocera wrote a column about having a “V-8 Moment” over the abandonment of labor unions, an abandonment that was so thorough and so complete that establishment liberals like Nocera forgot they’d ever abandoned labor in the first place!
The intellectual-left’s wild mood swings between unrequited love towards labor unions, and unrequited contempt, got me wondering how this abandonment of labor has manifested itself. While progressives and labor are arguing, sometimes viciously, over labor’s current sorry state, one thing progressives haven’t done is serious self-examination on how and where this abandonment of labor manifests itself, how it affects the very genetic makeup of liberal assumptions and major premises.
So I did a simple check: I went to the websites of three of the biggest names in liberal activist politics: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU. Checking their websites, I was surprised to find that not one of those three organizations lists labor as a major topic or issue that it covers.
Go to Amnesty International’s home page at www.amnesty.org. On the right side, under “Human Rights Information” you’ll see a pull-down menu: “by topic.” Does labor count as a “Human Rights topic” in Amnesty’s world? I counted 27 “topics” listed by Amnesty International, including “Abolish the death penalty”, “Indigenous Peoples”, “ “Children and Human Rights” and so on. Nowhere do they have “labor unions” despite the brutal, violent experience of labor unions both here and around the world. It’s not that Amnesty’s range isn’t broad: For example, among the 27 topics there are “Women’s rights”, “Stop Violence Against Women” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. There’s even a topic for “Business and Human Rights”—but nothing for labor.
Puzzled, I called Alex Edwards, Amnesty’s Media Relations guy in Washington DC, to ask him why labor unions didn’t rate important enough as a “topic” on Amnesty’s “list of topics.” Edwards was confused, claimed that he was totally unaware that there was a “list of topics” on Amnesty’s home page, and promised to get back to me. I haven’t heard back from him.
Next, I checked Human Rights Watch. From my experience in Russia and Eastern Europe, I’ve learned to expect less from HRW than I would from Amnesty—my memory of HRW during the Kosovo conflict and in others is that, when called to, HRW acts as a propaganda arm for the liberal hawk war party. But HRW has also done a lot of important good work in areas not covered by the press, and they’re certainly better than most—so does Human Rights Watch consider labor unions an important human rights issue? Checking Human Rights Watch’s homepage (www.hrw.org), there’s a tab listing “topics”—14 topics in all. Once again, labor is not listed among Human Rights Watch’s covered “topics.” Instead, Human Rights Watch lists everything from “Children’s Rights” to “Disability Rights” to “LGBT Rights” and “Women’s Rights”—along with “Terrorism”, “Counterterrorism” and, I shit you not, “Business”—as vital human rights topics. But not labor. “Business”—but not “Labor.”
On the advice of an old friend, Jan Frel, I read an excellent book on the human rights industry, James Peck’s “Ideal Illusions,” which helps answer why labor rights have been airbrushed out of the language of human rights. It wasn’t always this way: Economic rights and workplace rights were for decades at the very heart of the human rights movement. This was officially enshrined in 1948, when the United Nations adopted a 30-point “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” putting labor rights and economic equality rights alongside those we’re more familiar with today, like freedom of expression, due process, religion and so on. But somehow, labor rights and economic justice have been effectively amputated from the human rights agenda and forgotten about, in tandem with the American left’s abandonment of labor.
In Peck’s history, Human Rights Watch stands out as a force for rank neoliberalism, a major player in the extermination-by-omission of labor rights and economic equality rights from the language of human rights. How this happened sheds at least a bit more light on how the left abandoned labor.
Aryeh Neier, founder of Human Rights Watch and its executive director for 12 years, doesn’t hide his contempt for the idea of economic equality as one of the key human rights. Neier is so opposed to the idea of economic equality that he even equates the very idea of economic equality and justice with oppression—economic rights to him are a violation of human rights, rather than essential human rights, thereby completely inverting traditional left thinking. Here’s what Neier wrote in his memoir, Taking Liberties: “The concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic… Authoritarian power is probably a prerequisite for giving meaning to economic and social rights.”
Neier here is aping free-market libertarian mandarins like Friedrich von Hayek, or Hayek’s libertarian forefathers like William Graham Sumner, the robber baron mandarin and notorious laissez-faire Social Darwinist. As with Neier, William Graham Sumner argued that liberty has an inverse relationship to economic equality; according to Sumner, the more economic equality, the less liberty; whereas the greater the inequality in a society, the more liberty its individuals enjoy. It’s the fundamental equation underlying all libertarian ideology and politics—a robber baron’s ideology at heart. Neier goes further, explicitly rejecting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because nine of its 30 articles focus on economic rights as human rights. Neier objects to that, singling out for censure “such economic issues as a right to work; to social security; and to an adequate standard of living.” The human rights article on “a right to work” that Neier dismisses as “authoritarian” is Article 23, and it reads:
“Article 23 (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
It’s interesting that Neier rejects Article 23, the article on labor, which he mislabels as “a right to work”, because back in the 1970s, when Neier was executive director of the ACLU, he supported big business’s “Right To Work” anti-labor laws, against the rest of the left and the ACLU, which at the time still supported labor rights as civil rights. The so-called “Right To Work” laws are grossly misnamed—they’re really laws designed to bust unions by making it even more difficult for them to organize worker power against the overwhelming power of the corporation. It was corporate PR flaks hired to deceive and conceal the real purpose of those laws who came up with the false name “Right To Work” laws. Fred Koch, father of Charles and David Koch and one of the founders of the John Birch Society, got his start in rightwing politics as a leader of the “Right To Work” movement in Kansas in the mid-1950s.
Less than twenty years after Fred Koch fought to destroy labor rights through “Right To Work” laws, the executive director of the ACLU, Aryeh Neier—the same Aryeh Neier who later led Human Rights Watch— colluded with William Buckley to push the ACLU rightward against labor by getting the ACLU to represent big business and “Right To Work” laws, under the guise of “protecting free speech”—the same bullshit pretense always used by lawyers and advocates to help big business crush labor and democracy. This “free speech” pretense is the basis on which the ACLU currently supports the Citizens United decision, which effectively legalized the transformation of America into an oligarchy.