Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Where do workers' rights come from?

Every American likes to say to himself or herself, "I've got my rights." It's natural to suppose that our constitutional rights travel with us wherever we go.

But this answer is, unfortunately, wrong. The Constitution protects us only from actions by the state, that is, the government. It does not protect us from private employers. If you work for a government, city, state, or federal, you can claim constitutional rights to freedom of speech, to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, to due process, to equality before the law. However, in the private sector the employer had no legal obligation to respect your constitutional rights....

One source of rights in the private sector is the union and the collective bargaining agreement. At this writing, only 7.5% of private sector workers are in a unionized workplace. If you are one of them, it's a good idea to know your contract backward and forward, and to carry a copy on your person at all times....

A second source of rights in the private sector is federal law. These rights were created by struggle. For instance, the struggle for the eight-hour day gained national prominence in 1886, when a sizable portion of the entire labor movement took part in a political strike on its behalf. The international labor holiday, May Day, was one result. Time and a half pay for more than 40 hours of labor in a week was finally recognized by Congress more than fifty years later in the Fair Labor Standards Act (the Wages and Hours Act) of 1938.
-- Labor Law for the Rank & Filer, by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross

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