The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

The worst active anti-union law in the United States was not Scott Walker’s recently passed assault on collective bargaining by state employees, but a law that makes many of the most powerful ways for workers to fight back against such a law illegal: the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (wikipedia). That law makes many practical collective responses used by unions around the world illegal acts (technically “unfair labor practices”) in the United States. Nearly all of these are recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of organizing, recognized by international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. Among these actions are:

  • Jurisdictional strikes—A strike to demand that work be performed by members of the union
  • Wildcat strikes—Strikes called from the workplace floor, for new demands or in direct response to events
  • Solidarity strikes—A strike by one workplace in solidarity with a strike at another
  • Political strikes—Strikes in support of demands that extend beyond a single workplace, such as the minimum wage, overtime rights, or national health care
  • Secondary boycotts—The refusal of workers at one company to handle goods from another company during a strike there
  • Secondary picketing—Picketing (say be striking workers at one workplace) intended to get workers at a second shop to engage in a secondary boycott

If you haven’t worked for union or gone out on strike, you probably have never heard this list, and the first items that are illegal probably sound like basic elements of free speech. Harry Truman, whose veto of the Act was overriden, would agree with you. He called the law a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.”

Today, as union members, people who believe in the right of workers to represent themselves, and people who hope for a better life for themselves and their communities debate how to respond to Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin, far too many effective forms of nonviolent collective action require formally breaking the law. Increasing numbers of union activists have brought up the general strike, a coordinated work stoppage by multiple unions, and ideally the public at large, as a means of exerting pressure. General strikes are in fact ideal ways for workers to press demands on a government: Spanish and Italian workers have repeatedly pressed for wage increases through general strikes; Bolivians have used general strikes for a broad range of goals; the French used them to oppose raising the retirement age; and most of Western Europe established the worker protections they enjoy under threat of general strikes. It is indeed an exciting time now in Wisconsin because this extremely powerful tool is being broadly considered. However, incorporated unions have to consider the legal risks in not just calling a general strike, but in taking steps beyond wearing a common color in solidarity (one of the other proposals being planned right now). Meanwhile, right-wing opponents are covering this debate under the headline, “Socialists, Unions Plotting Illegal Strike in Wisconsin.”

We should remember that illegal does not mean immoral, or wrong-headed. Like the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike and the right to strike together to press common demands are basic forms of democracy; they are rights that everyone has, as even our government has recognized at the international level. Rolling back laws that turn rights into crimes should be on our agenda, whether those laws are from 2011 or 1947.

1.3 Million Asians* built this World Cup host

Tommy: Yea, its an Irish ship.
Fabrizio: It’s English…no?
Tommy: No, it was built in Ireland. Fifteen thousand Irishmen built this ship. Solid as a rock.

These lines rolled off the tongues of actors in James Cameron’s 1994 film, showing just how accessible a mentality that’s critical of capitalism (who owns the things a society makes anyway?), of ethnic bias (who are you calling a second class citizen?), and of xenophobia (among white countries, at least) is to Americans today. The RMS Titanic was in fact built in Belfast by Irish workers. Workers and third-class passengers, often Irish, numbered disproportionately among the dead in the ship’s maiden voyage sinking.

Flash forward a century from the Titanic, and we can see that the luxurious extreme of modern life is still often made possible by the hard work of second-class non-citizens. Case in point, the winning bid (official website) to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar.

Qatar is an absolute monarchy, ruled by an Emir and a 35-member Consultative Council, currently appointed. Elections for the Council were promised for 2007, 2008, 2010, and are now promised for 2013, although municipal elections have already been held. Qatar is proposing to build or upgrade twelve stadiums, each with a capacity of 40,000 or more for the 2022 World Cup.

Or rather, Qatar is proposing that foreign workers build or upgrade twelve stadiums. As of 2008, most everyone in Qatar was a foreigner: 1,305,428 people, making up 86.5% of the population, and rising. A year earlier, 92.5% of workers in Qatar were foreign nationals, including 72,765 domestic service workers (International Labour Organization, International labour migration and employment in the Arab region). Population estimates for Qatari citizens alone vary widely, although 180,000 in 2006 is one estimate. Those with citizenship could not fill the stadium seats to be built for the World Cup.

Throughout the region’s tiny monarchies, grouped in the US-allied Gulf Cooperation Council, citizenship coexists with a temporary rotating underclass of workers, who lack the right to organize and do not receive the social benefits they make possible. Their hardworking stays in the region are organized through the Kefala or sponsorship system (some times called Kafeel, the word for sponsor). Sponsored workers have their residence rights strictly conditioned on the approval of their employers. This results in illegal abuses such as “working and living conditions, irregular payment of wages and, in extreme cases, retention of travel documents. Foreign workers are more often than not forced to accept these circumstances having incurred the costs of finding jobs and travelling.” Or as the Guardian puts it less diplomatically:

Workers arrive in the country heavily indebted, having borrowed from moneylenders or mortgaged their land to finance inflated travel and visa costs. Their passports are immediately and customarily confiscated and they are typically forced to sign a revised contract that pays them a significantly lower rate than was originally agreed.

The results are depressingly familiar: unpaid wages, inhumane living conditions, unsafe working conditions and suicides.Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has been referred to as a “death trap for hundreds of thousands of construction workers” from some of the poorest countries in the world. Female domestic workers, meanwhile, are not covered by national labour law – an omission which, as Amnesty International rightly pointed out, “allows employers to exploit, enslave, abuse, assault and injure their domestic workers with virtual impunity”. There is a strong argument for saying that in the worst cases of abuse, the treatment of migrant workers constitutes slavery in international law.

The ILO is forced to make extremely minimal demands for the labor rights of migrants, such as its recent calls for Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to reform the sponsorship system, institute a minimum wage, and allow unions to form. (A theoretical right to unionize was established in 2005, but only applies to worksites with 100 or more Qatari nationals. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center reports no unions have yet formed; more from them here.)

Like the Titanic, the World Cup is the ultimate in luxury. It will be up to a global public to decide whether it can stomach a worldwide party built by rights-free labor. For now, at least, we can stop saying that Qatar is hosting a World Cup, and start saying that Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, and Yemenis are making possible a celebration of sport most of them could never afford to attend.

* Yes, the title is not technically accurate: I know Qatar is in Asia. However there is no short, identifiable word for the vast region that provides migrants to the Middle East monarchies. Maybe they’re should be. Also, I know that more than 1.3 million people (the current number of foreigners present) will have cycled through Qatar during the run-up to its World Cup bid. Sadly, details are hard to come by. Labor history is disadvantaged from the start under conditions of large-scale exploitation.