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Human Rights and Labor Solidarity

Susan L. Kang analyzes comparative case studies of campaigns by trade unions to link local labor rights disputes to international human rights frameworks. She finds that contingent political incentives, rather than normative arguments, compel governments to make reforms to better protect these fundamental human rights.

Human Rights and Labor Solidarity
Trade Unions in the Global Economy

Susan L. Kang

2012 | 336 pages | Cloth $75.00
Political Science / Public Policy / Economics
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. The Precarious Position of Trade Union Rights in the Global Political Economy
Chapter 2. Negotiations and Norms: The Development of Trade Union Rights in International Law and Institutions
Chapter 3. International Institutions and Their Protections of Trade Union Rights
Chapter 4. South Korea: International Ambitions and the Postdevelopmental State
Chapter 5. United Kingdom: New Labour and New Labor Rights?
Chapter 6. Canada: Federalism and Stalled Compliance
Conclusion. International Norms, Trade Union Rights, and Countering Neoliberalism

I. Kucera's Measure of Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining
II. Number of Unions/Unionization Rate in Korea: 1987-2003
Percentage of GPD Growth in Korea, 1961-2006
III. British Columbia Annual Growth, in Percentage of Provincial GDP
IV. Case Disputes and U.S. Law


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This project was inspired by my brief personal participation in the United States labor movement. Through an internship with the Service Employees International Union in college and later activism and volunteer work with a local AFSCME and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), I first encountered the everyday challenges that workers face as they attempt to exercise their basic rights to form, join, and act within their unions. During my participation in the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program in Seattle in 2001, fellow interns and I worked on a ballot initiative campaign that sought to guarantee legal collective bargaining rightsfor public home-care workers. Although this campaign to support a ballot initiative was eventually successful, I realized how precarious workers' positions truly were. While volunteering with a HERE local, I saw an International Labour Organization poster declaring that "Workers' Rights Are Human Rights." For the first time I recognized the connection between the difficulties of American trade union rights and larger struggles for human rights transnationally, which I had learned about through the 1990s anti-sweatshop movement. This connection with U.S. workers' situation led to my exploration of various international legal instruments to protect labor rights, especially the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association.

Although this book focuses on cases outside the United States, my research and interests have always kept the U.S. comparison close by. Problems with trade union rights in the United States are largely marginalized; however, recent events have brought more attention to drastic shortcomings of U.S. law vis-à-vis our own trade union traditions. While the debate over the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, first introduced in Congress in 2007, became dominated by antiquated fears of authoritarian union struggles, I could not have predicted how important the legal questions of this book would become with the sudden explosion of public-sector trade union activity in early 2011, in places such as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and many other states. Like every legislature examined in this book, the legislatures in these states engaged in extralegal behavior to pass bills that decimated public workers' basic trade union rights. This suggests that even a country as detached from international norms as the United States still operates within the broader global normative frameworks. More information on the ways in which the case studies in this book relate to the United States can be found in Appendix IV.

The primary focus in this book seeks to reconcile the competing logics of international relations in terms of state behavior. I investigate the competing influence of a well-established, but poorly enforced international norm on trade union rights against the more pressing concerns about economic competitiveness. Prior studies have demonstrated that normative arguments are not sufficient to change state behavior, but the cases in this book suggest that the transnational normative negotiation process that states participate in with international organizations can influence state behavior, under specific conditions. Because trade union rights protection is seen as a possible threat to a state's economic competitiveness, legal changes that better protect them require a significant overlap with a stronger state interest. Unlike the European Union, however, which provides clear material incentives for membership-seeking states to comply with certain democratic norms, U.S. institutions that protect trade union rights have little to offer. Thus, incentives for change are largely external to international institutions, and often relate to existing political goals and state institutions. Therefore, while the normative aspect of trade union rights, as part of the larger framework of universal human rights, does not always influence state behavior, this book demonstrates how it can serve as a possible strategic tool for activists in larger campaigns.

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