Cornell University

February 22 2010

Old Problem, New Look

Workers' rights are human rights, according to book by Gross

Every day, in nearly every corner of the American workplace, workers' rights are violated by the free market economic philosophy that allows corporations to flourish.

So argues James A. Gross in "A Shameful Business:  The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace," published this year by ILR Press.

"The tragic injustice is that so many working men and women are resigned to having little or no control over their workplace lives," he said.

Management rights, not workers' rights, have the upper hand in the American workplace, Gross said in an interview.

Some trace that to Ronald Reagan's presidency, but it goes back hundreds of years to the nation’s founding, he said.

"Economic development always gets priority -- always has and always will," Gross said.

Part of Gross' motivation for the book, he said, "is to create a little turmoil."

"If you want to change things, a first step is to change the argument.  Create a new way of looking at an old problem, change the way people think about it.  And this is the new way -- workers right as human rights."

The United States holds itself up as a model of workplace rights, but falls far short of standards set by the International Labour Organization, for example. 

Consider "employment at will," Gross ventures.  Unless protected by a union, any worker can be fired at any time for nearly any reason.  Or, for no reason.

Employment at will, he writes, "is an American practice that violates ... democratic values in a most fundamental way.  It is a classic example of autocracy at the workplace."

So is prohibiting unionism, manipulating behavior through "best practices" and placing the burden of proof for workplace health hazards on employees, Gross said.

Many employers function in a "work now, grieve later" mode, firing or disciplining workers who turn down dangerous work, Gross said.

" 'Do the work and risk my life or refuse the work and risk my job' ? that shouldn't be a choice anybody has to make," he said in an interview. "That's an indecent dilemma to put workers in and it violates their human rights?under certain circumstances, it can be a crime against humanity.?

Corporations have convinced many employees that the human resources department has their best interests at heart, Gross said.

"Despite its mythological image of being the internal champion for employees, human resources is, as it always has been, an employer tool to increase production and profits and to reinforce employer power and control at the workplace."