Cornell University

September 27 2013

An International Standard

Gross examining American labor policy through lens of human rights

Professor James GrossProfessor James Gross is writing the fourth installment of his multi-volume study of how the National Labor Relations Board makes policy.

"The difference with this book, compared to its predecessors, is that I'll be using an international human rights standard to assess the NLRB's policymaking decisions," he said in an interview.

Gross will reference United Nations' documents with portions dedicated to decent work conditions.

Largely unknown by the public, they include the International Bill of Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.

Dismayed by lack of knowledge about the documents, Gross introduces students and others to what he hopes will become a foundation for workplace rights across the world.

"I'll ask the students, how many of you have discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in high school? Out of 25 students, three or four say that it was mentioned in their social studies class. That's pathetic."

"I have labor groups, union groups I talk to, and when I talk about human rights and this declaration, the overwhelming response is: 'Where can I get a copy of that?' It's sad."

World attention focuses, albeit briefly, on poor workplace conditions only when there is a large death toll, Gross said. More than 1,000 workers died when a Bangladesh factory collapsed in April.

"Every day, around the world and here in the U.S., people are dying at work, but those cases don’t get reported," he said.

"The dramatic events, in a way, distort the seriousness of the health and safety problem … because the everyday events and every day risks some people have to take in order to make a living are marginalized. The core of the problem is not reported in a systematic way," Gross said.

The Bangladesh factory tragedy will be discussed in his Worker's Rights class as searing evidence that "nothing is getting done" for human rights progress in the workplace, he said.

The first three books of Gross's National Labor Relations Board series are:

  • "The Making of the National Labor Relations Board: A Study in Economics, Politics, and the Law, 1933-1937"
  • "The Reshaping of the National Labor Relations Board: National Labor Policy in Transition, 1937-1947"
  • "Broken Promise: The Subversion of American Labor Relations Policy, 1947-1994."