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Human Rights are Union Rights

Are human rights related to trade union power? Do both march in tandem around the globe? For nearly two centuries the answer was almost always a resounding "Yes!" On every continent, the growth of organized labor seemed to herald the emancipation of common people and the demise of their oppressors.

Today we live in an era of global human rights. War criminals are put on trial in The Hague. Women's rights are on the social and political agenda in the Middle East. From Burma to Nigeria, the world pays close attention to the free speech rights of political dissidents. Thousands of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) expose human rights violations and promote social, economic, and legal standards aimed at benefiting those who toil in factories in poor countries.

Some 182 labor and human rights codes of conduct have been adopted by corporations and industry associations around the globe. Prodded by groups like the Workers Rights Consortium and the Ethical Trading Initiative, some corporations promise to pay living wages, open their factories to monitors, and even provide employees a voice in the workplace. Reebok, the multinational sportswear firm, advertises its corporate code as being "based on the core principles" of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The company markets its soccer balls and other goods with a "Guaranteed: Manufactured without Child Labor" label.

But sensitivity to human rights has done nothing to staunch trade unionism's worldwide decline. The International Labor Organization reports that unions are in retreat in most nations. During the 1990s union membership fell to less than 20% of workers in 48 out of 92 countries.