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A Recommitment to the American Ideal That Labor Rights Are Human Rights

John Nichols, 3/11/13

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The makers of We Are Wisconsin—the critically acclaimed documentary about the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising and its aftermath—are sponsoring screenings of the film Monday in communities across the country as part of a National Day of Recommitment to labor rights.

“The day is the second anniversary of the signing by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin Act 10, which ended 60 years of progress for Wisconsin workers,” note the filmmakers. “The Walker assault led to battles all over America, challenging us all to stand up for working families, and to organize to put our country back on the right track.”

“Recommitment” is well-chosen word.

Despite the battering that unions have taken in recent years—not just in Wisconsin but nationally—a recommitment to labor rights is really a renewal of ideas and values that America once exported to the world.

There was a time, within the living memory of millions of Americans, when this country championed democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to organize in the same breath.

When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides worked with Japanese citizens to write a Constitution that would assure Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy was replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers would need to have a voice in the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”

When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides urged German citizens to write a Constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with a democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to have a voice in the new Germany, they included a provision that explicitly declared: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”

When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

For generations, Americans accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country counseled other countries on how to forge civil and democratic societies, Americans recognized that the right to organize a trade union—and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies—must be protected.

Now, with those rights under assault, it is wise, indeed, to recommit to the American ideal that working people must have a right to organize and to make their voices heard in a free and open society. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said fifty years ago: “History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

History remembers, as should we. A recommitment to labor rights is a recommitment to ideals that enlarged America and make real the promise of democracy.

(As part of the National Day of Recommitment, We Are Wisconsin showings will be held across the United States. For more information on National Day of Recommitment events, go to: wearewisconsinthefilm.com/.)

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