Political Animal


June 24, 2012 12:25 PM How the human rights industry betrayed its history and sold out labor

By Kathleen Geier

Back in grad school, I took a class in human rights policy. One aspect of the class that fascinated me was the prominence of labor and economic rights in so many of the seminal human rights documents. While the U.S. has a strong civil liberties tradition, starting with the Bill of Rights, our labor and economic rights tradition, sadly, is much weaker. And yet, international human rights law is very different. The founding international human rights document, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes the right to food, housing, and medical care; the right to social security; right to join a union and to strike; and even the right to a paid vacation. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) includes the aforementioned provisions but, unlike the Universal Declaration, has a mechanism for monitoring the parties to the treaty to help realize its implementation. The U.S. adopted the Universal Declaration and has signed but not ratified the ICESCR.

I have long wondered why the major human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights have never seemed to pay the slightest attention to labor rights, even though, to their credit, over the years these organizations have expanded their scope to include nontraditional human rights areas like women’s rights, disability rights, GLBTQ rights, and the like. How did that come to be, I wondered?

Well, I don’t have to wonder any more, after having read Mark Ames’ amazing blog post on exiled.com (H/T: Corey Robin).

Ames definitely has the goods. No, it’s not our imagination, the human rights groups could not have more contempt for the concept of labor rights if they tried:

Go to Amnesty International’s home page at www.amnesty.org. On the right side, under “Human Rights Information” you’ll see a pull-down menu: “by topic.” Does labor count as a “Human Rights topic” in Amnesty’s world? I counted 27 “topics” listed by Amnesty International, including “Abolish the death penalty”, “Indigenous Peoples”, “ “Children and Human Rights” and so on. Nowhere do they have “labor unions” despite the brutal, violent experience of labor unions both here and around the world. It’s not that Amnesty’s range isn’t broad: For example, among the 27 topics there are “Women’s rights”, “Stop Violence Against Women” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. There’s even a topic for “Business and Human Rights”—but nothing for labor.
Puzzled, I called Alex Edwards, Amnesty’s Media Relations guy in Washington DC, to ask him why labor unions didn’t rate important enough as a “topic” on Amnesty’s “list of topics.” Edwards was confused, claimed that he was totally unaware that there was a “list of topics” on Amnesty’s home page, and promised to get back to me. I haven’t heard back from him.

But sadly, it’s not just Amnesty. The two other leading human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, are not any better. So what is going on here? Ames fills in the history, and it’s not pretty. One of the chief villains here is Aryeh Neier, founder of Human Rights Watch. Ames writes that, under Neier’s leadership, Human Rights Watch as “a force for rank neoliberalism, a major player in the extermination-by-omission of labor rights and economic equality rights from the language of human rights.” Neier has even gone so far as to equate economic justice with oppression and to specifically rejection the founding document on which all international human rights law is based — the Universal Declaration, which I referenced above — because of its provisions for labor and economic rights.

Before coming to Human Rights Watch, Neier was the executive director of the ACLU, and while he was there, he pushed that organization in a rightward, anti-labor direction, teaming with William F. Buckley in a campaign to promote anti-union “right to work” laws. Another name that comes up in this context is former Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff — now there’s a blast from the past! Jesus H., that man was and is a tool! I just knew him as one of those ultra-annoying allegedly liberal right-to-lifers, and also a big fan of the Iraq War, but here it turns out he was also a big fan of the right to work crusade going as far back as the 70s. He’s now a fellow at the Cato Institute. I just wonder why it took so long.

Ames’ post is a depressing read, to be sure, but it’s essential history. We labor types need to know who’s got our backs, when it comes down to it, and why and how some of our former allies who are still at least nominally on the left lost their way. And the story of how human rights came to exclude labor rights is just one chapter of in the tragic story of how labor became marginalized by liberals and leftists as a whole — a book that someone badly needs to write, and that will make very painful reading indeed.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Joel on June 24, 2012 2:14 PM:

    Sorry. I'm calling bullshit on this:


    "The ACLU has championed the right of workers to organize unions since its inception more than 90 years ago, beginning with efforts to counter the vehement anti-union crusades of the 1920s.

    The ACLU continues to support the rights of employees, both public and private, to organize unions and bargain collectively. Collective bargaining statutes provide critical and necessary protection for workers who exercise basic civil rights, in particular, the rights of speech, association, and petition. Efforts to strip workers of these protections have no place in our democracy."

  • Joel on June 24, 2012 2:18 PM:

    Just to be clear, I'm calling bullshit on your link, not on the ACLU.

    Maybe Kathleen could do a little research on her own? Google is your friend, Kathleen. It took me less than 10 seconds to come up with the above link.

    I expect higher standards from Washington Monthly, both as a subscriber and as a reader of this blog.

  • MBunge on June 24, 2012 2:28 PM:

    We can all agree, however, that Nat Hentoff and other Hentoffian leftists are massive tools, right? I read an editorial from Hentoff recently that blasted Obama for trampling on civil liberties. Nothing objectionable about that. He then specifically called for the election of Mitt Romney because he thinks Romney will be better on civil liberties than Obama.

    Open mouth. Insert gun.


  • martin on June 24, 2012 2:33 PM:

    As a former union member and a longtime ACLU member (and former affiliate board member), I have to say thanks for that depressing story. In defense of the ACLU, as Joel notes above, they have a long history with labor unions. They first came to Alabama in the 30's to protect union workers, pre-Scottsboro Boys. There was even a Workers Rights Project in the 90's, which was spun off into a separate organization.

    To really know what the ACLU is doing, you have to check what is happening at the affiliate level. Affiliates have often been at odds with National over various policies.

    Nonetheless, the ACLU's money=speech policy has always been troublesome publicly and within the organization. The nice thing about the ACLU you can object to a policy and work to turn it around without being kicked out of the organization. As we used to say, "No one agrees with all of the ACLU's policies."

  • jjm on June 24, 2012 2:48 PM:

    I recall the ACLU defending the National Socialists' 'right' to hold a march in Skokie, Illinois. For the life of me I could not see why they went to the mat for THOSE guys, when there were so many others they should have supported and who sought civil rights and freedom speech at the same moment.

    I guess they are the original of 'fair and balanced' ...

  • Paul Dirks on June 24, 2012 3:55 PM:

    Defending the National Socialists' 'right' to hold a march in Skokie......

    Standing on a principle independent of who may benefit in the short term is precisely how one gains strength in the long term.

    Their willingness to be 'contrarian' at that time is one of the reason's I'm willing to support them now. Some issues don't cleave left/right the way we like to pretend they do.

  • martin on June 24, 2012 4:43 PM:

    Re: Skokie: It is not as if they were the ONLY people the ACLU was defending.

  • j on June 24, 2012 4:52 PM:

    Is there any kind of action plan by the people, the right have taken our jobs, our pensions, our paid leave and now they will take our health care and give themselves huge tax breaks when they pay less that they ever have.
    Where is Occupy Wall Street? I think right now they would get more followers than ever and they were awesome!

  • Kevin Jon Heller on June 24, 2012 5:00 PM:

    This post, like Ames', fundamentally misrepresents the work of both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Interested readers should view my post at Opinio Juris:


  • Tom Bisson on June 24, 2012 5:57 PM:

    Thanks for this post. I had never thought of this before but now that you mention it, the omission is obvious - and it angers me.

  • angler on June 24, 2012 6:18 PM:

    If HRW and ACLU remade themselves as labor advocates they would be better on labor issues. The Exiled's series exposing the hypocrisy of liberal institutions and writers will eventually make you sick of their schtick. See their attack on Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake and Andy Stern, former president of the SEIU for anti-labor perfidism.

    Could the human rights community do better? Surely, but down this road lies the don't vote for Democrats, and certainly not Obama, theory of purifying the left and then . . . magical victory.

  • Rabbler on June 24, 2012 6:21 PM:

    I've been saying for years that a social progressive who isn't an economic progressive is no progressive at all. Money is where the rubber hits the road. Would you rather vote and ride in the front of the bus or have good health care and a middle class life?

  • Snipe on June 24, 2012 6:31 PM:

    Those institutions on the left seem to take up immigration at the same time they were leaving labor rights behind. Now for sure they will fight for the immigrants’ right to labor, when that in itself has been a competitor to the traditional working class of native born Americans. Unmitigated third world immigration has driven down wages and driven up unemployment. It has hurt unions because it is more difficult to organize if a new pools of cheap labor are always on hand to import across the border. Even Caesar Chavez was for immigration control, because he couldn’t organize the farm workers if the large farms could just bring more bus loads of Mexicans across the border.

    I think that many liberals have left the traditional working class left behind. They pursue policies that are hostile to the working class, like open borders. They are hostile to religion and traditional values. They pursue fetishes like busting damns for salmon or the delta smelt, they want “green energy” that drives up energy costs for the working class, and they are obsessed with high speed rail. If you are a working class Democrat in the State of California, what has the liberal left done for you? Wages are down, unemployment is up. The price of housing is artificially high because of environmental restrictions; the price of energy is artificially high because of the greens. And even if you can afford a house and the price to turn the lights on, try having kids and sending them to a public school where many students don’t speak English.

    You can’t have everything you want. It seems labor has been cast away in favor of open borders. The votes from new immigrants are going to outweigh the votes for organized labor, so it is a win for them politically. They will be able to keep power, but at what cost? And who is left to care for the traditional working class Americans?

  • KM on June 24, 2012 7:13 PM:

    Over the years, Human Rights Watch has published the pro-labor work of Lance Compa, a former union staffer who now teaches at Cornell.
    Nevertheless, I think there is a disconnect between a lot of organizations on the left and labor unions. Perhaps, after all, unions have their own money, so the ACLU doesn't feel a need to support picketers' First Amendment rights, since the unions will. I don't know. It's worth exploring.

  • Texas Aggie on June 24, 2012 8:31 PM:

    Snipe seems to make the same mistake that a lot of other antiimmigrant commenters on various blogs make. Illegal immigrants who by and large take the dirtiest of blue collar jobs are not causing unemployment. If they were, you would have expected the unemployment rates of Georgia and Alabama to plummet once they drove out the illegal immigrants so that good Americans could take the jobs. That didn't happen.

    Another thing to look at is when illegal immigrants are driven out, the local community declines because not only does no one else want those jobs so they aren't filled, but the people who were working at them spent the money locally and boosted the economy. Post, IA, is a good example.

    And the final thing is that Mexicans in particular have a strong union tradition and are easy to organize. When unions realize that including immigrants in their recruiting efforts, they are much more successful than when they try to exclude them. Several unions in the Southeast have found this out to their joy and success.

  • Snipe on June 24, 2012 9:09 PM:

    Alabama unemployment for May 2011 was 9.3%

    Alabama unemployment for May 2012 was 7.4%


    I did the math myself. Thanks for playing.

  • Snipe on June 24, 2012 9:15 PM:

    Georgia unemployment for May 2011 9.8%

    Georgia unemployment for May 2012 8.9%


    “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” ~
    Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  • Snipe on June 24, 2012 9:19 PM:

    "Illegal immigrants who by and large take the dirtiest of blue collar jobs are not causing unemployment."

    If they are doing the jobs that "Americans won't do", who in the hell used to do those jobs? A lot of those jobs used to go to the black community, and they have suffered the most because of mass low skilled immigration.

    You can't have everything I guess, and if you want mass third world low skill immigration you are going to have to face the consequenses. Too often people just dodge the argument and act like massive amounts of low skill immigration can only have upside. Those people are not working class Americans. Ask them sometime.

  • smartalek on June 25, 2012 12:38 AM:

    Thank you, Prof. Snipe.
    It's good to encounter the occasional fact.
    The real question, of course, is what the changes in unemployment numbers are for the same period at states that are otherwise economically/demographically similar to Alabama & Georgia, but w/o the anti-undocumented-immigrant acts.
    I'd do the due diligence myself, but gosh... Math is hard!

  • Sanity Please on June 25, 2012 3:59 AM:

    Snipe's other mistake is his belief that immigrants' rights and labor rights are opposed. In fact, the labor movement has learned through decades of bitter struggle, that immigrants are workers too, and that the best way for workers to improve their wages and working conditions is by sticking together.

    If immigrants gain full rights, they'll have less to fear from joining with other workers in collective action, benefitting the whole workforce. If unions gain strength, immigrant workers will be among those share in the gains. Therefore, immigrants' rights are worker rights.

    It's a lesson that each generation of union leaders seems to have to learn for itself: when workers fight each other for scraps, the only one who eats a full meal is the boss.

  • Snipe on June 25, 2012 9:26 AM:

    That is the same mistake that Chavez made, because he supported immigration control.

    Just because it sounds like a good idea doesn't mean it always works out that way.

    What is the record of mass immigration and wages for the working class? What is the record of mass immigration and union membership and power? Our current mass immigration movement started in 1965. What has happened to Unions and wages for the working class since then?

    At some point I think people are lying to themselves. I simply don't believe in your version of reality Mr. Please, and it contradicts what seems to have happened in the world we live in.

  • Snipe on June 25, 2012 10:01 AM:

    "In this timely book, Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., challenges labor's recent about-face, charting the disastrous effects that immigration has had on union membership over the course of U.S. history.Briggs explores the close relationship between immigration and employment trends beginning in the 1780s. Combining the history of labor and of immigration in a new and innovative way, he establishes that over time unionism has thrived when the numbers of newcomers have decreased, and faltered when those figures have risen.Briggs argues convincingly that the labor movement cannot be revived unless the following steps are taken: immigration levels are reduced, admission categories changed, labor law reformed, and the enforcement of labor protection standards at the worksite enhanced. The survival of American unionism, he asserts, does not rest with the movement's becoming a partner of the pro-immigration lobby. For to do so, organized labor would have to abandon its legacy as the champion of the American worker."


  • Rick B on June 25, 2012 11:46 AM:

    As I read the column I kept hearing in the back of my mind "Libertarian?" Then at the end the location of one of the villains of the piece, Nat Hentoff, is given as "He’s now a fellow at the Cato Institute."

    Libertarians are dangerous, ubiquitous and rarely seen in their true light, much like cockroaches.

  • low-tech cyclist on June 25, 2012 12:33 PM:

    I wonder if this simply comes down to money. I think about the ACLU every time I hear of some person getting sued by a big corporation to pressure them to stop criticizing the corporation.

    These happen often enough that they've had a name for some time now. These are called SLAPPs - Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

    You'd think that the ACLU, which has always been about free speech rights, would consider it important to push back against corporations that do this. At best, according to their own website, they've taken on a couple of local developers and some town council members over SLAPPs, but nobody with any real clout.

    I periodically get fundraising letters from the ACLU. They never mention SLAPPs.

    I've begun to think they're willing to take on everyone except the big-money boys.

    And of course, where do the big-money boys stand on labor issues?

    Wonder how much money the ACLU and its human-rights brethren get from well-heeled interests with the implicit direction that they can keep on fighting for human rights in many other ways, but don't step on the wrong toes.

  • Sean Scallon on June 26, 2012 8:32 AM:

    It seems as if WaMo is trying to match the Right hack for hack. You have your Jonah Goldberg, we have our Kathleen Geier.

    Ms. Geier's article begs the question if the Kochs are just buying off the opposition why don't they make a donation to the SEIU and get it over with? The answer of course is the Kochs just don't give their money away to anyone. There has to be mutual interesty. And if there is indifference to ourtright hostility to labor rights on the part of some on the Left well, there is a reason which Ms. Geier would have found out if she had done a little research on the topic.

    And since we're talking the old New Left here (or Baby Boomer imbeciles as Mark Ames coined them) let's take a look at historical record. For, like elephants, Baby Boomers never forget:

    1). Labor strongly supports Vietnam War. Indeed, Labor bought into the Cold War foreign policy consensus because many of its leaders fought off Communist take-over attempts of their unions.

    2). Labor helps Hubert Humphrey wins Democratic Presidential nomination in 1968. Old McCarthy supporters will remember the old "Pennsylvania Railroad" which labor unions helped Humphrey secure 104 Pennsylvania delegates and thus the nomination.

    3). Labor sabotages George McGovern's candidacy. AFL/CIO leader George Meany hates McGovern, golfs with Nixon and declares union's neutrality in 1972 election.

    4). Union construction workers in hard hats beat up anti-war demonstrators during New York City protest in 1970.

    5). Organized crime takes over unions in several cities (this was an old Robert Kennedy hang-up).

    6). Craft and trade unions accused of racism because they hereditary, ergo pretty much all white. Oh, then there's the Davis-Bacon law too that ties into this.

    7). Then there's 1968 New York City teacher's strike, perhaps the crowning moment in liberal/labor/racial split when Jewish controlled teacher's unions protested at locally controlled school boards in black neighborhoods (Brownsville in Brooklyn was the epicenter) willy-nilly replacing them for black teachers. Needless to say there were a lot of hard feelings afterward (just ask Net Hentoff and Joe Klein). Oh, the neoconservative movement has its origins from this strike.

    There's more but I think you get a clearer picture why some on Left are not exactly mourning the demise of labor unions and has nothing to do with who pays who. Now those youngsters who fashion themselves as the avant-garde for a new 1930s CIO around here may ask why stuff which happened 40 years ago is still relevant today which I would agree with you but then again, I'm not a Baby Boomer. You have to ask them.

  • Cedrick Delaney on October 11, 2012 11:55 AM:

    My fave Mark Ames article is the one where he boasts, in his 30s no less, of fucking a 15-year-old (search for the word "pervometer"):


    My fave article about Mark Ames is the one written by a former associate of his who accuses him of being a rapist:


    I'm SO proud that he's finally crusading against "sociopaths"!