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#697 - Labor Organizing and Freedom of Association, 17-May-2000

[If huge disparities in income and wealth create major public
health problems (see REHW #654) and an unsustainable society
(REHW #629), then we need a more equitable distribution of
available benefits. Historically, labor unions have played this
role, effectively advocating for minimum wage laws, the 8-hour
work day, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and
retirement funds. Today when the typical chief executive officer
earns in a day what a typical worker earns in a year, we find
ourselves -- more than ever -- needing the labor movement to
provide pressure toward a fairer distribution of benefits. This
essay was originally written for the Labor Party (see
www.igc.org/lpa/) --P.M.]

by Peter Kellman*

Part 1: The Problem

The bad news is that since 1979 the percentage of union workers
in the United States has declined from 24% to 14%. The good news
is that given the choice of joining a union or not, 48% of
workers in this country would join.

Due to the export of jobs, outsourcing and automation, existing
union jobs are being lost as fast as new members join unions. The
traditional strategy of organizing workers -- work place by work
place -- does bring in new members, but employer opposition still
denies most workers union representation.

A case that makes the point is the healthcare industry in
Massachusetts, which currently employs 400,000 workers, 10% of
whom are union members. Unions put a fair amount of financial and
human resources into organizing healthcare workers, and in 1997
organized 819 new members through the union certification
process. At this rate it would take 434 years to organize the
industry if the number of employed stayed at 400,000, but the
industry is projected to grow another 250,000 in the next 45

You see the problem. We have to do something different. In
Sweden, for example, 83% of the work force is represented by
unions, and employers are prevented by law from interfering with
the formation of unions. Unlike U.S. workers, Swedish workers
Japan, France, Germany and most countries with which U.S.
corporate managers say we compete, the RIGHT TO ASSOCIATE AND
BARGAIN COLLECTIVELY is a basic human right recognized by the
United Nations and stated in the Declaration of Human Rights of
1948 under Article 20: Everyone has the right to freedom of
peaceful assembly and association. This right is explained in the
UN's International Labor Organization's Convention #87-- Freedom
of Association and the Right to Organize, which establishes the
right of all workers to form and join organizations of their own
choosing without prior authorization. Although 118 countries have
ratified Convention #87, the U.S. Senate has steadfastly refused
to do so for the past 51 years.

Freedom of speech plus freedom of assembly equals freedom of
association. It works like this. A group of people want to form a
corporation. They call a meeting (freedom of assembly) and
discuss (freedom of speech) their options and decide they want
corporate recognition. Then they send a representative to their
state capital and file some papers. That's it. Their corporation
is recognized by the rest of the society. No cards are signed; no
campaign is waged, no one gets fired and no election occurs. Just
recognition. In this country forming a corporation is a protected
activity. It is a right. Getting a corporation to recognize a
union is not a right; forming a union is not a protected

During a union campaign, in this country, the company will put up
anti-union posters and hold captive-audience meetings. But the
union can't put up posters because it doesn't own the walls. The
union can't bring a representative to the work place to talk to
workers in the private sector because the union doesn't own the

In this country we have freedom of speech and assembly on public
property. On private property the owners of the property
determine who can speak and assemble. Workers surrender their
free speech rights to their employers when they enter the work

If we want to associate, to organize, to exercise power, we need
to change some fundamental relationships in our society.

But first we need to understand how the fundamental relationships
that now govern our lives were set. WE NEED TO KNOW OUR OWN

"He came to know... that history was not a page in a book, but
something held in memory and in blood."[1]

Part 2: Knowing Our History

Imagine a church without the Bible, a synagogue without the
Torah, a mosque without the Koran or the Iroquois without their
story of creation. It is the teaching of the stories from these
great books and oral traditions that holds the congregations and
tribes of our people together. The wisdom acquired over the ages
is passed down through the stories of the past. These stories
guide us into the future: they give us our values, direction and
strength. Without them we are rootless, have no direction and
live only in the uninformed present.

The same is true for labor. We need a framework to view our
history and connect the many stories of our great struggles. We
need to learn from our past mistakes and victories. We need to
take the best from the past and use it to help build our future.
If not, we will forever live in the present and make the same
mistakes over and over again.

It is often said in labor circles that we will never increase our
numbers until we have better laws. The fact is that for most of
our history pro-labor laws have been the exception. Most laws
relating to labor have been anti-labor, anti-union laws. It
wasn't until 1937 that the National Labor Relations Act was
declared constitutional and today that law is of more use to the
employer than it is to us. But that is nothing new. The law
favored the wealthy in the 13 American colonies and still does in
the country our people created.

George Washington didn't become the most powerful and one of the
wealthiest men in America in 1776 by surveying house lots.[2] It
is true that Washington did do some surveying for the Ohio
Company, a company in which he was a major stockholder. George
and members of the planter and commercial class in colonial
Virginia where he grew up had a plan to exploit labor and make
themselves even richer and more powerful. The plan had two parts.
First, they had slaves to run their tobacco plantations and
second, they created the Ohio Company. The Ohio Company was
founded in 1748 by George's older brother Lawrence and received a
grant of 200,000 acres of land west of the colony of Virginia
from the King of England. Later, Virginia's Royal Governor
Dinwiddie, himself an Ohio Company principle, "successfully
appealed to the British authorities in London to offer ships
passage to indentured servants who would work to clear and
improve roads and farmsteads and build company trading posts for
seven years, in return for the right to remain on the lands as
leaseholders afterward."[3] Pretty good plan. The King grants the
company the land and then supplies unpaid workers to build the
roads, to access the land and the forts to defend it. Then if the
workers survived their seven years of servitude, and many didn't,
they had the privilege of renting land from the Ohio Company.

But it wasn't just Washington who was involved with this kind of
scheme. The Ohio Company was in competition with the Loyal Land
Company of Virginia, owned in part by Thomas Jefferson's dad, and
the Vandalia Company, owned in part by Ben Franklin. We have
heard a lot about Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, but who
were these indentured servants and slaves? What was their

The history of the indentured servant, for our purposes, begins
in 1500 when one-third of the land in England, France and Germany
was owned by the Catholic Church. Much of this land was occupied
by subsistence farmers. With the Protestant Reformation of the
Church in 1517, Church land was taken over by nobles or sold to
speculators who drove the tenant farmers off the land. Then in
the 1600s and 1700s the "common lands" which had been at the
disposal of the poor in Europe were enclosed, fenced off, and the
people who lived on them driven off the land. Finally, in the
1800s, in a process known as "clearing the estates," farmers were
pushed off the land they rented to make room for sheep to provide
wool for the growing textile industry.

As these events were taking place, laws were passed that called
for people without a place to live or work to be branded,
punished, jailed or sold into slavery. This created a large pool
of humanity with an incentive to leave Europe and provide cheap
labor in North America.

Meanwhile in Africa, rich merchants from Europe organized an
international slave trade, buying slaves from West African
princes whose soldiers carried European weapons. The trade in
African slaves spanned three centuries and, "Before it was over,
ten to twelve million Africans would be transported to the New

Indentured servants from Europe and slaves from Africa, people
whose lives were contracts to be bought and sold, provided the
founding fathers of our nation, men like George Washington,
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, the labor
to exploit the natural resources of North America. Roughly half
the immigrants to colonial America were indentured servants. At
the time of the war of Independence, three out of four persons in
Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia were or had been indentured
servants. And by this time, roughly 20 percent of the colonial
population was in slavery.[5] Slaves from Africa and indentured
servants from Europe lived under the same fugitive slave laws,
and their children were the property of the masters. These people
were property to be bought and sold -- property protected by
colonial law and later the United States Constitution.


FORTY SHILLINGS REWARD. For taking up and securing Mary Brown, a
Pennsylvania born indentured Servant, who ran away from the
service of her Master a few days ago: She is a so-so-sort of a
looking Woman, inclinable to Clumsiness, much Pock pitted, which
gives her an hard Favor and frosty Look, wants several of her
Teeth, yet speaks good English and Dutch, about 26 or 28 Years
old, perhaps 30... --James Crofton, Albany (1761 newspaper
advertisement Albany NY)[4,pg.105]


For many in the United States the images of the colonial period
are dominated by scenes of Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, Captain John
Smith and people seeking religious freedom. These images hide a
colonial scheme that went like this: European adventurers
"discovered America" and began killing off the indigenous
population. They were followed by European speculators who
extracted profits from the new land primarily through the labor
of African slaves and European indentured servants. But the
Americans who made great fortunes on the backs of slaves and
indentured servants weren't happy sharing their wealth with the
English King, bringing us to the American Revolution. [Continued
next week.]


*Peter Kellman is a labor activist, member of the National
Writers Union and the Labor Party. He works for the Program on
Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) a small group of
activists looking at the history of democracy and corporate
power. For information on the work of POCLAD engage them by
E-mail: people@poclad.org; or on the web: www.poclad.org; by
phone: (508)-398-1145; or mail: P.O. Box 246, So. Yarmouth, MA

LUDLOW MASSACRE (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pg. 259.


[3] Willard Randall, GEORGE WASHINGTON -- A LIFE (N.Y.: Henry
Holt, 1997), pg. 68.

[4] Bruce Levine and others, WHO BUILT AMERICA, VOL. I (N.Y.:
Pantheon Books, 1989), pg. 25.

[5] Jerry Fresia, TOWARD AN AMERICAN REVOLUTION (Boston: South
End Press, 1988), pg. 26.