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Law Denies Protection to Millions of Workers

25% of the Workforce Ignored by U.S. Labor Law

Even though the National Labor Relations Act says employees have the right to form a union and bargain collectively…

  • In total, 32 million American workers—one quarter of the workforce—are without any legal protection to form unions and collectively bargain.1    
  • The federal legislation created to recognize workers’ freedom to form unions categorically denies that right to farmworkers, domestic employees, independent contractors, and managers and many supervisors.
  • Millions of public employees, including firefighters and teachers, are not covered by federal, state, or local laws.
  • Without protection by law, an employer can ignore workers’ demands for union recognition and collective bargaining.
  • Unprotected workers are left with no legal recourse if they are fired or penalized for their support of a union.
  • A 2000 study by Human Rights Watch concluded that U.S. exclusions are “both an anachronism and a case of U.S. labor law violating international human rights standards requiring protection of all workers’ right to freedom of association.

More Workers are Losing Their Rights to Organize and Bargain

In the past year, the Bush-appointed majority of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the federal agency charged with protecting workers—has issued decisions stripping workers of their federally-protected rights.

  • The NLRB ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants are not workers.5  Even though these individuals lecture classes, grade papers, advise students, and perform research—they are offered no legally-protected right to organize.
  • The Board majority decided that many disabled employees are not workers, although the workers in question were expected to do the same amount of work in return for the same compensation as the non-disabled employees.6  
  • The Board banned temp agency employees from organizing and bargaining together with permanent employees without the consent of both their employer and temp agency.

Farmworkers Struggle for Basic Human Rights 

Javier Velazquez is a farmworker who came to the United States when he was 20. He immediately started working as a tree planter to help support his younger brothers and sisters in Mexico.  Javier thought he had found a better line of work when he switched jobs to become a picker at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farms plant in Salem, OR.  Unfortunately, he soon found working conditions at the plant to be less than adequate.

The pickers worked in damp, dark rooms where they climbed the walls to pick mushrooms.  The wet, old plywood supporting the workers on their climb would frequently break.  It was not uncommon for workers to fall—resulting in broken knees, ankles, or in Javier’s case, an injured back.  Yet, when Javier and his coworkers approached management to improve the hazardous conditions, he felt that their concerns were ignored.

After two years of such treatment, Javier began organizing with his coworkers in 1998.  “We were sick and tired of it.  We worked like slaves and we were scared to talk.  We had to do something.”  Though 80 percent of the workers signed cards indicating they wanted a union, the company refused to negotiate with them.  The workers participated in a work stoppage in 2001, and soon after, management fired Javier.

If Javier and his coworkers were afforded legal protection by American labor law, they may have been able to form a union.  At the Pictsweet Mushroom Farms plant in California, where farmworkers have the right to organize under state law, workers were able to form a union and secured a contract providing better wages and family  medical coverage.

Javier summarized this injustice, “[The employer] can fire anyone they want, they can take money from paychecks, they can force us to work hard—13 hours without overtime…Other jobs have unions so they don’t suffer like farmworkers.  Farmworkers don’t have anything.  The law doesn’t protect them.”

Did You Know?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions…”3

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with
others, including the right to form and join trade unions….”4



1  U.S. General Accounting Office. Collective Bargaining Rights: Information on the Number of Workers with and Without Bargaining Rights.  GAO-02-835, September 2002.  According to the GAO’s 2001 estimate, 31,989,000 workers are without collective bargaining rights under federal, state or local statute.
2  Human Rights Watch, “Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards,” 2000.
3  Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Articles 20 and 23.
4  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Ratified by the United States in 1992.
5 Brown University 342 NLRB 42 (2004).
6 Brevard Achievement Center 342 NLRB 101 (2004).
7 Oakwood Care Center and N&W Agency 343 NLRB 76 (2004).


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American Rights at Work is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers.


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