Vol. VIII, Bulletin No.8                                                     August 1, 2003 

The Two Faces of Radio Free Asia

It Supports the Freedom of Workers To Organize
In Asia, But Hesitates at Its Headquarters in U.S.

As a worker in China, she dared to protest labor abuses in her candy factory. For this, she was locked up for a year in the late 1970s.

Twenty-five years later, as a senior member of the professional staff of Radio Free Asia in its Washington headquarters, she dared to give strong support to her fellow employees' initiatives to form a union. For this, she was recently fired. 

Between these two crucial events in her life, Xiaoxia Gong acquired the intellectual assets -- including a Master's degree at Peking University and a PhD. at Harvard -- to qualify her for a job matching her skills and her ideals. In January 1998 she joined Radio Free Asia (RFA), a U.S. government-funded private organization, as director of its Cantonese language service, which, like three other services (Mandarin, Tibetan, and Uyghur), beams daily broadcasts of news and commentary to the People's Republic of China.

In its broadcasts to China and five other countries (Burma, Cambodia, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam), RFA is unequivocally on the side of freedom, including the freedom to organize. A popular feature of its Mandarin service is a twice-weekly "Workers Calling" program during which the former Beijing labor leader Han Dongfang, now in Hong Kong, relays the voices of Chinese workers using the RFA hotline to describe problems, including their struggles for the right to organize.  

'The Spirit of Liberty Should Not Be Confined to Words We Broadcast'

Employees in RFA's nine language services form a highly diverse group of  individuals, almost all Asian, marked by Asian differences of language, dialects, and culture, plus typical ethnic rivalries. Yet, somehow, most of the 125 non-supervisory men and women among them last year became united in a desire to form a union. They circulated a "mission statement" that proclaimed:  

"Every day in RFA, we work on broadcasting news and information to the countries where liberty and democracy and human rights are still deprived to their people....The spirit of liberty should not be confined to the words that we broadcast; it should be our deeds in daily life. By organizing, we hope to create a more harmonious and healthy environment within RFA, both between the management and workers and among workers ourselves, which is instrumental in pursuing RFA's mission."

'An Outside Third Party' Dismisses Union as 'An Outside Third Party"

The employees who signed the statement were not naive enough to believe that management would warmly welcome a union. Still, the vigor of opposition, expressed orally and in writing, startled some. A major argument against their plans was: "We are opposed to an outside third party that will create a wall between RFA and its employees."  But it was "an outside third party," a large law firm, that promoted this line, planned the tactical campaign behind it, and participated actively in its execution.

An eight-page document titled "Union Awareness for Managers, Prepared for RFA" by the law firm, Hogan & Hartson, listed "10 Reasons RFA Employees Don't Need a Union." One reason: "RFA treats employees fairly." To employees in the language services, that argument was not particularly persuasive, since it so happened that their interest in unionizing peaked last fall after three lay-offs that many deemed unfair.

As a supervisor, Xiaoxia [Shou-SHA] Gong, like other directors of language services, became a prime target for a systemic training program in "Union Awareness for Managers," which stressed the undivided loyalty owed to RFA and its policies. She rebelled against being put in such a straitjacket. After attending a 90-minute training program led in part by two lawyers, she expressed her reaction in an email to her colleagues. "The rhetoric and methods in the anti-union training clearly violate my principles, my convictions, and my conscience," she wrote. 

She also criticized RFA's position on undivided loyalty as "the same thing" as the hard line opposition to independent unions consistently taken by Chinese Communist authorities ever since they achieved power in 1949. These and other strong opinions, forcefully expressed, caused Richard Richter, RFA President, to send Xiaoxia a letter terminating her for "continued insubordination."  

Lectures by Management and Lawyers Fall Short

Despite the training program for managers, despite separate ones with the same message for employees, and despite RFA President Richter's personal involvement in the campaign, employee support for unionizing clearly seemed to be strengthening rather than wavering as election day approached.

At this point, RFA management could legally have recognized the union on its own, without requiring a government-conducted election. It chose not to do so.

Instead, in a move apparently designed to delay the election, RFA's lawyers argued at a May 1 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing that RFA employees are so lacking in English skills that many couldn't understand the NLRB ballot or election notice and therefore needed the help of interpreters to vote intelligently. In fact, RFA management's communications, oral and written, are all only in English, and language services employees are required to have some proficiency in English to do their work. The NLRB rejected the claim. 

So, in response to an employee petition, the NLRB set May 28 as the day when RFA's language services staff  -- specifically its senior broadcasters, broadcasters, researchers, production assistants, production coordinators, and administrative assistants -- could vote in a secret ballot on whether they wanted to be represented by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild or by no union. They voted for the Guild by 77 to 37 for no union.

Management's Post-Election Moves To Cancel Election

Time to celebrate?  Not yet. More RFA challenges followed. Its lawyers filed new papers seeking to nullify the election results for the same reasons: the "rudimentary English skills" of employees had prevented them from participating intelligently in the balloting (even though, in a notice posted on its Website, RFA was advertising job openings in its Burmese, Uyghur, and Vietnamese services requiring fluency in English or a "working knowledge of English" ).

On July 16, the regional NLRB director once again overruled these objections and certified Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild as exclusive representative. RFA wisely decided not to appeal again, leaving the way clear for management and the Guild to start talking with each other. Meanwhile, Xiaoxia Gong, unemployed, has initiated a class action complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging RFA with racial discrimination in hiring, assigning, and promoting Asians.

For some fascinating insights into pre-election maneuverings by an employer, read the full transcript of the NLRB hearing conducted on May 1.  For a horrible example of the kind of behavior that employers can get away with under U.S. law and practice, read about the frustrations of employees at the Chinese Daily News in the United States.

Correcting a Human Rights Blind Spot

Worker rights issues were missing from the work of Human Rights Watch during its first 15 years of life.  Its executive director during that 1978-1993 period, Aryeh Neier, "strenuously opposed efforts" to get Human Rights Watch involved in "economic issues as rights." For him  "economic issues" did not, and do not, merit "the language of universal rights" nor the attention of human rights organizations.

Neier briefly discusses that position in his new book "Taking Liberties," subtitled "Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights" (first with the American Civil Liberties Union and then with Human Rights Watch).  "Civil and political rights are essential elements of democracy," he writes. "...In contrast, the concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic," since "authoritarian power is probably a prerequisite for giving meaning to economic and social rights." Hmmm. His four-page discourse attempting to justify that view is not the clearest part of the book.

Neier's blind spot is a common affliction among policymakers, including far too many elite liberals. Fortunately, since Neier left Human Rights Watch a decade ago, its vision has become much more inclusive, bringing beneficial improvements, at least on the level of ideas that matter, beyond the ranks of Human Rights Watch itself. 

In its mission, "protecting the human rights of people around the world," Human Rights Watch recognizes that working people have human rights precisely as workers. This means, for example that it explicitly recognizes the key conventions of the UN's International Labor Organization, particularly on freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively, not just as labor standards but as part of international human rights law.  Three years ago, for example, Human Rights Watch published "Unfair Advantage," a comprehensive study of serious labor abuses in the United States, examined not as "economic issues" but as violations of  international human rights principles.

Following up that report, its author, Lance Compa, is now leading a research project on worker rights in the U.S. meatpacking industry, with case studies on the beef, pork, and poultry slaughtering and processing factories in the Midwest. The report is scheduled for publication early next year.

Getting the World Bank To Move

Although a new World Bank publication shows the Bank as having adopted a "more favorable attitude" toward worker rights, this positive attitude  has yet to affect the labor policies that the Bank promotes in developing countries.  That is the gist of an insightful analysis by Peter Bakvis, director of the global labor movement's Washington office, in the current issue of Transfer, the quarterly journal of the European Trade Union Institute.

Bakvis reviews the recently published "Unions and Collective Bargaining: Economic Effects in a Global Environment," and traces its origins back to  January 1999. That month union delegates from nearly 40 countries, including Bakvis, came to Washington for an eagerly sought meeting at World Bank headquarters to discuss a very timely subject: how the Bank would ensure compliance with a set of "core labor standards" that a 1998 meeting of the UN International Labor Organization (ILO) had made mandatory in countries across the world. Bank officials were ready with a short prepared statement that read:
"The Bank has taken an unambiguous position on three core labor standards (child labor, forced labor, and discrimination) that have shown to consistently accord with economic development. The evidence on the freedom and association and collective bargaining standard seems less conclusive and the Bank is currently undertaking analysis work in this area."
In other words, writes Bakvis, "the World Bank would agree with an ILO-defined right at work only if it was convinced of a positive correlation with some economic indicator."  This position struck the unionists as "unacceptable but also hypocritical," he adds, because This February, four years later, the World Bank published the results of its study (see "World Bank Praises Unions, To a Point"), based not on new research but on an appraisal of more than a thousand existing studies.  

New Book's Tone Restrained by Its Limited 'Theoretical Framework'

The book and the Bank's press releases about it have "a different tone from earlier Bank statements" on core labor standards, Bakvis agrees, but he also criticizes the study's shortcomings, caused in part by a "somewhat restrictive theoretical framework." For example, in summarizing the positive contributions that unions make to development, "the book completely ignores the important social role of unions in pushing for and obtaining legislation that contributes to greater equality and job creation."

Unfortunately, Bakvis' analysis is not available on the Website of the European Trade Union Institute. So I have emailed the ETUI as follows:
"The book review by Peter Bakvis in the current issue of Transfer deserves a very wide readership. I urge you to place his insightful article on your Website. Going beyond a typical book review, it provides context by describing the global labor movement's struggle to make the World Bank and other international financial institutions pay attention to the human rights of working men and women.  Many more people, inside and outside the labor movement, need to know about that struggle and to lend it their active support."
Codes of Conduct, Trade Rules, and China

In testimony to a roundtable of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China July 7, Phil Fishman, an assistant director of the AFL-CIO's international affairs department, said that workers of the People's Republic of China will "inevitably" win the right to organize, and noted these signs of some movement in that direction:
Fishman urged American companies to find "effective ways to support these groups," but warned against "schemes that only pretend to meet the obligations of their own codes of conduct," such as the Social Accountability International's accepting "parallel means" (e.g., ACFTU units) as substitutes for genuine worker organizations. Providing context, he pointed out that "companies with codes are only a small proportion of companies doing in business in China," and those "that take their codes seriously are in our view a very small subset of this already very small number."

According to a recent UNDP estimate, up to a million garment workers in Bangladesh, most of them women, have a grim employment outlook: they could lose their jobs because of the 2005 expiration of the Multi-Fibre Agreement, a textile trade pact with export quotas that assure developing countries like Bangladesh a market for their production, which in a quota-free market is bound move to China. In his testimony Fishman called attention to this upcoming change in trade rules and how it will further accelerate the shift of jobs from both developed and developing countries to China and its repressive labor market.  

Letting My Computer Take a Vacation

I was tempted to skip this issue of Human Rights for Workers, but there were several articles that I just had to write -- especially the Radio Free Asia story, which encapsules several issues that fascinate me. But don't be surprised if the skipping temptation returns later in August.

Why?  To work on a couple of non-HRFW writing projects, including a book review for the U.S. Labor Department's Monthly Labor Review.  But mainly to let my computer enjoy a vacation while I enjoy more free time, above all by playing with my granddaughter, Mai Han Senser. She is now six months older than she was when the attached photo of us was taken in February. She already shows distinct signs that, in not too many more years, her vocabulary and creativity will exceed her grandfather's.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-8         August 1, 2003

Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
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