The complaint details numerous ways U.S. labor law and enforcement are failing workers, and spotlights their further weakening under Trump.
And it charges the United States with violating workers’ rights in terms not typically associated with well-off countries, at one point saying the bind many essential workers have been placed in during the pandemic — forced to risk infection or lose their jobs and potentially unemployment benefits — amounts to a system of forced labor.
The complaint is another sign of the frustration over the treatment of workers under the Trump administration, and it places the United States in the realm of potential wrongdoing typically occupied by less-developed and less-democratic countries.
“Covid has laid bare what we already knew,” Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO said in an interview. “It has demonstrated that not only is the U.S. violating workers’ rights, but those violations are resulting in people dying. It became so outrageous that we wanted to file a complaint.”
The Labor Department and Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not respond to a request for comment. The National Labor Relations Board declined to comment.
The complaint points to two main avenues of failure for U.S. labor law and policy: the country’s antiquated labor laws, such as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which leaves farmers, gig workers, contractors and other classes of workers without protection; and the softening of workers’ protections by the Trump administration that has continued into the pandemic.
Some of the complaint’s harshest words were reserved for the Trump administration’s orders declaring industries such as meatpacking essential, compelling them to stay open even amid potential novel coronavirus outbreaks, while federal agencies, including OSHA, declined to issue enforceable safety regulations.
“These executive orders gave a green light for employers to force workers to report for work and risk their lives or lose their jobs,” said the complaint, signed by Trumka and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. “This is tantamount to forced labor.”
The complaint highlighted the racial implications of these orders too, arguing one executive order was inherently discriminatory because the vast majority of meatpacking workers who contracted the coronavirus were Black or Hispanic.
The complaint also took aim at other ways Trump’s labor agencies rolled back protections for workers.
During the pandemic’s early weeks, the NLRB, which oversees union elections, suspended them, giving companies more time to maneuver against them, the complaint charged.
The NLRB also issued a memo in March that the union presidents said signaled employers could avoid bargaining about proposed layoffs because of the pandemic. And in two cases in August, the NLRB said companies were in the clear for dismissing workers who expressed concern about safety issues during the pandemic, even though workers have protections from the National Labor Relations Act from being fired in many cases for raising safety concerns at work.
“Each of these decisions disarms workers and their unions in the face of management actions to violate their collective bargaining rights in the Covid-19 crisis,” the complaint said. “Since these memoranda also serve as instructions to NLRB regional authorities on how to handle similar cases, they have a cascading effect that will undermine workers’ rights in weeks and months ahead as the pandemic continues to ravage American workplaces.”
It also put a spotlight on OSHA, charged with upholding worker safety regulations, noting that the agency failed to issue a safety standard businesses would be required to adhere to for coronavirus safety.
“The complaint is stunning in its level of detail and the number of examples,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a U.S. labor expert at Georgetown University. “What becomes clear is that the U.S. is far from an example for how to protect workers and is actually showing itself to be well behind the curve.”
McCartin said the type of complaint was not very typical of prosperous, democratic countries. Countries that had complaints investigated by the U.N. labor body in 2019 include Burundi, China, Myanmar, Pakistan and France.
Though the ILO does not have any enforcement power, a finding against the United States after an investigation could have serious ramifications for the country’s reputation, McCartin said.
“It would strengthen politically the argument that our laws are inadequate,” McCartin said. “It could help to bring some political pressure to bear on those agencies if in the eyes of the world and this duly designated committee that the U.S. is found to be failing to ensure basic human rights.”
The United States participates in the ILO but has not signed on to all of its conventions.
“The committee’s finding that the U.S. is in violation of these essential international standards would make it a lot more difficult for the U.S. to hold other countries accountable,” said Lance Compa, a labor law expert who helped draft the complaint. “To the extent that the committee finds that the U.S. has violated international standards, it makes it a lot more difficult for the U.S. to, for example, hold China accountable for labor rights violations. Or Russia, or India, or Brazil.”
Henry, SEIU’s president, said that state of labor protections in the United States was “unconscionable.”
“I’ve never seen a U.S. government intentionally put the lives of Black and Brown workers at risk and be so unwilling to acknowledge what every state and the best employers were saying about what we needed as a response,” she said.