Most Americans, if asked, would rank the United States at the top of any scale measuring rule of law compliance. This assumption is squarely challenged by the World Justice Project’s (WJP) recent rule of law index rankings for 2012: here the US fares well overall, but disturbingly low in critical areas of securing fundamental human rights, including worker rights.
In fact, we rank only 25th out of 97 globally in securing basic rights. Among Western industrialized nations, the US ranks a dismal 14th out of 16 countries. Among richer nations across the globe, we rank a low 22nd out of 29 countries in securing fundamental rights. In the category of basic labor rights (a subset of fundamental human rights), the 2012 Index also gives the US a low grade of 0.63, on a 0 to 1.0 scale, for effectively guaranteeing labor rights.
One sure test of the adequacy of any rule of law system is its ability to protect all citizens, including workers of all kinds, and to deter violations of the law by the powerful. We now have a useful empirical tool to measure how well countries around the world have actually implemented rule of law principles for wage earners and the more vulnerable persons in society--the WJP Rule of Law Index. The Index follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and, like the Declaration, incorporates fundamental labor rights into fundamental human rights under the rule of law. By fully recognizing the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining as basic human rights, the Index addresses the whole range of human rights comprehensively. Thus, the WJP rule of law index actually measures whether countries are fulfilling their commitments to realize basic labor and other human rights at the grass roots by interviewing in depth a balanced cross section of ordinary people, as well as experts. The result is a comprehensive, comparative snapshot, by country and by stage of development, of how the rule of law is experienced by citizens at the grass roots.
The American labor movement has historically been a protagonist for the rule of law in the United States. American worker organizations have championed many key elements of the rule of law we take for granted, including freedom of association and speech, judicial neutrality, universal franchise, paths to citizenship for immigrant workers, consumer protections, due process and equal treatment by government and courts, enhanced access to justice through legal aid, and elimination of racial, gender and other discrimination in the workplace.
Labor advocacy has without doubt expanded the scope of freedom of association and speech in US law. US unions have worked to enlarge the franchise, and to empower immigrant workers. When judges across the US became combatants on the side of employers in labor disputes, unions fought for judicial neutrality—a foundation of the rule of law—by advocating for measures to remove judges from the grasp of employers, including the Clayton and Norris-LaGuardia Acts. The Mine Workers Union was a pioneer in broadening access to civil justice by promoting legal aid in the US. Many American unions fought and continue to fight discrimination in society and the workplace. Unions have been early and consistent advocates for workplace health and safety.
I am pleased that the Index dissolves artificial barriers between human rights and worker rights and integrates basic worker rights into measurement of overall implementation of the rule of law. Allowing employers to fire workers with relative impunity for exercising their right to form a union is a violation of both worker and human rights and should pull down any overall rule of law score. Similarly, discrimination against women, minority, GLBT, migrant and undocumented workers and older and disabled workers are human rights violations that should erode overall rule of law rankings. Undermining job security impoverishes workers and their families, thereby setting in motion an array of human rights violations including discrimination, constricted access civil justice, limits on political participation and denials of health care. Failures to implement such labor rights should indeed show up in any comprehensive system for ranking rule of law compliance.
Today’s labor movement is an integral part of the larger American social justice movement that seeks to include all workers under the protections of the rule of law. American unions are determined to ensure that the rule of law is fully realized for workers and other ordinary citizens, especially for the most vulnerable in our society, and is more than just an ornament of foreign policy rhetoric. The WJP Rule of Law Index is proving to be an indispensable tool for highlighting deficits in, and igniting reform of rule of law practices in the US and around the world. The AFL-CIO looks forward to working with the WJP to continue to develop the Index as a tool to advance an inclusive framework for the rule of law in the US and abroad.