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The AFL-CIO recently filed a complaint with an agency of the United Nations, charging that a series of decisions by the National Labor Relations Board represents a “systematic effort to deny workers’ rights in violation of international labor standards.” The unusual, but not unprecedented, step by the labor union reflects a growing tendency by individuals and organizations to turn to international tribunals when domestic court or agency remedies fail them and treaties are in play. The union filed its complaint with the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labour Organization (ILO), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. “We don’t do something like this at the drop of a hat,” said Deborah Greenfield, the union’s associate general counsel. “We do it when we believe there’s been a clear violation of ILO core labor standards, particularly with respect to freedom of association and the right to engage in collective bargaining.” The complaint charges that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), now dominated by Bush appointees, when faced with an increase in unlawful employer conduct, has responded “by shrinking the [National Labor Relations Act's] coverage, limiting the rights protected by the statute, strengthening management’s prerogative to discriminate against, harass, and intimidate workers, and steadfastly refusing to apply the few meaningful remedies available under the Act.” The NLRB said it had no response to the complaint and no obligation to the ILO, said NLRB spokeswoman Pat Gilbert. The United States is a member of the ILO, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified the two conventions that the union contends have been violated by the NLRB: Convention No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention) and Convention No. 98 (application of the Principles of the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention). But as a member, the United States agreed to comply with the principles embodied in the ILO’s founding constitution, Greenfield said. The Committee on Freedom of Association determines whether any legislation or practice complies with those principles, regardless of whether the conventions have been ratified. The complaint lays out five categories in which recent board decisions have, for example, made it easier for employers to discharge or discriminate against workers who organize, eliminated entire groups of workers from union participation and curtailed remedies available for employer misconduct. “At the same time, unconscionable delays riddle the Board’s adjudicatory process,” the complaint states. The ILO does not have enforcement authority, noted Greenfield. However, she added that “[w]hat the committee can say is the standards set by the world community have not been met here.” A ‘dramatic shift’ Whether one’s stance is pro-employer or pro-employee, “There clearly has been a dramatic, pro-employer shift by the board, not seen since the early Reagan board,” said labor law scholar Jeffrey M. Hirsch of the University of Tennessee College of Law. There is a shift whenever an administration changes, he explained, “but this has been the most significant one since the early ’80s.” While the ILO may not have “enforcement teeth,” Hirsch said, “to the extent you can actually get an opinion from an international organization saying the NLRB is violating this international convention, that looks bad.” The ILO ruled in favor of a complaint filed by the American Federation of Government Employees, which challenged the denial of the right of airport screeners to join unions and bargain collectively, Greenfield said. That opinion galvanized support on Capitol Hill for legislation, she said.

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