Labor was once central to the liberal imagination; today, not so much.

While we’re all arguing about what went down in Wisconsin and about the state of the labor movement, I hope we can agree that the rights of labor are central to any notion of a decent and just society.  Sadly, that proposition remains controversial, and even liberals have retreated from it in recent decades.  (Which is why this post from liberal political theorist Elizabeth Anderson was so refreshing!)

In this must-read piece, Mark Ames details the sorry retreat of prominent human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU from any real commitment to labor rights.  Ames doesn’t mention two excellent reports that the ACLU and Human Rights Watch did prepare on the rights of labor—The Rights of Employees and Unfair Advantage (and Human Rights Watch also authored this excellent report on Wal-Mart’s violation of labor rights).  But the publication dates of these reports—1984, 2000—only underscore Ames’s point. Labor was once central to the liberal imagination; today, not so much.

In Ames’s words:

Go to Amnesty International’s home page at On the right side, under “Human Rights Information” you’ll see a pull-down menu: “by topic.” Does labor count as a “Human Rights topic” in Amnesty’s world? I counted 27 “topics” listed by Amnesty International, including “Abolish the death penalty”, “Indigenous Peoples”, “ “Children and Human Rights” and so on. Nowhere do they have “labor unions” despite the brutal, violent experience of labor unions both here and around the world. It’s not that Amnesty’s range isn’t broad: For example, among the 27 topics there are “Women’s rights”, “Stop Violence Against Women” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. There’s even a topic for “Business and Human Rights”—but nothing for labor.

Puzzled, I called Alex Edwards, Amnesty’s Media Relations guy in Washington DC, to ask him why labor unions didn’t rate important enough as a “topic” on Amnesty’s “list of topics.” Edwards was confused, claimed that he was totally unaware that there was a “list of topics” on Amnesty’s home page, and promised to get back to me. I haven’t heard back from him.

Check out the rest here.


  1. Wobbly June 22, 2012 at 5:55 pm | #

    Ames didn’t look very hard at the topic list – Amnesty includes labour rights (including the right to form and join trade unions) in the topic “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and it has some fine company in that category, like rights to food, water, education and housing.

    • Corey Robin June 22, 2012 at 6:35 pm | #

      Ames is pretty clear in his piece what he is and isn’t talking about. He doesn’t say Amnesty doesn’t mention labor rights anywhere; he’s talking about their “topic” list. You’d think labor rights would be one of their topics, not that it’d be a sub-topic of a topic, and in fact, if you read the page, it’s really a sub-topic of a sub-topic of a topic. 8 whole words to be exact. When you consider the centrality of work to people’s lives, that we spend so much of our waking hours at work, you’d think we’d see a bit more on the entire topic, no? Anyway, readers can judge for themselves by going to this page:

  2. denke robot June 22, 2012 at 7:35 pm | #

    It could be that the rights discourse belongs to the master, so labor is elided.

  3. michael yates June 22, 2012 at 8:00 pm | #

    There is interesting information in this essay. But why call it “the left’s big sellout?” Maybe the liberals’ big sellout” would be OK, but the author conflates liberal and left. The left surely can’t include, say, Monthly Review and Human Rights Watch. And if we mean liberal ant not left, I’m not sure I see the sellout here.

    In terms of why the sellout (if we assume there has been one) has occurred, perhaps something like the right to employment is utterly incompatible with capitalism (except for awhile, where there is a very strong labor movement) and so liberals and liberal organizations can’t when push comes to shove support it. Their lip service to it then seems like a sellout when their feet are put to the fire.

  4. Foppe June 23, 2012 at 1:35 am | #

    David Harvey, in Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom (2009):

    D. Chandler highlights a parallel growth of interest in human rights under neoliberalization (particularly those rights grounded in individualism and private property). Before 1980, he notes, very little attention was paid to the matter. Advocacy groups (many of them transnational), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and grass-roots organizations (GROs) have likewise multiplied and proliferated since 1980. These organizations step into the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the state from social provision. In some instances this has helped accelerate state withdrawal from social provision, turning NGOs into “trojan horses for global neoliberalisill.”28 Legal arrangements have necessarily had to adjust to these conditions, and the courts now take a more prominent role. The centrality of civil society (as opposed to the state) is increasingly emphasized in policy circles and governance practices.

    The tradition that is most spectacularly represented by Amnesty International, Médécins sans Frontières, and others cannot be dismissed as a mere adjunct of neoliberal thinking. The whole history of humanism (both of the Western — classically liberal — and various non-Western versions) is too complicated for that. But the limited objectives of many rights discourses (in Amnesty’s case, the exclusive focus, until recently, on civil and political as opposed to economic rights) makes it all too easy to absorb them within the neoliberal frame, even as an oppositional culture. … As de Sousa Santos notes, it has generally proven more effective in defending the right to difference (hence its importance in fields such as women’s and indigeneous rights and identity politics, where much
    has been accomplished) than in upholding the right to political-economic equality (fundamentally a class issue). … More broadly, we can conclude with Chandler that “the roots of today’s human rights-based humanitarianism lie in the growing consensus of support for Western involvement in the internal affairs of the developing world since the 1970s.”11 Domestically, public political debate is narrowed in debilitating ways. “Far from challenging the individual isolati on and passivity of our atomised societies, human rights regulation can only institutionalize these divisions.” Even worse, “the degraded vision of the social world, provided by the ethical discourse of human rights, serves, like any elite theory, to sustain the self­belief of the governing class.”

  5. BillW June 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm | #

    Amnesty International might have started out as a well-intentioned volunteer-led movement, but as its founder suspected it had been identified and co-opted by British Intelligence within 5 years (no isolated incident either, as quite a few other front groups were being used–and funded–by the “Intelligence Community” in those days as part of the Cultural Cold War, which some suspect never completely died out–only the quotient of plausible deniability was dialed up by increased coordination with wealthy private donors and foundations). Human Rights Watch was conceived in the very womb of the Establishment and has operated as a closed club of highly-paid lawyers since (unlike AI which goes through the motions of having an open membership, but is run by internal cliques working in tandem with the likes of “feminist war hawks”). AFAIK, the main annual conference of AI, the International Council meeting has been held in the Third World only once. This unusual event took place in Dakar, Senegal in 2001 (possibly due to influence of longtime Secretary General Pierre Sané, whose hometown was Dakar) and the results of feedback from African participants were so far off the mark of AI’s priorities (mainly publicity campaigns for political prisoners) that these recommendations on desiderata like labor rights, indigenous rights, etc. were promptly deep sixed in committee work never to be seen again.

  6. Raskol June 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm | #

    Reminds me of an interesting comment at another blog that quotes Arundhati Roy on the “NGO-ization of resistance”:

    NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche, they turn people into dependent victims and they blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the sarkar and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators of the discourse-the secular missionaries of the modern world.

    Kristin Ross has also shed light on ideological origins of the NGO onslaught that coincided with the Neoliberal orthodoxy gaining hold in the late 70s.

  7. Humboldt Snooches IV (@XUSnipe) June 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm | #

    Those institutions on the left seem to take up immigration at the same time they were leaving labor rights behind. Now for sure they will fight for the immigrants’ right to labor, when that in itself has been a competitor to the traditional working class of native born Americans. Unmitigated third world immigration has driven down wages and driven up unemployment. It has hurt unions because it is more difficult to organize if a new pools of cheap labor are always on hand to import across the border. Even Caesar Chavez was for immigration control, because he couldn’t organize the farm workers if the large farms could just bring more bus loads of Mexicans across the border.

    I think that many liberals have left the traditional working class left behind. They pursue policies that are hostile to the working class, like open borders. They are hostile to religion and traditional values. They pursue fetishes like busting damns for salmon or the delta smelt, they want “green energy” that drives up energy costs for the working class, and they are obsessed with high speed rail. If you are a working class Democrat in the State of California, what has the liberal left done for you? Wages are down, unemployment is up. The price of housing is artificially high because of environmental restrictions; the price of energy is artificially high because of the greens. And even if you can afford a house and the price to turn the lights on, try having kids and sending them to a public school where many students don’t speak English.

    You can’t have everything you want. It seems labor has been cast away in favor of open borders. The votes from new immigrants are going to outweigh the votes for organized labor, so it is a win for them politically. They will be able to keep power, but at what cost? And who is left to care for the traditional working class Americans?

    • Donald Pruden a/k/a The Enemy Combatant June 26, 2012 at 10:31 am | #

      Yeah, “Humboldt” — those damn libs forsaking good Americans for a bunch a useless, job-stealin’ wetbacks. But that’s par for the course ain’t it? The trouble with libs is that they always run to the wrong side of everything: apologizin’ for commies, defendin’ terrorists’ “rights”, coddlin’ criminals, protecting some worthless critter no one’s ever heard of and thus puttin’ hard-working lumberjacks on the unemployment line, yammering about “harsh interrogation techniques” and some whore’s “right” to kill her unborn bastard. And now, this crap about “global warming”, to boot!

      Why just last Friday, I went home from work thinkin’ I had a job only to show up on Monday to find some illegal-speakin’ so-and-so in my cubicle writin’ up workers comp policies! THAT’S MY JOB, DAMMIT!!

      My mortgage went up – liberals did it! People lost their jobs – liberals did it! The libraries are closed – liberals did it! The world I grew up in during the halcyon days of my youth is gone – liberals did it. My kid, before he got booted out of college (the tuition jumped up 20% — guess who caused that??) took a course in “Post-Colonial Queer Theory: A New Postructuralist Literary Analysis in the Era Of Late Capitalism” – liberals did it!

      Yeah – libs want votes from illegals, and at the cost of support from real Americans, “traditional working class Americans”. You know what I mean, don’tcha?

  8. hellahusker June 24, 2012 at 7:07 pm | #

    I think michael yates makes an interesting point; to me “liberal” and “left” are not synonymous. To me liberals are the moderate branch of the right.

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