Prepared by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR)*

The International Labor Organization (ILO), founded in 1919, is the longest continuously operating intergovernmental organization in modern history and is widely recognized as the arbiter and protector of workers’ rights and employment standards worldwide. It has a unique, tripartite governance structure comprised of representatives of governments, organized labor, and employers from its current 183 member states, each of whom participate in the work of the ILO in a 2-1-1 ratio, respectively. And largely for this reason, with its International Labor Conference or General Conference (often called the “international parliament of labor”) setting its broad policies each year, it has garnered widespread support for nearly 200 conventions that today form the foundation of human rights protection for workers.

The United States, a member of the ILO, has been slow to ratify these treaty instruments, however, even though they run the gamut of worker concerns and are embraced by the International Bill of Human Rights (the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). For example, 1948 ILO Convention 87, ratified by 150 countries, requires countries “to take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers . . . may exercise freely the right to organize”; 1949 ILO Convention 98, ratified by 160 countries, declares that “[w]orkers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination”; and other widely ratified ILO conventions require countries to “promote . . . equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value” and to “establish a system of minimum wages” that considers “the needs of workers and their families . . . , the cost of living, social security benefits, and the relative living standards of other social groups.”

Yet of the more than 125 million people in the United States labor force, only 14.8 million workers belong to labor unions, and union membership continues to drop as employers move jobs overseas and become more adept at blocking unionization efforts. Women in the United States are paid less than 78% of what men are paid in similar positions, and the real value of the U.S. minimum wage has decreased by more than 25% since its peak in 1968. These and other statistics bear harsh witness.

 6.9 — Percent of private-sector workers in the United States who are members of a union, less than one-fifth of the public-sector rate, which stands at 37% (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012)

 18 — Income ratio between the top fifth of households and bottom fifth of households in U.S. metropolitan areas, reflecting the growing wage gap between high‑wage and low‑wage workers over the past 30 years when inflation‑adjusted wages have increased by 14% for low‑wage workers and 44% for high‑wage workers (DC Fiscal Policy Institute 2012; The Washington Post 2012)

23 — Number of U.S. states that, as of 2012, have passed anti-union “right to work laws” that also are among the states with the highest income inequality, lowest educational achievement, and highest level of dependence on public subsidies as of 2012; nineteen of the twenty-five states with the highest worker fatality rates and six of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates were right-to-work states at the same time (The Huffington Post 2012; The New York Times 2012; Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO 2009)

 34 — Percent of employers who fire workers that try to form unions, an illegal practice under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, but one still attractive to employers who face weak penalties for violations (such as mitigated back pay), which take the National Labor Relations Board an average of 5.5 years to resolve, even in the “highest priority” cases (The New York Times 2012; American Rights at Work 2009)

 40 — Percent increase of disparity in the hourly wage of men and women in the United States between 1973 and 2007; over that same span, private‑sector union membership in the United States declined from 34% to 8% for men and from 16% to 6% for women (Bruce Western, Harvard University Department of Sociology 2011)

 52 — Percent of newly formed unions that, as of 2007, did not have a collective‑bargaining agreement one year after union election; 37% of newly formed unions had not reached such an agreement two years after union election (American Rights at Work 2009)

 53.5 — Percent of children and working-age adults in the United States with employer-sponsored health insurance in 2010, down from 63.6 percent in 2007, a steep decline in coverage caused largely by the significant loss of employment during the “great recession” stretching from December 2007 to June 2009 (National Institute for Health Care Reform 2012; The New York Times 2012)

 67.2 — Percent of authorized foreign‑born workers who reported employer violations of laws regulating overtime work in 2008; 31.1% of foreign‑born workers also reported more frequent minimum-wage violations than U.S.-born workers (15.6%), a disparity magnified by obstacles to foreign-born worker unionizing―in 41% of 2005 unionizing campaigns with recent immigrants in the majority, employers threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (American Rights at Work 2012; Migration Policy Institute 2011)

 343 — The CEO-to-worker “pay ratio” in the United States in 2010, indicating that CEO compensation at the country’s 299 largest corporations is 343 times workers’ median pay, by far the widest ratio in the world, representing a dramatic shift in corporate profit allocation since 1980, when CEO compensation stood at 42 times workers’ median pay (AFL-CIO 2011; Economic Policy Institute 2011)

 1500 — Number of state employees represented by unions who received layoff warnings from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2011 in an attempt to pass a bill that would dramatically reduce collective‑bargaining rights for public‑sector employees; similar bills were introduced in Ohio and Indiana the same year (The New York Times 2011)

 4151 — Number of religion-based employment‑discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011, 25% of them by U.S. Muslim workers (though Muslims make up less than 2% of the U.S. population), reflecting a 142% increase since 1997, including more complaints of anti-Muslim bias in 2009 than in the year following the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2011; The New York Times 2010)

 15,080 — Yearly dollar wage for a forty-hour work week at the mandated 2012 federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, less than 40% of the $37,960 annual income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the national average Fair Market Rate of $949 per month (National Low Income Housing Coalition 2012; The Washington Post 2012)

 800,000 — Number of people trafficked internationally each year as part of a global trafficking trade valued at $32 billion annually, resulting in an estimated 2.5 million people who are subjected to forced labor at any given time, including an estimated 50,000 in the United States―in contrast to governments, in 2010, having formally identified only 33,113 trafficking victims worldwide, prosecuted only 6,017 trafficking cases, and obtained only 3,619 trafficking convictions worldwide (The Economist 2008; U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2011; Human Rights & Human Welfare, University of Denver 2008)

6,200,000 — Decrease in number of U.S. workers belonging to unions since U.S. union membership peaked at 21 million in 1983, the union membership rate having plunged from 28.3% in 1954 to 11.8% in 2011, notwithstanding that the median weekly earnings of union members approximates $200 more than non-union workers ($938 compared to $729) (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012; Cornell University ILR School 2004)

 53,000,000 — Number of domestic workers―mostly women―worldwide, including 1.8 million in the United States who, under ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers adopted by the ILO General Conference and opened for ratification in June 2011, will be guaranteed basic labor rights for the first time in history once the Convention enters into force, affording protection against excessive work hours, unpaid wages, confinement, and physical and sexual abuse (International Labor Organization 2011; Human Rights Watch 2011)

 77,600,000 — Dollars in reimbursement offered to workers discharged or discriminated against in violation of the National Labor Relations Act in the fiscal year ending September of 2009, representing compensation for discharged workers’ lost earnings, fees, dues, and fines (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009)

* Copyright © 2012 by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR). Prepared by Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus and UICHR Senior Scholar Burns H. Weston with the generous assistance of Michael Judd and Chelsea Moore, students at the UI College of Law, and Abigail Behr, a pre-law student in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. For further information on human rights generally, please visit the UICHR web site.