More complaints about rights violations in the workplace are received by the American Civil Liberties Union than any other kind. In the majority of these cases, the ACLU can do nothing.
When Americans report for work, most leave their constitutional rights behind. In the world of work, they have no freedom of speech, no right to privacy, no right to fair treatment and no legal protection when their rights are denied. Thousands of companies listen in on employee telephone calls, install hidden video cameras and hire undercover agents to masquerade as employees and report back to management. Most important of all, perhaps, American employees have no right to be free from arbitrary punishment. Many workers still labor under the 19th century employment-at-will doctrine and can be suspended or fired at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all. They do not even have the right to know why they are fired.
Americans believe that the Constitution protects their rights as citizens--which it does, but only against violations by the government. The Constitution does not apply to the relationship between private organizations, such as corporations, and their employees. Legally, a business can do virtually anything it wants to its hirelings.
The vast majority of people working in the private sector have only those rights that Congress or their state legislatures explicitly create. These legislative bodies have done a fair job of protecting people from discrimination because of race, sex (in some instances, sexual orientation), age, disability and other factors unrelated to job performance. Such antidiscrimination laws, however, do not require employers to live up to any objective standard of fairness: A business is free to treat its employees poorly so long as it treats everyone with equal disrespect.
The United States has set a standard that is a model for the world for protecting human rights from government abuse. Yet Americans have made no attempt to protect those same rights from abuse by employers. If human rights are being violated, does it really matter whether the culprit is the Attorney General or General Motors? The collective failure to protect the individual's rights at work is as illogical as it is tragic.
The ACLU is calling for a bill of rights for all working people. American workers deserve a document to protect those rights that brought the nation together more than 200 years ago. The failure to protect people's rights at work makes us all less free and makes the nation poorer: People work harder and smarter in an atmosphere of trust and dignity. Our competitors in trade, including the Germans and the Japanese, have for years had laws that require companies to treat their employees fairly. Only the United States and South Africa cling to a legal system that treats employees only slightly better than plantation hands. While the causes of America's declining competitiveness are many, one key reason is our antiquated employment laws.
When the founding fathers created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, their scope was limited. Women had no legal rights. Neither did people of color. Even white males had to own property to have full legal rights. Over the years, the American vision of liberty has expanded to include many who were originally forgotten. It is time to expand our vision again and to protect the rights of all Americans at work.
Lewis Maltby is director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Workplace Rights Task Force.