Director, Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
November 01, 2023
In a recent letter to Department of Labor Acting Secretary Julie Su, U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy reminded her, and us all, that only Congress can change federal labor law. The letter is in response to a complaint Workers United (an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) filed with the International Labor Organization (ILO) earlier this year arguing that U.S. labor laws fail to comport with ILO standards and all but demands passage of the PRO Act.
The ILO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is a uniquely tripartite agency under the U.N. system charged with setting international labor standards. Like the U.N., States comprise the ILO’s membership and are free to ratify, or not ratify, conventions adopted by the ILO. If a member state is failing to enforce labor laws, constituents can file a complaint and request the ILO take action.
In this case, Workers United, along with the SEIU and the AFL-CIO, filed a complaint with the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association against the Government of the United States. The complaint identifies three separate ways in which U.S. law falls short of ILO Standards. It further argues that Starbucks has been exploiting these alleged gaps. Workers United has been involved in a bitter campaign to try and organize Starbucks stores, but due to its own intransigence has yet to negotiate a single contract at any location.
The 35-page document makes clear that the complaint against the U.S. is merely a vehicle to ramp up the campaign against Starbucks. In fact, the signatories are sympathetic to the government, what they call “the most pro union” administration in history. They blame the supposed shortcomings of U.S. labor law on the Senate filibuster and advocate for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act as the holy grail for workers across the U.S. Finally, the union requests that the ILO perform an “on-the-spot” mission to the U.S., pending the government’s approval. In totality, the complaint is emblematic of the prolonged attacks Starbucks has endured this year, and the unions’ aggressive advocacy for passage of the PRO Act.
In reality, the Workers United complaint doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The U.S. has never ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 90, which cover remedies related to workers’ freedom of association, right to organize and collectively bargain, and fair and speedy procedures and appeal processes. Since we have not ratified them, it is rather rash to argue that the U.S. government is in some way violating them.
Senator Cassidy Responds
However, that doesn’t mean the administration isn’t capable of using the complaint to promote unions, and Labor Acting Secretary Su, the chair of the President’s Committee on the ILO, is anticipated to respond to Workers United’s complaint relatively soon. To get in front of this, Senator Bill Cassidy rightfully took the opportunity to remind Acting Secretary Su that labor law can only be enacted by Congress and that treaties negotiated by the executive branch must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate to be ratified. As such, the U.S. cannot adopt Conventions 87 and 98 without broad Senate approval. Furthermore, Senator Cassidy brought to light the reality of the PRO Act – it’s a partisan bill that does not have the votes to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and has not been brought to the floor.
Specifically, Senator Cassidy requested that Acting Secretary Su answer a handful of questions regarding the complaint. These questions ranged from the status of the complaint, a request for the observations on allegations that were made in the complaint, and whether the president of AFL-CIO will be required to recuse herself from the complaint procedure due to the relationship with Workers United.
The ILO serves an important function. However, the reality is that the U.S. Constitution prioritizes our nation’s sovereignty and limits foreign bodies’ authority over our domestic laws.
Workers United is attempting to use the ILO’s complaint mechanism as a lever in its campaign against Starbucks. Instead, perhaps it should read Senator Cassidy’s letter and remember this: If you want to change U.S. law, the place to start is Capitol Hill, not Geneva.
About the authors
Stephanie Ferguson is the Director of Global Employment Policy and Special Initiatives. Her work on the labor shortage has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Associated Press.