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Reviewed by:
  • Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards
  • Jennifer Sherer
Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards. By Lance Compa. Ithaca, NY: ILR/Cornell University Press, 2004. 220 pp. $16.95 paper.

Unfair Advantage documents the range of obstacles U.S. workers face to the full exercise of their rights of free association. Cornell University Press's publication of this updated version of Lance Compa's report (originally published by Human Rights Watch in 2000) is a promising sign that Unfair Advantage has already generated significant new attention to the shortcomings of U.S. labor law and that it will continue to reach a well-deserved wider audience.

Compa's study assesses two types of problems with U.S. labor law. First, Unfair Advantage analyzes where existing laws fall short of meeting recognized human rights standards as embodied in International Labor Organization conventions and other international instruments (for example, by excluding large classes of workers from coverage or allowing permanent striker replacement). Second, it documents problems with enforcement of existing laws, illustrating how procedural delays and weak remedies fail to protect workers' rights to free association and collective bargaining.

Following a standard Human Rights Watch format, Unfair Advantage illustrates the need for change with dozens of case studies based on legal research and extensive worker interviews. Individually, each case study provides a unique record of workers' first-hand experiences with labor law as applied to their own workplaces and the often life-changing effects of their organizing experiences. Together, the case studies reveal patterns of employer exploitation enabled by weak, exclusionary, or unenforceable labor laws. As one nursing- home worker fired for organizing comments, "The law gives you something with one hand then takes it away with the other hand." Multiple case studies [End Page 113] also provide powerful examples of systematic exploitation of immigrant workers (both documented and not) and of workers employed through workfare programs, prison work programs, or temporary agencies, where labor law loopholes combine with employer abuses to block freedom of association.

The 2004 edition of Unfair Advantage includes a new introduction updating several of the original case studies and a conclusion reflecting on the report's impact to date.

Compa's new conclusion provides an overview of the tensions remaining between the economic foundation of U.S. labor law and the "rights-based" approaches taken in international law. He suggests a human rights approach can help "begin a process of change" in the organizing climate and, ultimately, in the labor law of the United States. Compa has continued to further dialogue between the U.S. labor movement and human rights communities, with another Human Rights Watch report being published in 2004 entitled Blood Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.

Certainly Unfair Advantage should be required reading in labor studies courses and in law schools. Case study sections especially provide useful resources for educators at all levels, including those who work in popular or public education settings. Workers' stories included in Unfair Advantage can help provide students, union members, and public audiences with new understandings of the obstacles workers routinely face when attempting to organize—and of the pressing need to bring U.S. laws and enforcement mechanisms in line with fundamental workers' rights standards.

Jennifer Sherer
University of Iowa


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 113-114
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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