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Freedom of Association as a Key Aspect of Human Capital Management

Executive Summary

Employee freedom of association— the right of workers to form and join organizations of their own choosing— is a fundamental human right that has been consistently disrespected by large U.S. employers (Economic Policy Institute 2019; International Labour Organization 2022). Freedom of association requires employers to refrain from discouraging employees’ right to organize but is routinely violated without meaningful penalty. In over forty percent of union election campaigns, employers face charges for violating employees’ right to organize—which does not include cases where no charges are filed (Economic Policy Institute 2019). The recent wave of well-known companies like Amazon and Starbucks blatantly engaging in practices to discourage their workers from forming unions has seen new challenges from the Biden National Labor Relations Board, but labor law in the United States does not adequately protect the right to freedom of association, and a change in political leadership could give companies carte blanche to override workers' rights (Clean Slate 2022). Companies can choose to establish corporate policies to respect employee freedom of association rights and can engage in behavior demonstrating their commitment to respecting this fundamental human right as part of their approach to Human Capital Management.

This article focuses on two aspects of freedom of association as an aspect of Human Capital Management. The first is to examine what kinds of corporate policies exist to clarify corporate standards of conduct when employees are engaged in organizing activity. What kinds of policies focus on compliance with the minimal standards in U.S. labor law, and what policies comply with international norms as enshrined in ILO Conventions 87 and 98? The second prong of the article looks at negative ramifications for corporate value when companies do not respect workers' freedom of association and such behavior becomes public. What is the effect on customer attitudes, how is management behavior becoming increasingly visible, and what ramifications might this have for institutional investors?

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