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[Excerpt] Decisions about the constitution of workers' rights do not unfold in a vacuum; quite the opposite. History plays an important role. Legislators, judges, policymakers, and other key decision-makers possess different value systems that they transpose onto various institutional practices. Ideas and the value systems that certain ideas represent are shared, adopted and at times imposed across national borders. Globally, particular labor and social policy models are exchanged and advocated. The International Labor Organization has since 1919 gathered delegates from around the world to discuss and adopt international conventions on particular labor and employment policies. These norms as ideas shape national and local choices and strategies for protecting workers' rights. The international human rights treaty system is yet another international venue for the advocacy, negotiation, and setting of labor and employment rights standards.

Taken together, the decisions made in establishing citizenship rights at work—their underlying values and moral paradigms, their real world effectiveness on the ground where people work, and the history and politics behind their development—form an important object of study for both the citizen-worker and the labor scholar. This book is an in-depth examination of a narrow but essential citizenship right at the workplace, the rights of workers to refuse unsafe, hazardous, or unhealthy work. The employment relationship in all its divergent and precarious forms is a global phenomenon. Studying how employees are empowered to dissent and the models of protection on the right to refuse is, therefore, a question of international importance.

Across the contemporary globalized workplace, a "right to refuse" is exercised when one or more workers decide not to perform some task or assignment at work for fear of a health and safety risk—even after being ordered to do the job by a supervisor, manager, or some other superior. Where such refusals are safeguarded effectively, there are systems of protections for the worker with avenues for redress. These may include legal protections against retaliation or discrimination and systems to ameliorate the workers' health and safety concern. Where refusal rights are not well protected, this book asks why this is so. The diverging ways this unique citizenship right has been respected, exercised, and protected in law and in practice is the focus of this book. It is the story of how human society has shaped and restricted the global norms that define the workers' right to protest and in turn how society defines social justice and human rights in the struggle for a healthy and safe work environment.

The story of "the right to refuse" moves back and forth from local grievance to international political negotiation. The diversity of questions raised by this subject are equally legal, political, economic, social, and indeed philosophic. Refusal rights strike at the heart of employment in a capitalist society, defining how workers are protected when they fear for their health and safety. This book is about how society has decided to treat people willing to risk their livelihood to protest a concern about their basic working environment. The issue is not an abstract legal debate but rather a series of poignant and unnerving human experiences. The choices made define social justice, determine the degree of risk faced by people and communities, and delineate the line between a dignified and undignified human existence. Attention is paid to the North American experience for the instructive qualities of its labor history but also because this experience has influenced the global norms. This book is the history of the right to refuse unsafe work under international labor standards, a global legal framework and jurisprudence that fails workers seeking social justice by refusing unsafe work.


The abstract, table of contents, and first twenty-five pages are published with permission from the Cornell University Press. For ordering information, please visit the Cornell University Press.