Claiming Labor Rights as Human Rights: Legal Mobilization at the European Court of Human Rights
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In recent years, labor activists have increasingly started mobilizing human rights in order to draw attention to precarious working conditions and restrictions on labor activism. Through analyzing the legal mobilization of labor activists at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), this research answers the following questions: (1) Why have labor activists in recent years turned to the ECtHR to claim labor rights? (2) Does this labor rights mobilization at the ECtHR signal an expansion of human rights law in Europe and beyond? (3) What is the impact of this litigation process in terms of providing remedies for labor rights violations and transforming labor activism? In investigating answers to these questions, this dissertation provides a comprehensive analysis of the causes and consequences of litigating workers’ rights as human rights. Despite the increased number and importance of this case law, the mobilization efforts of workers at the ECtHR have garnered little attention from social scientists and we lack a comparative study that shows the various factors that affect legal mobilization at the international level. This research generated the first database of labor cases before the ECtHR in order to analyze this unexpected expansion of labor jurisprudence. It also draws on qualitative analyses of two cases of grassroots labor activism in Turkey and the UK to take a view from below and examine the actual impact of ECtHR rulings and the workers’ perspective on human rights litigation. I conducted my analysis of workers’ mobilization of human rights at three different levels—international, state/domestic, and grassroots. I argue that the ECtHR presents a new avenue for labor activists to seek remedies for labor rights violations in a political environment in which domestic institutions have become unresponsive to labor’s demands. The case studies show that the direct remedies provided by the ECtHR fail to fulfill the expectations of trade union activists. The effects of ECtHR law on strengthening workers’ mobilization efforts, however, is more transformative than are the direct remedies provided to workers by the ECtHR in violation judgments. In cases where workers engage in grassroots mobilization in conjunction with litigation at the ECtHR, they are able to pressure the government to take action on labor rights violations even before the ECtHR delivers its final ruling. However, in cases where activists do not have the capacity to mobilize due to state repression, litigation may turn into a strategy of despair rather than a catalyst for grassroots mobilization. Winning more cases before the ECtHR fails to produce meaningful change on the ground unless litigation efforts are buttressed by pressure from below. I further show that workers engage in strategic mobilization of human rights. Labor activists, deeply skeptical of the limited remedies and the depoliticizing potential of human rights, do not shape their solidarity ties or identity constructions in this way. Rather, they use this language to gain entry to a public discourse in which human rights has become the dominant idiom to address social justice issues.
- Political science