By Bill Knight
With Mitch McConnell’s Senate ongoing blockade of legislation, one may think, Why bother to try to improve labor law?
Two answers: Americans want unions, and reform is desperately needed.
The public’s interest in unionizing if given the chance is at a 40-year high, according to the National Opinion Research Corporation: 48 percent of non-union workers. That compares to about 32 percent 20 years ago and also 40 years ago.
“Union membership is on the rise among young people,” said Hannah Finne, senior policy associate for Generation Progress, part of the Center for American Progress.
In 2017, there were 262,000 new union members in the country, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
“Seventy-five percent of this increase came from young people,” Finne added. “Young people also hold the most favorable attitudes towards labor of any generation, and their support for political parties skews heavily towards those that support pro-worker policies.”
Last year’s wave of teacher strikes and this year’s work stoppage by 30,000 workers at the Stop & Shop grocery chain in the U.S. Northeast point to chronic issues: flat wages and resources, threatened pensions, and employer proposals to eliminate overtime and other benefits.
“While organized labor has seen strikes and work stoppages increase, unions have also endured over two years of pro-employer policies from the Trump administration,” said Michael Arria, author of “Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.”
The most recent was the National Labor Relations Board’s July 25 decision essentially eliminating labor law’s protection for workers – union or not – engaged in a concerted activity. Stemming from action by the OUR Walmart group’s short-term strikes, the NLRB ruled that workers weren’t protected because their work stoppages were “intermittent.”
However, the lack of labor-law enforcement or even government support goes back many years.
“In March, the Labor Department rolled back an Obama-era overtime policy which would have raised wages for more than 8 million workers,” Arria continued. “In addition, organized labor also had to endure eight years of being frequently snubbed by moderate Democrats and the Obama administration. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) was a landmark piece of legislation developed a decade ago that also aimed to make organizing workplaces easier. The EFCA was pushed vociferously by labor leaders and progressives, but moderate Democrats ended up killing the bill’s most important provision, and Obama ultimately abandoned the bill over fears that it was too politically risky.”
In response, organized labor worked with lawmakers to draft the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019 (or PRO Act, S.1306 in the Senate and H.R.2474 in the House). Introduced by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), rhe bill states that it “restores fairness to the economy by strengthening the federal lw that protect workers’ right to organize a union and bargaining for higher wages and better benefits.”
The measure would:
* include penalties for employers that illegally fire employees or speed up union-recognition elections,
* strengthen financial penalties for employers that violate workers’ rights, including letting workers sue their bosses if their right to organize is violated,
* offer new safeguards for workers that go on strike such as prohibiting employers from permanently replacing striking workers with scabs,
* restore aspects of traditional labor law to the time before the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, such as repealing the ban on boycotting “secondary” companies,
* provide card-check union recognition in certain situations,
* add support for workers retaliated against for exercising their rights,
* prohibit employers from forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings,
* guarantee unions’ ability to collect non-political “fair-share” fees from workers who decline to become members in order to cover costs of required representation,
* facilitate initial contracts, and
* close loopholes such as employers misclassifying workers as managers or independent contractors.
“The PRO Act is an important effort to bring U.S. labor law into the 21st century – giving working people more power at a time when it is desperately needed,” said EPI’s Director of Government Affairs Celine McNicholas. “Congress should pass the PRO Act immediately and give working people what they need most: fairness and a voice on the job.”
Already with 190 co-sponsors in the House and 40 in the Senate, the Pro Act has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor and the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
“It’s time for our laws to catch up,” commented AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
The labor federation’s web page HTTPS://AFLCIO.ORG/FREEDOM-TO-JOIN summarizes how “Working people are organizing in unions,” especially in the conte