WASHINGTON -- If you get fired for trying to organize a union in the U.S., federal labor law does a pretty weak job of protecting you. Even if your employer is found to have broken the law, the most you can win under the current system is back pay and reinstatement -- that is, the right to go back to work under a boss who already illegally retaliated against you.
Labor unions have sought for years to strengthen those protections, and on Wednesday Democrats in Washington took up the latest version of the cause. Lawmakers proposed a bill, crafted with the input of the AFL-CIO union federation, that would make workplace organizing akin to a civil right.
The bill, called the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, would do so by amending the National Labor Relations Act, the bedrock Great Depression-era law that set the boundaries for collective bargaining. The Democratic proposal would triple the amount of back pay that workers are owed when their employers fire them for what's known as protected concerted activity. It would also give workers the right to pursue damages in federal court, just like those who've been discriminated against over their race or gender.
In addition, the law would increase the use of federal injunctions to get illegally fired workers back on the job quickly. And it would establish civil penalties against companies that violate the law, and allow for officers and directors of the company to be penalized individually as well.
All told, the legislation would make it far riskier for employers to retaliate against workers who are trying to organize a union or band together to improve working conditions. Due to the relatively weak recourse under current law, there's little disincentive now for employers to commit what are known as unfair labor practices. Even when back pay is awarded to a fired worker, it must be mitigated by any other pay the worker earned elsewhere since being fired.
To be clear, the Democratic proposal has approximately zero chance of going anywhere while the GOP controls both the House and Senate. Republicans have been set against putting any new regulations or mandates upon businesses, and they're not about to make it easier for workers to sue their employers. Besides, they already view the National Labor Relations Board -- the agency that enforces labor law -- as being far too friendly to unions in the Obama era.
Though it will surely languish, the bill will still serve as a model prescription for what Democrats and unions say are the deficiencies of the current system. The last comprehensive overhaul of labor law pushed by the AFL-CIO was the Employee Free Choice Act. That bill would have assured workers the right to form a union merely by having a majority sign authorization cards, taking away the right of employers to demand a secret-ballot election. The bill died in 2009.
In a letter to colleagues this week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking members of the Senate and House committees overseeing labor relations, said the legislation introduced Wednesday was intended to strengthen worker voice and, by extension, help raise wages and grow the middle class.
"While the majority of Americans support workers’ ability to come together to improve their wages and working conditions, too many employers use aggressive intimidation campaigns to keep workers from having a voice in the workplace," Murray and Scott wrote. "The system is broken, and needs to be fixed."
Many of the nuts and bolts in the bill were previously laid out in a book called Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit. The book argues that the growing income inequality of recent decades can be traced to the erosion of labor unions in the U.S. Giving workers more protections under federal law, the authors write, would help restore bargaining power more generally in the economy.
In an email, Marvit, a labor lawyer and fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said that the "weak procedures and remedies" under current law lead many employers to "violate these rights with impunity." If labor rights were more like civil rights, he said, workers could seek "real remedies that can make them whole" and dissuade bad actors from breaking the law.
"I do think that the legislation is a good prescription to reverse the tide of falling union density in the U.S.," Marvit said. "Studies have shown repeatedly that the majority of American workers would join a union if they could, and yet the number of private sector workers who do so remain dismally low. The reason is because of employer violations of workers' labor rights."
Union membership in the U.S. is now hovering near an all-time low. Only 6.6 percent of private-sector workers belong to labor unions, according to the most recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down from a historic high of roughly 35 percent during the mid-1950s.