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November 2015

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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Federal Legislation Aims to Strengthen Protections for Working People

A new bill in Congress is aiming to make joining a union easier and more like a civil right.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy Act in September. The bill would amend the National Labor Relations Act to strengthen protections for workers who want to form a union, while also stiffening penalties against employers who seek to thwart any organizing attempts.

And it's good for nonunion people too. For anyone who wants to talk with their co-workers about equal pay or push for increased safety conditions or wages, they would be able to do so with less fear of retaliation from their bosses. And if bosses do get in the way, the WAGE Act provides more remedies for employees to seek damages.

"Too many employers use aggressive intimidation campaigns to keep workers from having a voice in the workplace," Murray and Scott wrote in a sign-on letter to colleagues. "The system is broken, and needs to be fixed."

The NLRA hasn't been updated since 1947—and then it was to weaken employee power.

"Anytime we make it easier to form a union and give working people a voice on the job, that's a good thing," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "And if we can give the NLRB more teeth and power to keep unscrupulous employers in check, that will help level the playing field."

Some of the changes the WAGE Act would make include:

Tripling the backpay employers would have to pay for firing or retaliating against their employees, regardless of immigration status.

Allowing employees to sue their employers for monetary damages, just as they can under civil rights laws.

Establishing civil penalties up to $50,000 for employers who engage in unfair labor practices.

Empowering the National Labor Relations Board to issue a bargaining order upon finding that an employer prevented a free and fair election.

Requiring employers to inform their employees of these rights by posting a notice developed by the NLRB. They would also have to inform new employees at the time of hiring.

"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," wrote Dave Jamieson for the Huffington Post. A study from Harvard says there are a lot of people who would like to do just that. The study found that if everyone who would wanted representation on the job got it, the unionization rate would be almost 60 percent.

Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, authors of "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right," a book that lays out much of what is in the WAGE Act, wrote in Politico, "By giving workers a fresh way to think about becoming part of a union—as a civil right, rather than just joining a special interest—the idea has a chance to re-awaken a conversation that has languished in American politics." Considering another study that found unionization is positively related to upward mobility, this bill could potentially affect generations of working families.

The WAGE Act has 56 co-sponsors in the House and 14 in the Senate as of Oct. While leaders in the Republican-controlled Congress are unlikely to bring it to the floor, the bill does give politicians who wish to show their support of working families something to align themselves with. As Bill Samuel, director of government relations at the AFL-CIO said to the Guardian, "We want to make sure that our elected officials have something concrete to point to, to embrace, to explain to the public and to the press, and that's really why we are doing this now."