A new bill—the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy Act, aka the WAGE Act—would make the right to join a labor union a civil right.
Workers who are fired or discriminated because they are union members would have the same rights as workers who suffer racial or sex discrimination.
This would be a big change. It would give individual workers a much stronger legal position than under existing labor law—in some
Labor union membership has been steadily declining—not, in my opinion, because American workers are satisfied with their wages and working conditions, but because they fear retaliation from employers.
Without the union voice, wages (adjusted for inflation) are stagnant and inequality is increasing. If everybody who wants to join a labor union could do so without fear, I think this could turn around.
The WAGE Act was introduced by Senator Patti Murray, D-WA, and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-VA. It was co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders and has been endorsed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The bill has virtually nil chance of getting through Congress this year. A similar bill introduced last year by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, and John Lewis, D-GA, failed. But it’s only by keeping the issue on the public agenda that this right can be won.
Firing an employee for union membership is at present an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act. The best that an employee can hope for from the NLRB is reinstatement in the job and partial back pay years later, and the odds are against even that.
Under the WAGE Act, employees would have the right to sue in court and ask to be put back to work with no loss of pay or benefits while the case is pending. If they won the case, they would get triple back pay, while the employer could face a $50,000 fine—$100,000 if it was a second offense.
Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, in his 2014 book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, explained some of the other advantages to workers of such a law:
First, you can take discovery. You have the equivalent of subpoena power—except it’s even better than a formal subpoena. You just send the boss a request for production of documents and say in effect: “I want every written scrap of paper, including e-mails, about your attempt to bust the union.” [snip]
Then you can pull in the store manager, the HR person, maybe the boss and take depositions from everyone under oath—only not too long, but, say, just up to seven hours. They have to sit there and think with every answer: “I’m under oath. Is this perjury?”
Some say the modern discovery process is equivalent to waterboarding. That’s not fair, but it’s true that it’s anything but pleasant.
Now you may scoff: “Come on, level with us—you aren’t going to win all these cases, right?”
Little children, it does not matter: the slug-fest known as “civil” discovery—a discovery of one’s stamina, a brutal inquiry into the operation of the company—will end up deciding more cases than judges and juries ever do. Trust me. I do these cases.
Geoghegan noted that racial and gender discrimination are usually hidden and covert, but discrimination against union members is intended to intended to send a message.
If it’s hidden, it loses its power to intimidate. That should make either union civil rights cases easier to win, and persecution of union members less effective as an anti-union device.
Finally, Geoghegan noted, when a civil rights lawsuit is successful, the winning lawyers’ fees are covered in the settlement. Neither the labor union nor the employee are out of pocket, as in NLRB cases.
The WAGE Act Will Help Strengthen Unions, Raise Wages and Improve Working Conditions by Ross Eisenbrey for the Economic Policy Institute.
The power of a lawsuit: Inside a new labor bill, a simple change that could be crucial to fighting inequality by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit for POLITICO>
Democrats Want to Make Labor Organizing Akin to a Civil Right by Dave Jamieson for the Huffington Post.
Hillary Clinton Endorses Wage Act, Union-Backed Labor Reform Bill by Cole Stangler for International Business Times.