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With unions nearing extinction in the private sector and under relentless attack in the public sector, making union organizing a civil right could help revive the battered U.S. labor movement.

A bill recently proposed by Rep. Keith Ellison (D- Minn.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) would extend that right to union organizers.

By defining organizing a fundamental right, the bill would provide workers with the protection against discrimination now enjoyed by minorities. Under the legislation, workers who are fired for organizing would have the right to sue their employers for damages in federal court.

“Most people want a union, but they need a job,” Ellison said on July 30, when he and Lewis introduced the bill.
He said that the legislation would help make union organizers less fearful about retaliation by employers, who often fight organizing drives by hiring anti-union law firms, firing and disciplining organizers, and holding captive meetings to persuade workers to vote against forming a union in their workplace.

“Too often, employees seeking to unite with their co-workers to demand better wages, benefits and workplace safety provisions face aggressive and often illegal anti-union campaigns coordinated by their employer,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, in a statement backing the bill. “Intimidation, illegal firings, wrongful discipline and other tactics aimed at breaking workers’ will are commonplace when they seek to join together on the job.”
Today, union organizers can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board if they are fired. But the best remedy they can hope for is to be reinstated with back pay. By allowing for punitive damages, the Ellison-Lewis legislation would open up employers to very costly lawsuits and embarrassing publicity.
“The unfortunate reality is that discrimination in the workplace persists and employees are still wrongly fired or demoted for union activity while employers have ample resources to intimidate workers for organizing,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in a statement. The legislation, he said, “will enhance workplace protection by allowing victims to receive remedies, including back pay and damages….Workplace discrimination hurts all workers, and disproportionately hurts minorities and women.”
Strengthening the Labor Movement

The blueprint for the Ellison-Lewis legislation comes from “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice,” a 2012 book by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a labor and job discrimination lawyer.

“By making labor a civil right, the hope is to make the labor movement itself stronger,” Marvit said in an interview with With the court option, unions should be able to embark upon more sophisticated and aggressive organizing campaigns, he said.
By extending protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to union organizers, Ellison and Lewis’ Employee Empowerment Act would presumably make employers less likely to use illegal tactics to try to thwart organizing campaigns.

“The penalties now are extremely weak,” Kahlenberg said. He noted that when the National Labor Relations Board orders workers to be reinstated and receive back pay, employers are allowed to subtract any earnings the employees received after their firing.

Under the Employee Empowerment Act, aggrieved workers would be covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, allowing them to seek substantial damages in federal court. They’d be able to force their boss to testify in court. They would also have the right to discovery, which means they could demand to see employers’ files and e-mail messages. Today, they don’t enjoy any of those rights, Kahlenberg pointed out.

Both Kahlenberg and Marvit acknowledge that the United States ultimately needs to carry out more far- reaching reform of its labor laws to address the imbalance of power between workers and employers. But over the past half-century, Democrats have been unable to enact labor law reform during four presidencies in which they have also controlled the House and Senate, suggesting comprehensive reform is unlikely anytime soon.

“One reason law reform has never passed is that it is very complicated and it doesn’t excite the general population, “Kahlenberg said. “A civil rights approach is something that is very easy for everyone to understand. People study the civil rights movement in school, but they aren’t taught about labor rights.”
During the Eisenhower years in the 1950s, employers generally accepted the right of workers to organize unions. But as labor unions declined and power shifted to corporations in subsequent decades, employers felt—correctly--that they could get away with more aggressive anti-union practices.

Changing the Political Discourse

Making the right to organize a civil right would help alter the political discourse in the country, Marvit said.

“Labor law now exists in a sort of black hole,” Marvit said.

“Thinking of labor as a civil right changes the conversation,” he said. “With the new law, labor organizing would come to seen as a basic right like freedom of speech and freedom of association.”

Originally posted to on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 05:51 PM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Oh how I totally agree (4+ / 0-)

    And how I totally fear that if the Republicons are fully in charge they'll make the entire country a Right To Work country.

    Never be afraid to voice your opinion and fight for it . Corporations aren't people, they're Republicans (Rev Al Sharpton 10/7/2011) Voting is a louder voice than a bullhorn but sometimes you need that bullhorn to retain your vote.

    by Rosalie907 on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 06:04:24 PM PDT

  •  This sounds good in theory (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    but simply giving the NLRB teeth would be vastly more effective.

    I've sued in federal court, and my biggest hope after awhile was that the case would be resolved within my lifetime.

    If you file an NLRB charge the NLRB has all the discovery rights and more than a federal civil case plaintiff has.

    The record for achieving justice for all the other civil rights laws, by suing in federal court, is pretty poor.

    Most women or minorities that sued for discrimination can tell you its a pretty bleak process, once you convince an agency to file on your behalf.

    It takes months and months just to get your "right to sue" letter.

    How would we fund the prosecution of the additional thousands of  cases annually on behalf of fired pro-union workers?

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 06:09:54 PM PDT

  •  MLK would agree (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Martin Luther King Jr. Talks about the Labor Movement

    "The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society."
    —Speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action. UID: 9742

    by Shockwave on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 06:20:30 PM PDT

  •  I would add the right to collective bargaining for (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Joe Hill PDX, Chi

    ALL employees.  Workers should not have to forfeit collective bargaining rights because their employer is "government."

    Robber Baron "ReTHUGisms": John D. Rockefeller -"The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets"; Jay Gould -"I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

    by ranton on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 07:57:17 PM PDT

  •  Repeal Taft-Hartley! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy, 6412093, Chi

    This is long overdue. And card check. And I thought that President Obama was going to be out walking the picket lines with us?

    So far, we haven't seen much of that.

    For what is the crime of the robbing of a bank compared to the crime of the founding of a bank? - Brecht

    by Joe Hill PDX on Mon Aug 11, 2014 at 08:13:03 PM PDT

  •  Does this mean that workers who opposed (0+ / 0-)

    co-workers who were trying to organize a union would be violating the latter's civil rights, and could be prosecuted for it?

  •  US Labor Law is clear (0+ / 0-)

    Federal law protects workers who try to form a union or join a union. Union organizing is protected under U.S. labor law. Employers try everything to screw up your efforts on the job, but they can't fire you for organizing. They do it, but there are punishments for them later. They can't prevent an election for a union in the work place but they can be mean, try to turn everyone against you, but the election goes foreword on schedule. A referee comes from the labor board on your election day. Meanwhile, employers hire lawyers who specialize in digging up dirt on organizers. It's routine.

    It's a nasty business, calling for an election in the workplace, but the law is behind you. We won ours.

    We produce more renewable energy than any other state - WA Gov. Jay Inslee

    by mrobinson on Tue Aug 12, 2014 at 08:13:56 AM PDT

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