Alan Grayson. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
In a Tuesday interview, Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) announced the introduction of a bill to dramatically expand the legal remedies available to non-union workers who are punished for workplace activism. “Retaliation in the workplace today when people exercise their right to organize is pervasive,” Grayson told The Nation, “and the law against it has become utterly impotent.”
Grayson’s bill has been referred to the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where it is virtually guaranteed to languish. “It may not pass today,” said Grayson. “It may not pass tomorrow. But it indicates the direction that we have to go in if we’re going to preserve the middle class in America.” A spokesperson for Congressman John Kline, the committee’s chairman, did not respond to a request for comment last night. The committee is scheduled to take up two GOP bills restricting union recognition tomorrow.
Retaliating against workers for engaging in protected forms of workplace collective action is already illegal under the seventy-eight-year-old National Labor Relations Act (Grayson noted that his bill “gives a broad and explicit definition” of the crime). But pro-labor advocates and academics have long argued that the law does too little to dissuade companies determined to squash organizing or suppress free speech. Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen last year slammed existing US labor law as “a scam,” “garbage” and “a fucking lie.” Grayson’s new “Worker Anti-Retaliation Act,” which he introduced June 11 but has not previously announced, addresses several of the NLRA’s perceived weaknesses when it comes to punishing retaliation.
Whereas current law limits workers’ legal recourse for retaliation to the National Labor Relations Board—an agency whose process can take years to reinstate a fired worker—Grayson’s bill would separately guarantee most employees the right to sue their boss in civil court for retaliating, and the chance to seek an injunction to swiftly reverse the alleged retaliation. “The private right of action,” said Grayson, “means that the fact that a government bureaucrat is lazy or bored or not interested in your case,” or “hostile to workers in general,” would no longer “mean that you have no case. It means that you can take your case to court yourself.”
Grayson would also give workers the option of bringing a civil suit directly against the person who carried out retaliation—rather than just the corporate entity they work for—and ban the company from paying that agent’s legal costs or fines. Grayson told The Nation that “when designing laws that involve corporate misconduct you often have to take special care to think through what it will actually take to significantly influence the corporation given the impossibility of incarceration.” Asked whether he foresaw the law being used to sue lower-level managers or higher-level executives, Grayson replied, “Anyone who carries out an anti-organizing campaign against workers who are exercising their lawful rights can and should be punished under the law.”