For years, the American labor movement has been on the defensive as it has become harder and harder for workers to join or maintain a union. But some House Democrats are planning a dramatic counter-offensive: a bill that would make union organizing a civil right.
Representatives Keith Ellison and John Lewis plan to introduce a bill Wednesday that would make labor organizing a basic freedom no different than freedom from racial discrimination. That sounds like a nice talking point—but this isn’t just another messaging bill.
The Ellison-Lewis legislation would amend the National Labor Relations Act to include protections found under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include labor organizing as a fundamental right. That would give workers a broader range of legal options if they feel discriminated against for trying to form a union.
Currently, their only redress is through a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board—an important process, but one that workers and labor analysts frequently criticize as both too slow and often too lenient on offending employers.
If the NLRA were amended, however, after 180 days a worker could take his or her labor complaint from the NLRB to a federal court. This is how the law works now for civil rights complaints, which gives workers the option, after 180 days, to step outside the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission process.
Then, workers would have sole discretion on whether to push a complaint, as opposed to relying on a decision by the NLRB on whether to forge ahead. Workers could also move the process along much faster than the NLRB handles complaints, which can often take years.
Ellison told The Nation that the legislation would also help workers recover more money—the NLRB will award back pay to a grieved worker minus whatever they earned while awaiting a decision, which can often amount to basically nothing. “[The NLRB] remedy, though useful and very important, and nothing in our legislation changes that, that remedy is considered slow and somewhat inadequate. For some of these union-busting law firms, [they] will say ‘so do it and we’ll just pay.’”
Ellison said he believes the labor movement needs to get back on the offensive. “With the Supreme Court in here, and what they just did in Harris v. Quinn and all the things they wrote about Abood, it’s insane to hope for the best,” he said, referring to the recent decision involving non-union public workers and their fee arrangements with unions. “I mean this Supreme Court is openly hostile to racial justice and worker justice simultaneously. So we better be moving out on both fronts.”