Legal

Union Organizing as a Protected Class? Worst. Idea. EVER.

By Jon Hyman

Sep. 21, 2015

Raise your hand if you think that it needs to be easier for workers to unionize. If I could look through my computer screen, I’d see very few of my readers’ hands raised.

Two hands that would be raised, though, are those of Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott (both Democrats), who, last week, introduced and sponsored the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act.

What would the WAGE Act do?

  • Triple the back pay to employees fired or retaliated against for engaging in protected concerted activity.
  • Provide employees with a private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorneys’ fees in federal district court, in addition to injunctive relief.  
  • Clarify that joint employers are jointly responsible for violations affecting workers supplied by another employer.
  • Establish civil penalties up to $50,000 for employers that commit unfair labor practices, with double penalties for repeat violations.
  • Impose individual liability for employer violators on officers and directors. 
  • Allow the NLRB to issue a bargaining order upon finding that an employer prevented a free and fair election, provided that a majority of employees signed authorization cards within the previous 12 months.

What else do you need to know about the WAGE Act? It’s supported by the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, the Communication Workers of AmericaThe Leadership Conference on Civil and Human RightsThe Century Foundation, and other worker-rights groups.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka described the legislation: 

The WAGE Act puts corporations who abuse working people on notice that there will be real penalties for lawbreaking. Penalties like triple back pay, strong civil penalties and preliminary reinstatement.

Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa added:

For too long employers have manipulated and abused the system under the NLRA. The WAGE Act offers real reform to our current laws and provides worker protections through significant penalties that will discourage employers from acting illegally. It is long past time to bring our labor laws into the 21st century.

The act’s co-author, Senator Murray, continued:

Too often, as workers are underpaid, overworked and treated unfairly on the job, some companies are doing everything they can to prevent them from having a voice in the workplace. The WAGE Act would strengthen protections for all workers and it would finally crack down on employers who break the law when workers exercise their basic right to collective action.

This bill has no chance to become law. But that’s not the point. The labor movement is setting up the 2016 election to be a referendum on the American working class. This bill is a symptom of this problem, not the solution. Nevertheless, it illustrates the class divide that could lead to a greater resurgence of organized labor.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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