Labor Law Reform

The Bill of Rights has never been applied in the workplace, where employers are empowered to maintain near-absolute control. With our constitutional rights shredded by our employers, our rights to organize into unions are also ignored by bosses. Our freedom to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures ends at the entrance to the workplace. Our freedoms of speech and assembly are virtually nonexistent while at work — unless you have a union. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935, was the closest that labor got to a “bill of rights.” When it was introduced it was immediately attacked by employers and anti-union forces through the legislatures and courts. The NLRA provided labor for the first time the legal right to organize, to bargain, and to strike without interference from the employer. For the first time employers were required to recognize and bargain with a union of the workers’ choice. 

In response to five million workers striking in 1946 — mass action intended to force employers to share their profits with workers who had gone through years of hardship in order to defeat the Nazis — a reactionary Congress voted to amend the NLRA with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The law took away the right of unions to engage in secondary boycotts, made closed union shops illegal, allowed states to pass "right-to-work” laws, allowed the President to interfere in strikes, and gave employers more tools to stop workers from organizing. 

Today, employers brazenly violate the law and victimize working people who dare to challenge their complete control by attempting to unionize. Almost 10 percent of workers who engage in organizing are fired by their employers, amounting to tens of thousands every year. In 92% of union organizing campaigns, workers are subjected to the psychological warfare of captive audience meetings, such as when UE Local 1018 members recently organized at Lanterman Regional Center. Of those union drives that manage to navigate the minefield of employer lawbreaking and win a recognition election, only half will obtain a first union contract. The ranks of those reaching this nearly unattainable pinnacle are then cut in half once again, as only half of those unions winning first union contracts ever win second contracts. The percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. declined from 24 percent in 1979 to 10.5 percent in 2018 (less than seven percent in the private sector). These levels are the lowest since before the great organizing drives of the 1930s. In other industrial countries, union density is many times higher. 

In the public sector, workers in some states are prohibited from bargaining collectively and those who can bargain often lack the right to strike. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia have blanket statutes that prohibit collective bargaining for all public-sector employees. Five states — Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas — do not allow collective bargaining for teachers. 

The Trump appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have already largely gutted the limited incremental expansions of labor rights under the Obama Administration — continuing the long practice whereby a Democrat improves the NLRB, but a Republican makes it even worse, leading to longer-term regression in labor rights. 

The most significant recent Supreme Court decision affecting labor is Janus v. AFSCME, which eliminated union security in the public sector, making all state and local workplaces “right to work.” With a 5-4 reactionary majority on the Court and no change likely in the near future, we can expect no relief and more anti-worker decisions in the years to come. 

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has consistently promoted labor law reform since he first introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, drafted in consultation with UE, in the 1990s. This bill would have improved federal labor law in many ways, including: making it easier for workers to organize free from interference or intimidation, guaranteeing first contracts through an arbitration process, elimination of free riding, preventing employers from misclassifying workers as independent contractors, restoring the free speech of union members, and curbing the power of union busters. Now that the winds of change have elected a number of new pro-worker anti-corporate voices to Congress, Bernie is introducing a new version of the Workplace Democracy Act, adding several more provisions: granting bargaining rights to all public sector workers which would restore them in Iowa and establish them for the first time in states like North Carolina, banning captive audience meetings during organizing drives and the hiring of permanent replacements during strikes, allowing federal workers to strike, requiring corporations to honor existing union contracts after mergers, and cutting off federal contracts to companies that pay poverty wages, outsource jobs overseas, or hire scabs during strikes. In addition, the legislation would require that when union-negotiated healthcare plans are replaced by Medicare for All, the resulting company savings go to workers in the form of increased wages or other benefits.

These same winds of change have led to an additional major labor law reform bill achieving a significant number of cosponsors in Congress for the first time in many years. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would streamline union elections, ban captive audience meetings, increase penalties on employers for breaking the law, and make it harder for employers to delay union recognition through legal challenges. It would remove employers as a “party” to union representation elections — returning union elections to their original purpose. Before the 1947 Taft-Hartley law, union representation elections were for workers to collectively decide for or against representation, rather than an election between the boss and the union. The PRO Act would also make it easier for workers to engage in collective action and solidarity by prohibiting employers from permanently replacing workers during an economic strike and removing all limitations on secondary boycotts.

Now is the time for a law that protects workers and grants all rights and freedoms under the Constitution. In order to really safeguard workers, the right to associate — the right of working people to have the ability to say under what conditions they will or will not labor — must be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Workers whose rights were fully protected under the Constitution would be free to assemble, speak and associate anywhere and at all times, to organize without employer intervention, to bargain collectively, to strike, to boycott, or to refuse to handle goods. 

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THIS 76th UE CONVENTION:

  1. Calls on Congress to: 
    1. Amend the Constitution to include worker rights; and in the meantime pass the Workplace Democracy Act, PRO Act, and any other legislation giving workers the same constitutional rights to organize without restriction or limitation in the workplace that we enjoy outside the workplace, including substantial penalties for employers who violate these rights;
    2. Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act;
  2. Urges UE locals to:
    1. Challenge state laws that restrict the rights of workers in the public and private sectors to organize, bargain, and function freely;
    2. Build coalitions with unions and the community to expand the rights of workers;
    3. Meet with their local congressional delegation to get them to sign on to and actively support the PRO Act and the Workplace Democracy Act.