Policy makers are grappling with the worst income inequality the nation has faced since the New Deal. At the same time, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law designed to give workers bargaining power to win pay raises and other improvements on the job, continues to fall short. Economists and other experts agree that robust collective bargaining is essential to reducing income inequality and restoring balance in our economy, yet union density in the United States has plunged behind every other industrialized nation.
Notwithstanding the many weaknesses in current law, workers are joining together all across the country to make their voices heard. From Walmart to the Fight for $15 and a union, from Nissan to T-Mobile, working people are demanding recognition and economic justice in inspiring ways.
The shortcomings in current law are many and comprehensive reforms are needed, yet a fundamental and essential first step to protect and expand the ability of workers to effectively join together is to bolster protections against employer interference. Strong remedies for workers and penalties against employers who break the law can make real the rights established in the NLRA.
The Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), would strengthen protections for working people engaged in collective action with co-workers in a number of important ways. First, the WAGE Act would provide for swift reinstatement when workers are fired or retaliated against for exercising the freedom to join together. The WAGE Act would require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to seek an injunction when there is reasonable cause to believe a worker was illegally fired for speaking up, just as it does when there are allegations against unions. In FY 2014 alone, the NLRB ordered reinstatement for 3,240 workers whose rights were violated, but reinstatement often comes very late in the process. In contrast, the WAGE Act would require quick action and make these cases a priority.
Under current law, the most a worker can receive is the pay lost while out of work, minus deductions for money they could have earned in another job. As a result, employers face no real economic consequence for illegally firing workers who exercise their rights. The WAGE Act would change this by providing triple back pay, without deductions and regardless of immigration status.
The WAGE Act also would reinforce the principle that workers’ rights are civil rights by giving those who are discriminated against for union activity the right to bring cases in court, just as they can under civil rights laws.
Finally, the WAGE Act would hold corporate officials responsible by authorizing personal liability against CEOs who violate workers’ rights. The WAGE Act also would make employers liable for violations committed on their premises by contractors or staffing agencies.
The WAGE Act may not fix every shortcoming of our weak, outdated labor law, but it is an important first step toward restoring the freedom of working people to organize and join together for improvements at work. We call on Congress to pass the WAGE Act without delay.