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Promoting Workers' Rights

The Obama administration moved aggressively to protect workers’ rights , workers’ pay and workers’ health and safety on the job.

  • President Obama named experienced worker advocates to the NLRB and the National Mediation Board (NMB); with new Democratic majorities, these boards have taken steps to level the playing field for workers who want to form and join unions.
    • In 2009, Obama appointed union-side attorneys Craig Becker and Mark Pearce to the NLRB, and named current member and former union lawyer, Wilma Liebman as chairman. After the Republicans filibustered Becker’s nomination, the president appointed Becker using his recess appointment authority.
    • In 2011, the NLRB issued new regulations to streamline the representation election process and reduce opportunities for employer manipulation and delay. Another new NLRB rule requires employers to post a notice informing workers of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
    • In 2012, after Liebman and Becker’s terms ended, the president named two more worker advocates to the NLRB: Operating Engineers’ General Counsel Richard Griffin and former Kennedy staffer Sharon Block.
    • Similarly, the president named former Flight Attendants President Linda Puchala to chair the NMB, where she and board member Harry Hoglander adopted fairer rules for conducting union elections under the Railway Labor Act. 
  • Shortly after taking office, President Obama issued five pro-worker Executive Orders to:
    • Prohibit federal contractors from using government funds to block union organizing;
    • Require federal contractors to post a notice informing workers of their right to form and join unions, reversing an earlier Bush notice requiring only the posting of the right not to join a union;
    • Encourage the use of Project Labor Agreements (reversing an earlier Bush ban on PLAs);
    • Guarantee that workers can keep their jobs when a federal contract for services changes hands; and
    • Establish a labor-management partnership council in the federal government.
  • One of the first bills the president signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, overturning a Supreme Court decision that restricted the rights of workers to file wage discrimination cases.
  • When workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states were attacked by newly elected Republican governors, President Obama used his bully pulpit to speak out in defense of the right of all workers to form unions and bargain collectively:

    “Having a voice on the job and a chance to organize and a chance to negotiate for a fair day’s pay after a hard day’s work, that is the right of every man and woman in America—not just the CEO in the corner office, but also the janitor who cleans that office after the CEO goes home,” Obama said on Labor Day. “Everybody has got the same right.”

  • His administration repealed onerous Bush administration expansions of union reporting rules, including changes to the Form LM-30 report for union officers and employees, the Form LM-2/3 and the Form T-1 trust reporting rules.
  • The Obama administration proposed rules to close loopholes through which management consultants and employers have been able to avoid publicly reporting on their union-busting activities.
  • The administration took important steps to recognize the rights of federal employees to organize and bargain collectively:
    • Upon taking office, President Obama ordered the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) back to the bargaining table, resulting in a new collective bargaining agreement for air traffic controllers, who had been forced to accept an imposed contract by President Bush.
    • Similarly, the Obama-appointed administrator of the Transportation Security Administration agreed to provide bargaining rights to 40,000 airport screeners who had been denied the right to organize under a Bush administration directive.
    • The administration also reversed Bush policies that led to the contracting out of federal employee jobs and put forth a policy that encourages federal agencies to insource work that had been contracted out.
  • The administration took important steps to improve temporary worker programs to protect both U.S. and temporary foreign workers.
    • The administration replaced exploitative rules for the H-2A and H-2B temporary guest worker visa programs with new rules that give unemployed U.S. workers a fair chance to obtain jobs while protecting foreign guest workers against employer abuse. The administration also announced it soon will revise rules governing the much-abused J-1 Summer Work Travel program to better protect U.S. workers and foreign program participants.
    • The administration also issued policies that protect workers who organize unions at their workplaces or raise complaints about labor law violations from employer retaliation based on their immigration status, including an agreement between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Labor Department stating that ICE will not initiate worksite enforcement activities while a labor dispute is in progress and a new ICE policy that the agency will exercise its discretion not to remove workers picked up by immigration officers during a labor dispute.
  • The administration has requested $25 million in additional resources to clamp down on the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.
  • The administration has proposed a new rule to ensure that home health care workers receive the same minimum wage and overtime protections as virtually all other working people.
  • The administration proposed and won significant new funding for worker protection agencies and stepped up enforcement by OSHA, MSHA and the Wage and Hour Division. It also restored and expanded a health and safety training grant program for workers.
  • The administration has opposed and threatened to veto Republican-sponsored “regulatory reform” bills that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for agencies to issue needed safeguards to protect workers, the environment and consumers.
  • President Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, legislation to provide medical treatment and compensation to the 9/11 responders made sick from toxic exposures at the World Trade Center.
  • The administration directed the Department of Labor and the Department of Education to advise states to change their laws and practices to ensure that persons who receive unemployment insurance payments would be able to receive training, and have access to Pell Grants, while continuing to receive their benefits (and not necessarily being available for work in their previous occupations).
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