For many American workers, union and non-union alike, work ethic and attendance will only get them so far in the workplace. They may still face many adverse working conditions including but not limited to lack of safety, pay, and benefits. Furthermore, bargaining power of America’s workers is far weaker than it used to be. Most employees lack the chance to have a real voice in the workplace and negotiate with their employer over issues that drive workplace morale. In fact, collective bargaining is at a critically low and is currently lower in the United States than every other industrialized nation.
In effect of decline in collective bargaining and unionization, income inequality is on the rise. Rebuilding our collective bargaining system and putting power back into the hands of the workers and not just the companies and managers is significant, and necessary, for reestablishing wage growth and bringing positive changes to the workplace.
Having no recourse at work, workers depend on current labor laws to protect their workplace rights. Although the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is in place to protect the right of private sector workers, union and non-union, to engage in collective bargaining to improve workplace conditions, the reality of the NLRA is that it was enacted 80 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, and has failed to update to account for current workplace trends. Unlike other labor and employment laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the entity charged with enforcing the NLRA, has a toothless enforcement mechanism that does not adequately protect workers rights, or deter employers from breaking the laws; it does not impose any real penalties financial or otherwise. In result, employers view breaking the law as nothing less than a smart business decision where they may receive a small slap on the wrist, or they may even receive no punishment at all.
In line with the current trend towards collective action from fast-food workers to Wal-Mart employees, Congress has introduced legislation to properly aid and protect workers in collective bargaining. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, an act designed to strengthen protections for workers who collectively organize, and ensure that employers violating workers’ rights face actual consequences. The WAGE Act would amend the NLRA to provide it with a backbone for enforcement, and would essentially give a voice to union and non-union workers alike to provide them a path to action against those who illegally retaliate against the employees who are taking collective action.
The WAGE Act has many features, but its biggest aspects that will protect workers include adding a meaningful back pay remedy for workers illegally fired, including penalties for employers and a preliminary reinstatement; it implements triple back pay awards for workers who were illegally retaliated against regardless of that workers’ immigration status; and finally it would provide workers with a private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorneys fees. Now, when employees complain about workplace conditions or benefits, its employer will think twice about the potential costs of illegally firing that employee under the WAGE Act penalties.
The WAGE Act would discourage employer retaliation through and promote prompt remedies through:
- Providing a temporary reinstatement for workers who are fired or retaliated against when exercising rights to join together and seek workplace improvements. This would direct the NLRB to go to court to seek a preliminary injunction that would immediately return fired workers to their jobs so long as there is no reasonable cause to believe the worker was wrongly fired.
- Strengthening the remedies for workers who are fired or retaliated against, providing the workers with the ability to bring cases directly to court for monetary damages and attorneys fees. In addition, the WAGE Act would triple the back pay that employers must pay to workers who are fired or retaliated against by employers regardless of immigration status.
- Establishing robust penalties against employers who violate workers’ rights and commit unfair labor practices by implementing a $50,000 fine for illegal retaliation and doubling that amount for repeat violations.
- Streamlining the NLRB process and implementing a 30 day maximum time limit for employers wishing to challenge an NLRB decision. After that time is expired, the NLRB decision is final and binding.
- Improving workers knowledge of their rights through requiring employers to inform workers of their rights by posting notice and informing employees at time of hire.
This legislation is designed to help all workers, but it will necessarily give power back to low-wage workers trying to make a good living, immigrants afraid of complaining due to lack of rights, and all workers trying to collectively engage. For years, employers have taken advantage of the weak workplace protection laws, and the WAGE Act seeks to put the power back in the hands of the employee, allowing them to seek remedies for unfair labor practices without making them jumping through so many hoops.
The purpose of the WAGE Act is to help employees through protections against employers. “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,” said Senator Patty Murray. Currently, the WAGE Act has gained momentum and support from presidential-hopeful, Secretary Hillary Clinton, the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters) Union, and many other organizations and unions. With more organizations supporting this bill, and more attention to inform individuals about this legislation, the WAGE Act could potentially pass to get workers what they not just deserve, but need.
While some may argue this bill is just more pro-union propaganda, the simple fact driving this bill is that it is pro-worker. It helps all workers regardless of union affiliation and allows the employees to more easily get back-pay and reinstatement. Without workers, essential functions in society cannot happen; this bill is necessary to providing workers with the power they need to protect their own rights. Employers have notoriously taken advantage of weak worker protection laws to slow down or stop working people from joining together to improve their lives. The WAGE Act is a necessary first step toward overdue labor law reform to promote collective action and put power back in the hands of the employees. Pass the WAGE Act now.
About the Author: Shauna Barnaskas is an associate with Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A., located in Baltimore, Maryland, where she concentrates her practice in the representation of ERISA plans. Shauna was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa to a union family, and has been actively involved in the labor movement her whole life. Mrs. Barnaskas earned her Juris Doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014, where she served as the Articles Editor for the Labor and Employment Law Forum. Prior to joining Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A. Shauna served as a law clerk for the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee where she was a contributing author of the committee staff report, “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success.” Additionally, Mrs. Barnaskas was selected for the Peggy Browning Fellowship program where she worked for the American Federation of Teachers.