New Bill Defines Labor Rights As Civil Rights

Bruce Vail

Rep. Ellison has been a longtime advocate for workers' rights. Here, Ellison argues for the Employee Free Choice Act, a similar bill from 2009.

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On Wednesday, a handful of Democratic Party lawmakers introduced a bill to turn the slogan Labor Rights are Civil Rights” into the law of the land. While admitting the proposed legislation has little chance of passage in the current anti-labor environment, supporters say they hope shifting political winds may favor the bill sometime in the future.

A civil right is any right enshrined in the Constitution or legislation, such as freedom of assembly or freedom of the press. The new measure would affirm that labor rights are equally fundamental.

Titled the Employee Empowerment Act,” the bill is short and simple. It would add a single paragraph to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act giving workers the right to sue employers in federal court for labor law violations, in the same way that individuals are allowed to bring lawsuits under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under current law, workers must bring such complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is often criticized for being very slow to act and offering wronged workers little in the way of compensation.

The bill’s introduction was announced yesterday at a press conference on the Capitol Hill lawn headlined by three of the most pro-labor members of the House of Representatives: Rep. Keith Ellison (D‑Minn.), Rep. John Lewis (D‑Ga.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D‑N.Y).

Labor rights are really civil rights… In the body politic, the spine of that body is the labor movement,” Ellison, the chief sponsor of the measure, told a small crowd of supporters. Employers have no fear of the weak enforcement powers of the NLRB and see breaking labor law as a cost of doing business,” he said. The bill would give labor law additional heft, he said, by putting the substantial weight of the federal courts behind it.

A total of 15 House members have pledged to co-sponsor the bill. The measure also gained the immediate support of the AFL-CIO and many other labor and civil rights groups. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement Wednesday that read, in part:

Once again, Representatives Keith Ellison and John L. Lewis are leading in the fight to improve the lives of millions of hardworking Americans… We need comprehensive changes to the law to strengthen workers’ collective bargaining rights, and the Employee Empowerment Act is an important piece of those reforms. By beefing up the remedies for workers who face discrimination or retaliation by their employers for trying to form or join a union, the bill strengthens worker protections and puts remedies under our labor laws on par with our civil rights laws. This helps better protect workers’ rights to organize and, when passed, will benefit workers and our entire economy.”

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry echoed these sentiments in a statement as well, writing, Too often, employees seeking to unite with their co-workers to demand better wages, benefits and workplace safety provisions face aggressive and often illegal anti-union campaigns coordinated by their employer. Intimidation, illegal firings, wrongful discipline and other tactics aimed at breaking workers’ will are commonplace when they seek to join together on the job.” The bill also received the endorsement of the National Women’s Law Center. At the press conference, NWLC Senior Counsel Liz Watson said that women suffer disproportionately from the low wages at many non-union workplaces, and thus will particularly gain from broader unionization.

Also speaking was Richard Kahlenberg, co-author with Moshe Marvit of the 2012 book Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, which was Ellison’s inspiration for the bill. Kahlenberg said passage of the Employee Empowerment Act would open a whole new judicial arena where workers could assert their rights against powerful corporations.

Marvit (also a contributing writer for Working In These Times) tells In These Times that the new legislation would allow more lawyers in private practice to take on workers’ rights cases. Unlike the NLRB, a federal judge can instruct an employer to pay attorneys’ fees and other legal costs if the court rules in favor of the worker. This would really energize lawyers in private practice,” Marvit says. They would be willing to take cases that they won’t take now. The private labor bar is pretty limited now, and this would act to revitalize it.”

Marvit also predicts that the law will energize union organizing by making workers’ rights suits more prominent. As it is now, these cases disappear into the black hole of the NLRB,” he says. But if cases are heard and decided in federal courts all around the country, they are going to catch the public eye. They’ll generate press attention, and employers will be more respectful of workers’ labor rights knowing that they would be exposed in federal court [if they break the law].”

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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