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Labor: Legislative Summary

Legislative Summary

Blocking Unionization

Too many companies embark on a campaign of intimidation, speech restriction, and even calculated firings when their workers show signs of organizing. According to the AFL-CIO, 89% of employers force workers in the process of organizing to attend anti-union lectures, barring union representatives and committed union supporters from the meeting. Seventy seven percent of employers have supervisors engage in one-on-one "counseling" sessions with employees, in which employees are intimidated with subtle and carefully-worded threats. The AFL-CIO reports that 57% of private-sector employees threaten to shut down if the union wins the election and that 34% of private-sector employers fire at least one worker during organizing campaigns.

Many workers want to join unions but simply can’t because of the current state of American labor laws. Immigrants without documentation often face even more direct exploitation at the hands of employers, including threats of deportation if they support unionization.

Unionization in America is at an all time low (roughly 12.4% of the workforce in 2009), even though 78% of the public supports workers’ freedom to bargain for better wages. Impeding workers’ ability to unionize has directly affected the status of workers’ wages and increased the disparity among American workers. According to the AFL-CIO, by 2010, the payment of CEOs had grown to 343 times the pay of the average workers’ median pay. This is the widest disparity in the world. Unionizing and collective bargaining can mitigate this gap by ensuring that workers earn fair pay and proper benefits. Additionally, the presence of unions also establishes a normative culture in the workplace that prioritizes investment in worker training and worker opinion of day-to-day business.

Restoring the Right to Organize

Under current law, workers attempting to form a union face significant challenges: Employees seeking union representation face an election process that favors opponents of unionization, employers can create delays in union certification and can refuse to negotiate a first contract, “Right-to-Work” laws act as an impediment to effective union representation, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) imposes only weak penalties for unfair labor practices and union crackdowns. Some states, including Indiana, Arizona, and Wisconsin, have taken the issue into their own hands, seeking to limit the power of unions and weaken their collective bargaining power.

Discrimination Against Gays and Lesbians

There is currently no federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) (H.R. 1397/S. 811) has been introduced in every Congress since 1994, and would make it illegal for employers to fire, refuse to hire, demote or refuse to promote an individual based on his or her real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. For more information on ENDA, visit the RAC's Gay and Lesbian Rights Issue Page.

Fair Labor Standards

There have been a number of changes proposed to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. They relate to a whole range of issues, including gender salary discrepancy and child labor violations. One of these bills, the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1519, S.797), introduced by Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), directly addresses discrimination based on gender and seeks to eliminate salary disparities between working men and women by increasing penalties for businesses that do not comply with the Equal Pay Act.

Workplace Safety

​The last few years have brought increasing awareness to the issue of workplace safety. In 2008, 5,214 workers were killed on the job and 3.7 million people suffered from workplace related injuries and illnesses. Nonetheless, AFL-CIO reports that “According to data from the National Safety Council and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job fatality rate has been cut by nearly 82 percent since 1970 from 18.0/100,000 [workers] to 3.3/100,000 in 2009.” Current workplace regulations are governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), housed within the Department of Labor. OSHA was established in 1971, during the Nixon administration. The agency’s standards are designed to prevent the injuries workers suffer each year from poorly designed workplaces and repetitive, stressful motions. OSHA guidelines are modernized to mirror the hazards of new jobs and industries; however, updating OSHA regulations can take many years. The delay and cumbersome evidence gathering process, in part, explains why many industries currently lack sufficient regulation. For example, OSHA regulations do not reflect the most current knowledge about harmful levels of exposure to toxic chemicals, silica, and asbestos.

Labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME, AFL-CIO) support the expansion of OSHA to cover all workers. Similarly, AFSCME has led the effort to enforce and expand provisions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that are designed to help keep workers healthy. In accordance with the concerns of America’s labor unions, Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 190/S.1166). The bill would provide protections for over 8.5 million more workers, increase penalties for violations of safety regulations, and protect workplace safety whistleblowers from being fired.