Progressive legislators introduced a law on Tuesday that would speed up the process for forming labor unions and penalize companies that delay negotiating with newly formed unions — as labor allies in Congress try to preserve some of the gains they have made during President Barack Obama's second term.
The Workplace Democracy Act, sponsored by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, would eliminate the two-stage balloting process for union election, a move that labor advocates say will make it easier for workers to form unions.
Under current law, employees in a given workplace can trigger an election if at least 30 percent of them sign union authorization cards. After those cards are signed, workers must obtain a majority vote in favor of the union in a second process to get the union certified. The Sanders proposal would eliminate the ballot and lead to union certification if a majority of workers sign cards.
"If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class, we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country," Sanders said.
Labor union leaders say that the steady decline of union membership rates over the past four decades is, in part, a product of the cumbersome administrative process for forming a union. They also say they believe the recent strikes by workers who are not part of a union — such as the recent wave of day-long nationwide strikes initiated by fast food workers and other service employees — are a sign that workers are finding it easier to strike than to try to form a union.
“The fact that in the last three years workers have been striking and not holding elections shows that workers know labor law as it is doesn’t work,” said Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of the labor coalition Change to Win. “The current regime doesn’t work; we need alternatives to the NLRB election system."
The Sanders and Pocan proposal would also require management to begin negotiations with a newly formed union within 10 days of being asked to do so.
Last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., unveiled the WAGE Act, which would stiffen the penalties for employers found guilty of unfair labor practices and allow workers to sue over allegations that they were fired for engaging in union activities.
Both of these new bills are efforts by liberal members of Congress to revive a legislative agenda that has been dormant since 2009. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama vowed to push through legislation similar to the one proposed by Sanders and Pocan today, but it stalled out in Congress within the first seven months of Obama's administration.
In his second term as president, Obama has used his administrative power to boost unions and become more vocal in his support of labor.
"If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day's pay for an honest day's work, I'd join a union," he said in one characteristic remark, delivered during a 2014 Labor Day speech.
The National Labor Relations Board has issued a succession of union-friendly policy announcements in recent years, including reforms to speed up the election process and an expanded “joint employer” standard that increases the legal liability corporations face for alleged labor violations at their subcontracted and franchised workplaces.
But with Republicans controlling the House and Senate, unions say that they are relying on executive branch action. “It would be great for Congress to pass labor law reform,” said Geevarghese. “But that said, there’s very little likelihood that the Workplace Democracy Act is going to pass, and in the absence of congressional will, I think it’s incumbent on the president to act."
Change to Win has already successfully lobbied Obama to sign an executive order lifting the minimum wage at federally contracted businesses. But Geevarghese says Obama can and should do more before he leaves the White House.
“The federal government could be a laboratory for experiment with new models of collective bargaining or workers' voice,” said Geevarghese.