The United States has not passed comprehensive labor law reform that was pro-worker since 1938. 77 years is a long time. Democrats are now proposing a law to change that.
The Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, which Democrats introduced Wednesday, adds hefty monetary penalties for violations of workers’ rights to collectively organize, whether to join a union or simply to improve conditions in the workplace. It also provides for injunctions to force employers to quickly re-hire workers if they were fired unjustly, undocumented or not. And it allows workers to sue in federal court for damages and attorneys fees, which they’re able to do under other labor and civil rights statutes, but not the NLRA.
That’s a departure from the labor movement’s most recent effort, back in 2009, when it narrowly failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act — or “card check,” which would have allowed workers to join when a majority sign cards in favor of doing so. The WAGE Act is a broader approach.
“There’s a sense that this is about workers, not about unions,” says Harvard Law professor Benjamin Sachs of the new proposal. “EFCA, that’s a union bill. If you think about the Fight for $15 [an hour], this would apply to those workers.” That’s important, he says, because it could draw a larger base of support.
“When unions succeed politically is when they push for things that are for all workers,” Sachs says, “and do poorly when they push for things that are just for unions.”
The WAGE Act would give workers the same remedies as employees whose civil rights are violated: the ability not just to get their jobs and back pay, which is the rule now, but to win punitive damages, to engage in legal discovery that gives lawyers access to an employer’s internal files, and win attorneys’ fees when workers prevail. Employees also can get a preliminary injunction to get their jobs back right away.
By giving workers a fresh way to think about becoming part of a union – as a civil right, rather than just joining a special interest – the idea has a chance to re-awaken a conversation that has languished in American politics. The decimation of the American labor movement has been catastrophic for the middle class, keeping wages down and weakening the voice of middle-class citizens in the political process.
Research has long shown that labor unions boost the wages of members; in a recent paper with our colleague Mark Zuckerman, we estimate that the average nonunion worker could expect to accumulate an additional $551,000 in wealth over her career if she were in a union. Moreover, new research from the Center for American Progress shows that the effect last more than a generation: unions also boost social mobility for the children of union members. Even centrist economist Lawrence Summers recently argued that strengthening unions “has to be an important component of any realistic American inclusive growth agenda.”
The idea of employees being able to sue—known technically as a “private right of action”—isn’t new; we wrote about it in a 2012 book, and the WAGE Act echoes legislation introduced last year by Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis. But now the idea has gone mainstream and is backed by the ranking members of the House and Senate labor and education committees – which suggests that the time may be right for it on the Presidential campaign trail
The lawsuit aspect of this is so important and it’s for the same that I propose international lawsuits against American corporations in Out of Sight. Corporations only respond to financial pressure or political pressure. Without the former, we are unlikely to get the latter. Voluntary standards, company unionism, greenwashing efforts, etc., never are going to create change that puts power in the hands of workers and citizens. Lawsuits can do that. Which is of course why Republicans hate trial lawyers so much.
Giving workers the right to sue employers for punitive damages if they are fired for organizing is an outstanding idea and I am very glad Democrats in Congress have introduced this bill. I hope Sanders and Clinton make public statements in favor of it very soon and that it becomes part of the conversation in the 2016 election. It’s not passing under a Republican Congress, but these are the ideas that can later be encoded into the law. Organizing around them now is a smart move.