Something is happening in America. In workplaces and on picket lines, at the bargaining table and the ballot box, working people are taking collective action to improve our jobs, our schools, our communities and our democracy. Fed up with decades of rigged economic rules that have held down wages and skyrocketed inequality, workers are turning to each other. The latest annual survey from Gallup puts public approval of unions at 62%, a 15-year high. And research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows half of nonunion members would vote to organize today if given the chance. That’s more than 60 million people.
Yet this wave of worker activism is coming up against the cruel reality that our outdated labor laws no longer serve as an effective mechanism to accurately capture the aspirations of working people. Labor law changes were last made in 1947—and those were designed to make it harder to organize. Current law does far too little to prevent employers from bullying and harassing workers when we try to form a union, and there is no binding process for reaching a first contract when a majority of workers make the decision to bargain collectively. The right of workers to make our voices heard through strikes, pickets and other activities continues to be fundamentally undermined by employers, politicians and the courts. Simply put, the system is broken and the time for comprehensive labor law reform is right now.
In 2017, delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention unanimously passed a resolution calling on candidates for public office to support and fight for changes to the National Labor Relations Act and other state and local laws to guarantee the freedom to bargain collectively to every single worker, free from fear and intimidation. That same year, comprehensive labor law reform bills were introduced as part of congressional Democrats’ “Better Deal.”
The Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2018 (H.R. 6080) would expand coverage of the National Labor Relations Act; bolster penalties against employers who break the law; provide a process for workers and employers to reach a first agreement; and protect the right to strike and eliminate “right to work” nationally. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2018 (H.R. 6238) would ensure that all public-sector workers at the state and local levels have collective bargaining rights, and the Public Safety Employer–Employee Cooperation Act (H.R. 4846) would extend basic collective bargaining rights to all first responders.
The same energy that working people took to the streets to win economic and social justice in 2018 brought a wave of pro-worker legislators to Congress, and now we have a chance to make real progress on these landmark bills. We must begin by educating new members of Congress and staff about the importance of unions and collective action to our communities, our economy and our democracy. To accomplish this, the AFL-CIO is partnering with the Economic Policy Institute to conduct “Labor 101” briefings on Capitol Hill over the next several months.
To finally make labor law reform a reality, we will need the help and commitment of every affiliated union, state federation and central labor council. Candidates running for office in 2019 or 2020 should not expect labor’s endorsement unless they are willing to support comprehensive legislation to strengthen and expand the right of every worker to join a union and negotiate for a better life.