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How Bernie Sanders’ New Bill Would Help More Workers Unionize

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL DWYER
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL DWYER

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) unveiled a new bill this week that would make it easier for workers to form a union and negotiate a contract free from employer retaliation or foot-dragging. As he actively courts union endorsements of his presidential candidacy, Sanders’ latest move also draws a strong contrast with his Republican opponents in the presidential race, who have almost unanimously backed “right-to-work” laws that would weaken labor unions.

“Millions of Americans who today want to join unions, who understand that collective bargaining will raise their wages and income, are unable to do so because of the coercive and often illegal behavior of their employers,” Sanders said Tuesday, citing evidence that unions dramatically improve wages and benefits for their workers.

Sanders added that his bill will send a strong message both to workers struggling to organize and to their employers. “We will no longer tolerate CEOs who fire workers for exercising their constitutional right to form a union,” he said. “We will no longer tolerate CEOs who threaten to move plants to China if their workers vote in favor of a union. We will no longer tolerate CEOs and managers who intimidate or threaten pro-union workers. And we will no longer tolerate CEOs who refuse to negotiate a first contract with workers who have voted to join unions.”

Should the Workplace Democracy Act become law — which is unlikely in the current Congress, where Republicans control both chambers — employers would be forced to recognize a union when a majority of workers in a bargaining unit sign a union card. Currently, employers can choose to voluntarily recognize the union when this happens — known as a “card check” — or they could demand an election monitored by the National Labor Relations Board. When the latter occurs, management often tries to discourage the workers from voting to organize.

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This happened recently to fast food workers at the Jimmy Johns sandwich chain in Baltimore, where management refused to recognize their union, and retaliated by firing a lead organizer. Jimmy Johns workers in other cities, such as Minneapolis, have had to go through an NLRB election despite gathering a majority of signed cards.

Two online newsrooms have also recently struggled with the unionization process.

Just this week, writers at Al Jazeera America won a contentious NLRB election to form a union after their management refused to recognize that an overwhelming majority of the staff had signed cards. The vote tallied this week at 32 in favor and five against. Management also unsuccessfully attempted to keep nine editors out of the union.

It is standard practice for workers to be subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity.

Similarly, last year, management at the progressive watchdog site Media Matters for America refused to recognize their workers through a “card check.” The staff wrote at the time: “Not only is management subjecting Media Matters employees to arduous NLRB procedures, the actions of their attorneys indicate Media Matters executives object so tenaciously to our union that they appear willing to prevent employees from ever having the opportunity to vote on the matter. Many Media Matters employees feel betrayed.” They too ended up winning their election.

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Had Sanders’ bill been in place, these and many other workplaces would have been able to unionize much more quickly and easily, and get down to the difficult process of bargaining an initial contract.

“To understand how important [Sanders’ bill] is, just look at the difference between the U.S. and Canada,” Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the think tank Economic Policy Institute, told ThinkProgress. “In the U.S., union density has fallen to just 6 percent in private sector, but it’s over 30 percent in Canada, where they have card check and first contract arbitration laws, which means they’re still able to organize.”  Sanders’ bill also aims to speed up and protect workers during the contract negotiation phase. He explained this week: “Under our bill, companies will not be allowed to deny or delay a first contract with workers who have voted to join a union. If companies refuse to seriously negotiate a first contract, this bill would require binding arbitration and the completion of a first contact in less than 6 months.”

Eisenbrey told ThinkProgress that his team’s research has shown that in the U.S. a depressingly large percentage of first-time union contract negotiations not only drag on for multiple years, but many never reach a contract at all.

“At that point, the employees often get discouraged and end up voting the union out,” he said. “But it some provinces of Canada that give unions the right to forced arbitration, including Manitoba, our research found that businesses who went through the arbitration were more likely to survive.”

Though it’s illegal for employers to fire or otherwise retaliate against workers for unionizing, Eisenbrey notes that it’s extremely common, as U.S. labor law includes no real punishment for employers who do so. An EPI study from 2009 found that “it is standard practice for workers to be subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity.”

Another bill just introduced by Democrats in Congress — the WAGE Act — would change that, by imposing fines against employers who break the law, tripling back pay awards, guaranteeing back pay regardless of a worker’s immigration status, and allowing victims of retaliation to seek damages in court.

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“If a company fires someone for unionizing now, the worker is lucky if it takes them three years to get their job back,” explained Eisenbrey. “If they do find another job during that time, the wages they earn are subtracted from the back pay they’re awarded if they win their case. Our agencies are almost completely toothless. That’s why [the Workplace Democracy Act and WAGE Act] in combination would take us a long way to real labor law reform.”

Disclosure: ThinkProgress recently unionized with the Writers Guild of America and the bargaining unit was voluntarily recognized through a card check process.