(Editor’s Note: This commentary is part of a Point-Counterpoint for our series on labor issues. Authors were asked to address the same question: “Given that much of U.S. federal labor law has remained the same over the last 50 years, how should Congress update and improve labor laws to suit the modern economy and the modern worker?”)
American workers face a troubling truth. In the past 50 years, the United States Congress has not passed any significant legislation affecting our country’s labor laws. Consequently, the overall labor-management relationship in our country is out of balance.
The current labor environment in America is tilted toward business and corporate America. As a partial result, the wages of people who work for a living in this country are stagnant, but CEO pay has skyrocketed. Because of this, the overall growth of our economy has slowed.
Congress needs to re-balance the labor environment by updating and improving labor laws to suit the modern economy and the modern worker. There are a few complicated and a few simple measures that would even the playing field between workers and employers.
‘Hodgepodge of laws’ needs standardization
First, let’s look at the probably-too-complicated-to-fix measures.
At the top of that list is the hodgepodge of laws that apply to workers in the United States. In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), presumably to protect all workers, except it hasn’t worked out that way.
The NLRA does not apply to federal, state or local government workers, domestic employees, agricultural employees, supervisors or independent contractors. At the same time, federal workers are subject to the provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which created the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
Further, there is no federal labor law in America that governs or protects workers employed by state, county or local governments. Those workers must rely on state statutes or local ordinances for any rights or protections.
Other examples of miscellaneous labor laws include: the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which covers workers employed by railroads and airlines; the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which governs postal workers; and the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibited the “closed shop” and also introduced Right To Work laws in 25 states.
It is probably too much to ask for Congress to fix the problem of so many different federal agencies applying so many different laws to govern worker rights, but it bears noting.
More modest proposals
More simple fixes that would help workers are just as controversial among lawmakers at all levels, but they should be easy, if politicians weren’t so inept at fixing things.
First, we should implement mandatory binding arbitration on the non-financial provisions of first contracts, which would cover issues like union security, grievance and discipline administration, processes for bargaining, and the like. This would streamline negotiations on the financial issues where companies, public employers and all workers know the real sticking points lie.
Next, re-vamp overtime rules so workers who work overtime actually receive overtime pay. The Obama administration is taking steps to do this, and it’s long overdue. Under current rules, too many workers get pigeonholed by their employer as a “supervisor” simply so the employer can deny them overtime. That’s wrong.
Also, stop making trade deals with foreign countries that reward companies for shipping jobs out of America. This continues to occur, with the Trans Pacific Partnership as the latest example.
Last, make organizing easier. The National Labor Relations Board under the Obama administration has moved to streamline election procedures so employers can’t threaten workers or retaliate and delay representational elections unfairly, but many in Congress want to undo these changes.
The most important change
The most important change would be to afford collective bargaining rights to all workers, both private and public sector. Right now, many public sector workers — including firefighters in many states and localities — aren’t allowed to stand up and fight for better safety provisions and appropriate pay and benefits. This is wrong. All American workers deserve the legal standing to represent themselves in ways that protect their lives on the job, yet, surprisingly, too many don’t have that right today.
Some argue that making it easier for workers to organize into a labor union and collectively bargain would harm businesses and be bad for the economy. While workers getting a level playing field may be bad for corporate executive salaries, sharing some of that massive wealth with working families would mean that money is spent in communities at grocery stores, clothing stores and anywhere else daily commerce takes place. This might actually help our economy begin to expand again at a rate closer to our historical norm.
As far back as 1935, Congress recognized the need for a balance in the workplace. Our current labor laws should be adjusted to reflect that once again.
To read the Point to this article’s Counterpoint, click here.