The Labor Movement and the Right to Organize Are Essential to a Strong Democracy and a Strong Economy

A Message and Policy Paper from Jamie Raskin for Labor Day 2015

       There’s a fine old union song that asks, “Which side are you on?” This Labor Day, and every other day of the year, I know which side I’m on. I’m on the side of the working women and men who build our homes, teach our kids, drive our buses, keep our neighborhoods safe, take our temperatures and draw our blood, check our groceries, put out fires, keep our government running, repair our electricity after a thunderstorm, and make America work. And I’m on the side of the unions that workers organize not only to win higher wages and better benefits but also to build stronger workplaces and healthier communities for all of our families.

       I hope by now my political actions make clear what I believe. Workers’ rights are basic human rights. Unions remain essential in many parts of the economy to defend and strengthen the middle class, to reduce the shocking economic inequalities that have opened up in America, and to sustain a society that works for everyone.

       For me, Labor Day isn’t a one-off opportunity to engage in a special-interest appeal, which is what it has been reduced to in many places. It’s a chance to renew a daily commitment to progressive politics, which puts the needs and experiences of the many over the extravagant demands of the rich and famous few. Labor Day should be a moment when we remind everyone about the difference between the party of the people and the party of Donald Trump and Scott Walker, elitist immigrant-bashers and serial union-busters.

       I’ve done everything I can to advance the rights and welfare of working people since the day I became a state senator—and indeed long before that.

My Record Fighting for Workers’ Rights in Annapolis and Beyond

      My paternal grandfather Benjamin Raskin (after whom I was named) was a plumber; he and many of his nine brothers and sisters were steeped in labor politics. My maternal grandfather Samuel Bellman was a lawyer and organizer with the Minnesota Democratic Farm-Labor Party and he became the first Jewish person ever elected to the Minnesota state legislature. My mother, the late bestselling novelist and writer Barbara Raskin, was the founding president of the National Writers’ Union. She told me she was as proud of fighting for the rights of other writers—both locally around here and nationally—as she was of anything she ever published.    

     Since childhood, I have known that unions are an essential part of the glue that holds American democracy together, and as a law professor and lawyer, I have done pro bono legal advocacy for unions and pro-union groups, including the Service Employees International Union and Students United against Sweatshops, and wrote a brief on behalf of the Sheet Metal Workers.

     In 2000, I was appointed by Governor Parris Glendening to be the first Chair of the state’s Higher Education Labor Relations Board and served until 2005.  With my colleagues, I wrote the rules protecting the right to organize and collectively bargain on Maryland’s college and university campuses.

      To this day, I’m proud of what we achieved. In just five years, more than 8,000 Marylanders exercised their right to join unions and to win greater opportunities to participate in the workplace. Believe me, that victory wasn’t universally popular, but not one single rule or ruling of our Board has ever been overturned in court.

      We showed that when you have a union, you have a voice in the workplace. You belong. You have a chance to produce more, and contribute more, and be fairly rewarded for what you do.  And everyone benefits from good unions.

        As a Senator, I’ve worked to stop discrimination against workers and to protect the right to organize. After the Supreme Court handed down its horrible decision that the statute of limitations in sex and race discrimination cases can run out before the victims even learn their rights are violated, I got busy. With Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, I introduced the state’s Lily Ledbetter Act to nullify the effects of the Supreme Court’s mischief. We passed our corrective state law in 2009.

      With Delegate Sheila Hixson, I introduced the Fairness in Negotiations Act to provide for a strong, even-handed appeals process for public school teachers involved in grievances.  This legislation became law in 2010. It’s been a tremendous success in promoting fairness and excellence in our school systems.

      When I was Chair of the Montgomery County Senate delegation, I was proud to rally unanimous support in the delegation for the minimum wage hike in 2013. Our delegation stood strong for a raise for Maryland.

      As a freshman Senator, I helped pass the Clean Indoor Act in 2007, which protects Maryland workers’ respiratory health against cigarette smoking.

      I was a big supporter of the state’s strong wind power bill, which helped to create an entirely new industry for skilled workers.

      And I have been a champion of legislation to pass bargaining rights for graduate assistants and adjunct faculty, and to create strong whistleblower protections for workers. When unions and working people have called, I have answered.

Pro-Democracy, Pro-Prosperity, Pro-Union

     Those are my commitments. Those are the causes I believe in and always have. When I’m elected to Congress, they will not change one bit. But going to Congress will give me the chance to strengthen American labor law and take on the right-wing ideologues who are hell-bent on destroying American unions and workers’ rights in the national economy.

     From the day I take my oath of office, one of my top priorities in Congress will be restoring the freedom of working women and men to organize into unions.  I will be a strong, creative leader for the revival of the right to organize, to bargain collectively, and for everyone—not just the rich and well-born—to participate in the economy with dignity and fairness. And I won’t just cast votes for you in the House. I’ll stand strong with you in our community.

     A strong and vibrant union movement makes America as a country fairer and more equal. Many important policy advances in the last century wear the union label: the minimum wage and overtime laws, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, weekends without work, Social Security, Medicare, workplace safety laws, strong public education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, anti-job discrimination laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and protections for pregnant workers.

     One of the great tragedies of our time has been the sharp decline in union membership. In 1962, the year I was born, 20.7% of civilian work force had union card. Today it is about half that.
     This decline didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen by accident. From President Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controllers union in 1981 to Governor Scott Walker’s vicious attack on public employees in Wisconsin in 2011, we have seen decades of organized union busting across the country.

     Now is the time to make the American workplace and American society safe for strong democratic unions again.

Defending the Right to Organize, to Bargain, to Survive, to Grow: Rewrite the Taft-Hartley Act and Reverse a Right-Wing Supreme Court

    Sometimes people talk about the decline of the American labor movement as if it’s all the fault of the unions. Sure, unions have made mistakes, and I support the union activists and leaders working to revitalize and improve unions with greater internal democracy, diversity and effectiveness. 

     But where does the blame for union decline really belong? It’s no mystery. The sad fact is that the labor movement has been gradually suffocated by the federal courts, union-busting corporations, and politicians who talk the talk on Labor Day, but take a walk every other day of the year.

     We need a Democratic Party that stands with labor through the dramatic changes we have seen in national politics and the world economy. Labor unions became a strong and vital part of our democracy in the 1930s. But the law has changed so much since then that many union victories from that era have been made illegal today. With your help, I’m going to fight to fix that.

     As a union supporter and law professor, I know this terrain well. I will do everything in my power in Congress to change the Taft-Hartley Act, the law that has been like a death sentence for a long list of labor rights. I will work to reverse reactionary Supreme Court decisions undermining worker rights. Here are five of my key ideas.

1) No more free riders: Get rid of “right to work” laws.

     There may not be a lot of people outside the union movement who know about Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act. But, in fact, it’s one of the worst laws passed in the 20th century. It paved the way for so-called “right to work” state laws that cripple unions and trample on fair play for workers.

     There are now right-to-work laws in 25 states—mostly in the South and West, but also in Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Iowa. For right-wingers like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, these laws are a dream come true.

     Right-to-work laws burden unions with potentially millions of free riders who don’t pay their fair share. These laws force unions to bargain, file grievances, go to arbitration and spend their resources for people who refuse to contribute anything in dues.

     That is outrageous. Union-busters claim this scheme protects the right of dissent for workers who don’t like unions. That’s dubious, because the law already has a way for those workers who don’t agree with their union’s politics to opt out of political expenditures, and pay only for the costs of bargaining and administration. They’re called “Beck rights,” and they should take care of any political concerns anyone has.

     But right-to-work laws aren’t about civil liberties and never have been. They’re about raising the costs of having unions. They say union members have to spend their hard-earned dues to protect those workers who refuse to pay a penny to help. This is no different than someone who says, “I don’t like Wal-Mart’s politics, so I have a right to shop there for free.”

     And while we’re at it, let’s dispel another myth about the right-to-work advocates. The Koch brothers, Wisconsin’s union-busting Governor Scott Walker, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and the rest of their crowd, don’t really care about anyone’s “right to work.” Think about it. Do they fight to prevent businesses from laying people off? Don’t hold your breath waiting for that. Do they try to stop corporations from exporting American jobs to China or Mexico, or from chopping up good, full-time permanent jobs and outsourcing them? Let’s get real. These conservatives have one goal, and that’s to destroy unions. 

     Pro-worker states like California and New York enjoy unionization rates as high as 25%, while so-called right-to-work states like North Carolina have rates as low as 4%. These discrepancies result in an uneven playing field for businesses in different states and impose serious costs on workers. Many studies have concluded that workers in “right-to-work” states have substantially lower wages—an average of $1,500 per year—than they do in pro-union states.

     Unions can’t survive on thin air. They are organizations of workers who join together to win a voice in the workplace. It’s not fair to the union members who do the right thing and pay their dues that they should have to carry the economic dead weight of free riders made possible by right-wing politicians. We need to educate people on how the “right to work” laws thwart unions, but that’s just the start. I will fight to repeal section 14(b) of the Taft Hartley Act, plain and simple.

2)  End captive audience intimidation in the workplace.

     During a union organizing drive, large employers now have free rein to force workers to attend mandatory anti-union indoctrination sessions run by the very managers who have the power to fire them. The law treats these sessions as employer “free speech.” Free speech? It’s more like allowing employers to be dictators in the workplace.

     That’s wrong. I want to add a proviso to Taft-Hartley to say employers are free to speak against unions as much as they choose, but they should never be able to force workers to listen as a part of their paid work and job description. I’d make it an unfair labor practice to compel any employee to participate, on paid or unpaid time, in any persuasive communication by the employer with the object of stopping (or helping) a union organizing drive.

      I have no problem with employers or anyone else exercising their First Amendment rights to put up billboards, or write letters to the editor, or tweet to their heart’s content against unions, or for unions, or something in between. That’s fine. But nothing in the First Amendment gives employers the right to force workers, on pain of being fired, to participate in anti-union propaganda sessions as part of their job.

      After all, the law already forbids employers from campaigning in the workplace for political candidates, or forcing workers to listen to their views on sex or religion. That’s as it should be. We should take the same approach with respect to speech about union elections.

     Or put it another way: If it’s sexual harassment to force your employee to listen while you make sexual comments about them, and if it’s illegal to force your employees into Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist indoctrination meetings on the job, then why could it possibly be legal to force your workers to submit to union-busting propaganda?

3) Put teeth in penalties for labor law violations.

    Here’s one of the ugly little secrets of the American workplace: union-busting pays.

     Currently, employers can violate labor law and never have to pay much more than a parking ticket, and sometimes not even that. They can fire the union supporters, terrify the rest of the workers, and only have to pay a few thousand dollars five or six years later. For plenty of large employers, that’s just a small cost of doing business.

      That’s why I will fight for workers’ rights by putting teeth into the law, for a change. I will introduce a bill:

        ●  to allow workers to recover full economic damages, including the loss of union benefits they might have won, resulting from the violation. This would be the same measure of damages that already exists in antitrust and tort law, so it would correct the NLRB’s current inability to order any damages beyond an individual worker’s back pay at non-union rates;
        ● to abolish a mitigation requirement that cuts off a lawbreaker’s liability when the lawbreaker’s victim has to get another job to feed her or his family; and,

        ● to require law-breaking employers to recognize unions if they have fired pro-union workers illegally during the organizing drive in a way that materially undermines the union campaign.

4) Protect workers when mismanagement drives the business into bankruptcy.

     Far too many innocent workers are forced to pay for bad management. Management is free to throw itself a party with huge executive salaries, bonuses, and wasteful corporate perks. When things are good, workers are told that running the company is none of their business. But when management drives the company into bankruptcy, suddenly workers and their unions get blamed. They are told they have to lose their hard-fought wages and benefits to save the company.

     This is outrageous. Yet, under the current bankruptcy law, management can run to a bankruptcy court to get rid of any part of the union protections it likes. Even worse, the workers do not even get a claim for damages after their contract is torn up.

     I will fight to fix this situation. I’ll introduce a bill to amend Section 1113 of the Bankruptcy Code so if workers’ wages or benefits are cut during a bankruptcy, the workers get a priority claim for what they lost that puts them in line ahead of the banks and commercial creditors. This will give workers a say in what happens in the bankruptcy.

    If management can’t run the business right, it will have to turn its assets over to the workers who can shop for a better deal.

5) Reverse Hoffman Plastics and protect the rights of union workers by stopping the exploitation of undocumented workers.

     For decades, the union movement has been committed to the principle that if you work for a living, your rights to organize into a union should be protected whether you’re documented or not. I completely agree. It’s the right and logical thing to do. If undocumented workers don’t have those rights, it means that every unscrupulous employer in the land will have an incentive to hire undocumented workers and then fire them if they act in solidarity with their co-workers.

     That’s not even close to fair. The rights of workers should be equal.

     But in 2002, five Supreme Court justices decided exactly the opposite.  In a case called Hoffman Plastics v. NLRB, they said that undocumented workers fired for organizing a union alongside their citizen co-workers could not receive back pay and other remedies. This decision is a nasty invitation to exploit millions of people in the undocumented work force and undercut the labor movement. I will work to overturn this decision and safeguard fairness for all working women and men, regardless of where they are born, what they look like, whom they love, where and whether they worship, what they believe, and how they live.

      Labor needs not another politician who will take union resources while hanging out with the CEOs, but a champion who will go into Congress and challenge the whole system of anti-union intimidation and coercion that has grown in our country like a noxious weed over the last several decades.

      On this Labor Day, which is sacred for every American who works for a living, I assure you that I will continue to be a real champion for the working people of America. 

* * * * * * *

We're with Jamie!

Add your name to our list of supporters using Facebook!