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Bright Ideas in Congress: Sue Your Boss for Union Busting

Amy Traub

In America, employees have the right to stick together to form unions and bargain collectively. At least, we’ve got those rights on paper. In practice, many employers routinely violate rights to organize, threatening, harassing,  and illegally firing workers, whenever employees try to band together.  The nation’s largest employer, Walmart, is engaged in just such an anti-worker campaign now.

Employees are supposed to have some recourse: the National Labor Relations Board is meant to protect workers’ (and employers’) rights when it comes to organizing, but the board operates so slowly, and imposes such weak penalties that it offers little security. Employees who dare to stand up for their right to join a union can face years of unemployment when they are illegally fired, while employers face virtually no penalty for denying their employees’ basic legal rights. And today even the meager defense offered by the NLRB is under attack: after Congress repeatedly refused to approve President Obama’s appointees to the NLRB, and the President made recess appointments to ensure a functioning Board, a court ruling threw the President’s ability to make recess appointments to any executive agency into question. Unless new appointees are confirmed, the NLRB will lack enough members to function when the term of its current director expires on August 27. The right to organize could truly become a dead letter for millions of American workers.

In the midst this bleak landscape, fresh policy ideas are exceedingly welcome. So it was exciting to learn of Representative Alan Grayson’s new bill, the Worker Anti-Retaliation Act, which would enable workers to bypass the NLRB, directly suing their employer in civil court for alleged violation of the labor rights. Employees could win an injunction to reverse the retaliation and courts could impose meaningful penalties.

Reporting on the new bill inThe Nation, Josh Eidelson notes that the legislation stands virtually no chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which is currently considering legislation further impeding union recognition.  But Grayson is philosophical: “It may not pass today,” he told The Nation. “It may not pass tomorrow. But it indicates the direction that we have to go in if we’re going to preserve the middle class in America.”