A new bill aimed at bolstering unions' power and ending abuses by employers was met with loud cheers in Washington, D.C., where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and several Democratic lawmakers introduced the legislation on Wednesday.
The Workplace Democracy Act, introduced by Sanders in the Senate and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) in the House, with a handful of Democratic co-sponsors, would combat wage stagnation, protect workers from being penalized for organizing activity, and streamline the process for joining labor unions.
"We must no longer tolerate CEOs and managers who intimidate, threaten or fire pro-union workers, who threaten to move plants to China if their workers vote in favor of a union, and who refuse to negotiate a first contract with workers who have voted to join unions," Sanders said to a group of supporters and union members. "If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class, we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country."
"This is nothing radical," said Sanders. "This simply says, when working people want to come together to form a union with decent wages and decent benefits, we will no longer tolerate corporate America denying them that right."
The proposal comes in the midst of widespread mobilization among teachers—the nation's largest group of unionized workers. Educators from West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona have gained national attention in recent months while staging massive strikes, demanding long-awaited pay raises and funding for schools from their Republican-led state governments—which have passed corporate tax cuts in recent years instead of funding education.
"I think [the teachers' strikes] are reverberating throughout the country," Warren Gunnels, Sanders' top policy aide, told the Guardian. "The American people are looking for big and bold solutions to rebuild a middle class that has been in decline for the last 40 years."
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State education officials in Arizona threatened last month to revoke teaching certifications should educators move forward with their planned strike—exactly the type of threat Sanders, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) hope to outlaw with the Workplace Democracy Act. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 54 percent of workers in 2017 said they had been threatened with firing should they vote to unionize.
"Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits...and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize," said Sanders.
"Even in the face of so many attacks our unions are leading the fight to reward work in this country," said Gillibrand. "Because we all know that when workers' rights to collective bargaining are threatened and undermined, corporations have enormous power over workers…Corporations can keep wages so low that even full-time workers are still living in poverty in this country. But that is not how our economy is supposed to work, and that's why we need unions."
The legislation would impose hefty penalties on employers who punish or fire employees for participating in union actions, as well as banning right-to-work provisions, which allow workers who are represented by a union to opt out of paying dues. The bill would also implement a "majority rules" system for establishing unions; when the majority of workers in a company vote to join a union, it must be formed under the law. Employers would also no longer be permitted to delay or deny a first contract to union workers.
The strengthening of the nation's labor movement, Sanders said Wednesday, would fight the wage stagnation and decline that has affected middle- and lower-income workers for the last several decades.