The next great Civil Rights movement will not be based on color, gender, or sexual orientation, but on class. Americans are facing income inequality on a very large scale. America has always prided itself on the belief that anyone can move forward and better their lives through hard work. That is not the case anymore.
Organized labor helped build a middle class democracy in the United States, the post World War II period was as successful as it was because of unions which helped enact progressive legislation from the Civil Rights Act to Medicare. Since then, union representation of American workers has fallen, in tandem with the percentage of income going to working families. Widely shared prosperity has been replaced by winner take all plutocracy.
Corporations tell us that the American Labor Movement has declined to around 7 percent of the private sector workforce today, from 35 percent of the private sector in the mid 1950’s – because unions are obsolete in a global economy. Other skeptics suggest that because laws now exist providing: worker safety and overtime pay, American workers no longer feel the need to join unions. But polling has shown that a majority of non-union workers would like to join a union if they could.
In fact, the greatest handicaps to unions are weak and antiquated labor laws. It’s time to add the right to organize a labor union, without employer discrimination, to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because that right is as fundamental as freedom from discrimination in employment and education.
This would honor what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed at the 1961 AFL-CIO convention when he said, “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. “Together we can be architects of democracy.”
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests.” The First Amendment has been read to protect Freedom of Association, and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act recognized the “Right to self organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations,” but in reality, the opportunity to organize is a right without a remedy.
Firing workers for trying to organize a union is technically illegal under the 1935 National labor Relations Act, but there are powerful incentives for corporations to violate this right, in part because the penalties are so weak.
Past efforts to strengthen labor laws have been bogged down. Congress cannot pass reforms until labors political power increases, but that won’t happen without labor law reform.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has much stronger penalties and procedures than labor laws. Compliments about wrongful terminations for union organizing could still go through the National Labor Relations Board, which has expertise in this field. But the board could employ procedures currently used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which provides that after 180 days, a plaintiff can move his or her case from the administrative agency to federal court.
Their workers who were unfairly fired for trying to organize could sue for damages and lawyer fees and have the opportunity to engage in pretrial legal discovery and have access to a jury – none of which are available under current law.
Making union organizing a Civil Right would make disciplining or firing workers on the basis of seeking union membership illegal as just as it is now on the basis of color, race, sex, religion and national origin. It would expand the Right of Association covered in the First Amendment and apply it to the private workplace just as the rights of equality expressed in the Fourteenth Amendment have been applied.
The labor and civil rights movements have shared values of advancing human dignity. They also have had shared enemies, the Jim Crow south was also a haven for “Right to Work” laws. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it should be remembered was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers.
Some might argue that the Civil Rights Act should be limited to discrimination based on unchangeable characteristics like race or national origin, not acts of free will. But the act already protects against religious discrimination.
Should organizing at work for “mutual aid and protection” not also be covered?
While there are many factors that help explain why the nation has progressed on Dr. King’s vision for civil rights while it has moved backward on his goal of economic equality, among the most important is the substantial difference between the strength of our laws on civil rights and labor. It is time to write protections for labor union organizing into the Civil Rights Act!!!