Protecting the rights of workers is one of the most important things we can do as a nation because those rights effect the current standard of living, retirement security and access to health care of the American worker.
Unfortunately, over the last 30 years there has been an orchestrated effort by Republicans to attack all laws that protect the rights of workers. Whether it is a refusal to address a historically low minimum wage, their attack on unions or the weakening of laws and underfunding of agencies designed to protect the rights of workers, they have proven that they will support the big business interests that finance their campaigns over the interests of the men and women who elected them.
We have many laws that are designed to protect the rights of the American worker. Unfortunately, those laws are window dressing to a large degree because while they outline the rights of workers the laws are not properly enforced, and the penalties for breaking those laws are not sufficient to serve as a deterrent.
One of the ways that the Republican Party has weakened the laws protecting workers is by underfunding the organizations that are charged with enforcing those laws.
Nowhere is this more evident than OSHA.
In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act designed to protect workers from dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, but OSHA is badly underfunded. There are more than 8 million businesses that require inspection under the law, but there are only 2200 OSHA inspectors to conduct those inspections. At the current rate of inspection, it would take OSHA 126 years to inspect those facilities.
I’m sorry, but there is no way to justify the gross underfunding of an organization charged with protecting the health and safety of Americans in the workplace.
On Labor Day of this year, Republicans announced their plans to cut funding to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, which is responsible for enforcing laws concerning wage theft by employers, and the National Labor Relations Board, which would limit the enforcement of laws that protect workers who want to use collective bargaining or join unions.
The underfunding of these organizations is compounded by the fact that most of laws have relatively low or outdated fines.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes wage and overtime standards and child labor laws only provides for an $1,100 fine for the willful or repeated violation of wage laws, only $11,000 for willful or repeated violations of child labor laws and only an $100,000 if the willful or repeated violation of the child labor laws results in the death of a child.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the National Labor Relations Act do not even give the employee the right to sue their employer if their rights are violated, and while many of the acts do carry the possibility of jail time, the chances of someone actually being given jail time for the violation of these laws is practically nonexistent.
In other words, corporations do not have to worry about these laws because there is little chance of being caught violating the law and the benefits of breaking the law outweigh the penalties that can be imposed on those who break the law.
Another problem that compounds the issue is that 49 0f 50 states are at will states. This means that your employer can fire you for any reason without even telling you why you are being fired. Federal and state laws protect certain classes from discrimination in the workplace and protect people who report the violations, but it is hard to prove violations when your employer is not required to give you any reason for why you are being fired.
It is very hard for a political party to claim that they support the rights of the Americans when they launch an outright assault on workers, but Republicans claim that raising the minimum wage would destroy the economy, that the regulations in these laws, which protect the rights of workers, serve no real effect but to be burdensome to employers and that unions are corrupt and a danger to the working man… What is even more remarkable about that is a large number of Americans believe their spurious propaganda.
In reality, a word that apparently is not in the Republican dictionary, the watering down of these laws and the attack on unions has resulted in the highest corporate profits in the last 86 years and lowest wages in 66 years.
It is easy to have high profit margins when you do not have to pay a living wage or worry about the health and safety of your employees.
I have already addressed some of these issues. In my 9-point plan for the economy, I discussed my plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and in the part on equal pay I discuss how ensuring that everyone receives the pay they deserve will restore more than $600 billion in lost wages every year.
Upon taking office, one of the first things I would do is sign on as a cosponsor to the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, which is sponsored by Senator Patty Murray.
The WAGE Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to strengthen protections for working people who organize and promote change through collective action. It would increase protections for all workers, union or not, and will help open up the pathways to equal pay, increased safety and higher wages. Specifically the law would increase workers’ rights and protections by:
- Tripling the back pay that employers must pay to workers who are fired or retaliated against by their employers, regardless of immigration status.
- Providing workers with a private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorneys’ fees in federal district court, just as they can under civil rights laws.
- Providing for federal court injunctions to immediately return fired workers to their jobs.
- Ensuring employers will be jointly responsible for violations affecting workers supplied by another employer.
Furthermore, the WAGE Act would put an end to the perverse incentives for employers to interfere with workers’ rights by:
- Establishing civil penalties up to $50,000 for employers that commit unfair labor practices and doubled penalties for repeat violations. This would bring the NLRA in line with other workplace laws.
- Giving the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) authority to impose penalties on officers and directors of employer violators.
- Allowing the board to issue a bargaining order upon finding that an employer prevented a free and fair election, provided that a majority of employees signed authorization cards within the previous 12 months.
- Setting a 30-day time limit for employers to challenge an NLRB decision, after which the NLRB decision becomes final and binding unless a court directs otherwise. The NLRB could then go directly to district court to enforce its orders.
I would then file legislation that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Equal Employment Opportunity laws to increase fines, jail time and the possibility of jail time for those who are found to be in willful or repeated violation of these laws, so that they serve as a real deterrent to violating these laws.
I would fight to restore funding to the organizations charged with enforcing these laws so that they have the inspectors and staff to insure that companies either comply with the law, or suffer the penalty for violating the law.
Finally, we need to take steps to ensure the rights of workers by ending At Will laws. We need to follow Montana’s example and at least provide workers with minimum protections from unjust firings from their employer.
I would sponsor legislation that makes it illegal to fire an employee if:
- It was in retaliation for the employee’s refusal to violate public policy or for reporting a violation of public policy;
- The discharge was not for good cause and the employee had completed the a standard probationary period of employment; or
- The employer violated the express provisions of its own written personnel policy (companies with more than 10 employees would be required to have a written personnel policy).
- Furthermore, this legislation would require employers to fill out a standardized form on each employee fired that lists the reason for termination. The employer would be required to maintain a copy in their employee record, give a copy to the terminated employee and send one copy to the Department of Labor.
Whether it is your health or financial stability, few things affects the lives of Americans as their rights as an employee.
Every American has the right to work in a safe and healthy environment free from discrimination and unscrupulous practices. Employees who work full-time are entitled to receive a living wage for their efforts, and they deserve a government that will defend those rights and not one that does everything it can to strip them of those rights.
It is time to end the lies of crooked politicians looking to feather their own nests and elect leaders that will defend the rights of Americans, while Americans still have some rights left to defend.
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