Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Hirono, Democratic congressional leaders introduce legislation to strengthen union rights

The proposal would also guarantee workers' rights to bargain collectively

WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Democratic congressional leaders introduced legislation in the U.S. House and Senate Wednesday that will guarantee the right of public employees to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively in states that currently do not afford these basic protections.

There are nearly 17.3 million public workers across the country. Unlike private sector workers, public sector employees have no federal law protecting their freedom to join a union and collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits, and improved working conditions.

“One year after the harmful Janus decision, public employee unions continue to stand strong in the face of an all-out, right-wing assault on working people who serve our communities,” Hirono said. “Public employees are teachers, firefighters, social workers, EMTs, and police officers. We rely on them every day to educate and nurture our children and to keep our communities safe. The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act will ensure that every public employee has the right to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively. Simply put, the bill ensures public employees have a voice in the workplace.”

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act of 2019 provides the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) with the authority to determine whether a state, territory, or locality provides public employees and supervisors the right:

  • To form, join, or assist a union, to bargain collectively, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid (including the filing of joint, class or collective legal claims) or protection;
  • To have their union recognized by their public employer if the union is freely chosen by a majority of employees, to bargain with the employer through the union, and to commit their collective-bargaining agreement to writing;
  • To be free from forced recertification elections of their already-recognized representative and decertification of their chosen representative within one year of an election or the expiration of a valid collective bargaining agreement;
  • To have a procedure for resolving impasses in collective bargaining culminating in binding arbitration; and
  • To authorize employers to deduct fees to the union from their payroll when employees consent.

The FLRA approach gives states wide flexibility to write and administer their own labor laws provided they meet this minimum standard. If a state substantially provides for the rights and procedures laid out in the bill, that state is unaffected by this bill. States that do not provide for these rights or only partially provide for these rights, however, will be compelled to meet these basic labor standards. The FLRA must issue regulations within one year of the bill becoming law and they can enforce the law through federal court. The bill also creates a private right of action to enforce compliance in federal court but only if the FLRA has not yet filed suit seeking relief for the same issue. 

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) were among the congressional leaders who co-sponsored the measure along with Hirono. Fellow U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) was one of the bill's cosponsors. 

Schumer said, “The Supreme Court’s Janus decision undermined decades of hard-won progress for working people across America. Republicans and the Trump administration, fueled by corporate special interests, have been relentless in their efforts to dismantle workers’ rights. Democrats refuse to stand idly by.

"Labor unions have helped countless families reach the middle class and strengthened their ability to bargain for fair wages and safe working conditions, " Schumer added. "The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act protects the American worker’s right to organize, act concertedly, and bargain collectively. It gives workers the freedom and power to secure their futures. Democrats will continue to fight for hard working Americans – the backbone of our country – and ensure that their rights are protected."

Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's committee that handles labor issues, said, “Despite corporate special interests’ best efforts, a year after the Janus Supreme Court decision, union membership is still strong – because so many workers understand the importance of using their collective voices to advocate for better pay and safer working conditions."

The Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is supported by the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that public sector unions are barred from charging “agency fees” to the public employees they negotiate pay increases and benefit bumps for, if those employees decline to join the union as full members. Hirono spoke out against the decision last summer, calling it a “decades-long assault funded by far-right groups, such as the Koch Brothers, on working people.”

In addition to Hirono, the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act is also cosponsored by Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.),  Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). There are 27 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Author: Keoki Kerr