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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Key Civil Right: Union Membership

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and labor lawyer Moshe Z. Marvit provide a much needed and timely reminder in their New York Times op-ed “A Civil Right to Unionize.” Kahlenberg and Marvit, authors of the forthcoming “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice” provide some insightful observations about the current state of the American labor movement, among them,

Corporations will tell you that the American labor movement has declined so significantly — to around 7 percent of the private-sector work force today, from 35 percent of the private sector in the mid-1950s — because unions are obsolete in a global economy, where American workers have to compete against low-wage nonunion workers in other countries. But many vibrant industrial democracies, including Germany, have strong unions despite facing the same pressures from globalization.
Other skeptics suggest that because laws now exist providing for worker safety and overtime pay, American employees no longer feel the need to join unions. But polling has shown that a majority of nonunion workers would like to join a union if they could.
In fact, the greatest impediment to unions is weak and anachronistic labor laws….

The authors advocate a clear and simple proposal to address the problem:

…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 enshrine what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1961 at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention: “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 right to organize and join unions is clearly enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected by the U.S. Constitution and well established labor law. Yet the right is poorly protected “because the penalties — mitigated back pay after extended hearings — are so weak. ”
Marvit and Kahlenberg believe that the best specific remedy would be to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protection of unions and their members:

Our proposal would make disciplining or firing an employee “on the basis of seeking union membership” illegal just as it now is on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin. It would expand the fundamental right of association encapsulated in the First Amendment and apply it to the private workplace just as the rights of equality articulated in the 14th Amendment have been so applied.

The Civil Rights and Labor movements have a lot in common, and it makes sense that they should find protection under the same legislation, as the authors explain:

The labor and civil rights movements have shared values (advancing human dignity), shared interests (people of color are disproportionately working-class), shared historic enemies (the Jim Crow South was also a bastion of right-to-work laws) and shared tactics (sit-ins, strikes and other forms of nonviolent protest). King, it should be remembered, was gunned down in Memphis in 1968, where he was supporting striking black sanitation workers who marched carrying posters with the message “I Am a Man.” Conceiving of labor organizing as a civil right, moreover, would recast the complexity of labor law reform in clear moral terms.

“…There are many factors that help explain why the nation has progressed on King’s vision for civil rights while it has moved backward on his goal of economic equality,” note the authors. “…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 into the Civil Rights Act itself.”
It’s an interesting idea, and one which could prove to be of great benefit to the Democratic Party.

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