U.S. Sen. Patty Murray visited a Vancouver union hall Wednesday on her first stop to promote her new pro-union bill, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.
Introduced on the Senate floor on May 2, the Washington Democrat’s bill would give existing union protections some teeth — establishing financial penalties for companies that engage in illegal retaliation, securing the rights of workers to join class-action lawsuits and increasing transparency between labor and management.
“We have seen the economy working really well for those at the top and corporations. I continue to hear from people at the bottom that their rights are eroding,” Murray said at the forum, held at the Laborers’ International Union hall. “It’s harder and harder for people to get together and fight for themselves, their families and their co-workers.”
The Democratic senator was joined by leaders from the Battle Ground Education Association, the Northwest Regional Organizing Coalition, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48 and the Pacific Northwest Iron Workers.
One by one, each attendee told the story of how they found themselves in a union and how their working conditions benefited from the power to collectively bargain for better salaries, health insurance and other benefits with their employer.
“One of the biggest things we keep seeing over and over and over, even nowadays, is people being job-scared,” said Laramie Lexow of the Pacific Northwest Iron Workers District Council.
“They can’t afford to be away from that job. They can’t afford to take the chance to organize, and they’re ignorant to what their rights are,” Lexow continued. “I was that person. I was on a job making little to nothing, much less than I should have been making for the job I was doing.”
Watching a fellow ironworker berated by his supervisor spurred him to join the union, Lexow said. Working the same job and taking on the same risks — but being compensated with a higher salary and better benefits — changed his outlook on his career path, Lexow said.
“That’s what a union is. It’s people taking each others’ hands, holding them upright and saying, ‘We can do this,’ ” he said.
Two organizers who led negotiations with Battle Ground Public Schools last summer — a process that culminated in a 12-day strike before the union and district leadership could come to an agreement over teacher salaries — told Murray that without a strong union, they wouldn’t have been able to collect the disparate needs of 880 individual teachers into a single, cohesive message.
But picketing and marching with a sea of red shirts — sporting their “Red for Ed” slogan — offered solidarity and security that an individual teacher wouldn’t have, said Linda Peterson, Battle Ground Education Association president.
“There was that fear, constantly, of, ‘Is the district going to retaliate? Are they going to find a reason to fire me?’ ” Peterson said. “The union has your back. This is your union.”
What would the bill do?
There are already laws on the books to protect the rights of workers to organize into a union without retaliation from their employer. Workers are also guaranteed a certain amount of transparency — it’s illegal, for instance, for a company to ban its employees from discussing among themselves how much money they make, according to Murray.
But Murray said these laws don’t go far enough in penalizing the companies that break them. Workers are still commonly fired for organizing activity. Companies often still discourage workplace talk about salaries.
“There are protections, but they don’t have severe enough penalties, so people ignore them all the time,” Murray said.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or S. 1306, would establish and enforce a time limit for companies to recognize and bargain with unions.
“Too often, workers who choose to form unions are frustrated when their employers use delay and other tactics to avoid reaching an initial collective bargaining agreement. Estimates are that in as many as half of new organizing campaigns, workers and their employers fail to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement,” the bill’s text states.
Under the act, companies would be required to start negotiations within 10 days of receiving a written notice from their workers’ union, and come to a deal within 90 days or enter into mediation.
Also under S. 1306, employers found to have violated an order from the National Labor Relations Board would be liable for up to $100,000 per violation. The NLRB would also seek an immediate injunction to reinstate a worker fired for organizing activity, letting them work while their case is still pending instead of facing a period of unemployment.
Murray’s bill would additionally require employers to post notices informing workers of their rights under the existing National Labor Relations Act.
“People also don’t know what their rights are,” she said. “(This bill is about) making sure they know what those rights are, and that if they stand up and fight for them, they cannot be retaliated against.”
First introduced by Murray, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act gained the signatures of 39 other senators, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The bill also earned co-sponsors from several Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.