New legislation seeks to protect union organizers

Sweeping labor rights legislation unveiled Wednesday by a pair of congressional Democrats seeks to ratchet up penalties for employers who retaliate against workers trying to organize, even as unions come under fresh fire from the GOP.

Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules Biz groups say Warren labor plan would be disaster Freedom of the press under fire in Colorado MORE (Wash.) and Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottCBO: Pelosi bill to lower drug prices saves Medicare 5 billion Democrats divided on surprise medical bill fix NYC teacher suing DeVos over student loan forgiveness program MORE (Va.) said the bill would strengthen protections for private sector workers fired for trying to unionize or form non-union groups to discuss pay, worker safety or other  employee issues.

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Murray, a member of Democratic leadership in the Senate and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the measure would “finally crack down on employers who break the law when workers exercise their basic right to collective action.”

“Unfortunately, when workers want to improve working conditions, some companies do everything they can to prevent workers from having a voice in the workplace, and our labor law lacks the remedies that would discourage these unlawful tactics,” Murray said during a press conference on Capitol Hill.

She said there aren’t any provisions within existing labor law that prevent retaliation or punish employers for taking action against workers looking to organize.

“In other words, there is no downside for employers to fire workers who join together to exercise their basic rights and advocate for improvements in the workplace,” Murray said.

Scott, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the bill is important, because workers have little to no recourse for being fired.

The measure has 35 co-sponsors, Scott said.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who is helping to lead the push for the measure, said that labor rules “for too long have been rigged against working people” and called the measure “a critical first step in addressing both a changing economy and labor laws that have failed to keep up with a changing workplace.”

“Today’s laws that are designed to protect people at work don’t have enough teeth to hinder bad corporate behavior,” Trumka said.

“Simply put, employers are constantly breaking the law because there’s no incentive for them not to,” he said.

Trumka, whose group worked for months with lawmakers to craft the legislation, touted the measure as part of the broader effort to raise wages for workers.

In April, Murray and Scott teamed up on a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour by 2020.

While the AFL-CIO backs that effort, it has little chance of moving in a Republican-controlled Congress, advocates  acknowledged.

But Murray said that wouldn’t stop her from pressing the issue and “asking the American public to stand with us.”

Public support for labor unions has increased over the past year, jumping to 58 percent, its highest point since 2008, when 59 percent approved, a Gallup poll in August showed.

The legislation could serve as a sounding board for the stance of 2016 presidential candidates from both parties, especially with income inequality near the top of the liberal agenda.

Democrats and labor groups are aiming to get the issue into the 2016 mix.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (I-Vt.), a Democratic candidate making gains on front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE, is working on his own bill to overhaul labor law.

Sanders pounced on a proposal unveiled last week by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican presidential hopeful known in his home state for his campaign against labor unions.

He assailed Walker’s plan to eliminate federal employee unions and dismantle the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), saying it “would lower wages and the benefits that working people receive while making the wealthy and large corporations even richer.”

“Well, you see how well he’s doing,” Trumka added, referring to Walker’s anemic national poll numbers.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are also sticking to the front lines on labor policy, aiming to roll back an Obama administration proposal that holds companies liable for labor violations committed by their business partners.

The Murray-Scott bill would give the NLRB the authority to impose penalties on employers who break the rules, give triple back pay to workers whose labor rights have been violated — regardless of immigration status — and allow for preliminary reinstatement for workers who lose their jobs.

The bill would establish civil penalties up to $50,000 for employers who commit unfair labor practices and double penalties for repeat violations.

The measure would require faster action on labor rights cases, setting a 30-day time limit for employers to challenge an NLRB decision, after which the labor board’s decision becomes final and binding unless a court directs otherwise.

The NLRB could then go directly to district court to enforce its orders.

The measure also would allow workers to file lawsuits to recover damages and attorneys’ fees in federal district court, a process similar to civil rights law.