DETROIT – Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison plans to unveil legislation that would make unionization into a legally protected civil right, the congressman said on Saturday.
The bill, which he plans to formally introduce on July 30, would make it easier for workers to take legal action against companies that violate their right to organize.
It is already illegal to fire workers in retaliation for union activities, but enforcing workers’ right to organize can be a tricky process under current law. Currently, wrongfully terminated employees must file an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which will then determine whether to represent the worker in a legal fight against the employer.
But workers are not able to directly sue their employers for anti-union retaliation, and the process of bringing forward a successful unfair labor practice claim can take years.
Ellison’s legislation would maintain the unfair labor practice system, but also allow workers to individually sue their employers over allegations of illegal retaliation.
“If it’s a civil rights action, it’s vindicating your personal right, first of all to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression,” Ellison told msnbc Saturday at the Netroots Nation conference here. “And it’s your individual right to say what you want. Whether or not there’s ever even a vote, you shouldn’t be fired for expressing an intent to support union activity.”
Ellison said he got the idea for the bill from a book called Why Labor Organizing Should Be A Civil Right, written by Century Foundation fellows Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit. Shortly before the book’s release in early 2012, the two authors presented a synopsis of its core argument in an op-ed for The New York Times.
“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,” they wrote in the op-ed. “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 full details of Ellison’s bill remain to be seen, but the proposal set forward by Kahlenberg and Marvit would “provide that after 180 days, a plaintiff can move his or her case from [the NLRB] to federal court.” That’s how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission currently operates with regard to accusations of workplace discrimination.
Kahlenberg told msnbc that he was “delighted” by Ellison’s announcement.
“I think it’s a terrific development and Congressman Ellison’s the right person to advance this idea,” Kahlenberg said. “He has a strong record on civil rights and a strong record on labor.”
Ellison had not spoken directly with either Kahlenberg or Marvit about the idea, but Kahlenberg said he had been in contact with Ellison’s staff. According to Ellison, a recent Supreme Court decision has made it more important than ever to strengthen collective bargaining rights.
“In the aftermath of Harris v. Quinn, there’s no doubt that organizing rights are under as much threat as ever,” he said. “And now even from the Supreme Court.”