The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights Monitor - Volume 17, No. 1 - Winter 2007

Fighting to Preserve and Restore Workers' Rights

In 2007, a new Congress made economic justice an important part of its legislative agenda. But organized opposition by big business, abetted by the threat or use of procedural obstacles to prevent votes, resulted in the thwarting of some of the workers' rights agenda.

Minimum Wage

The leaders of the 110th Congress promised that one of its top priorities would be an increase to the severely outdated minimum wage of $5.15. The last increase had been in 1997, and the minimum wage, adjusted to reflect real dollars, was at its lowest level since 1951.

A number of economists stepped up to say that an increase would be good for the economy and that opponents' professed fear that a higher minimum wage would cost America jobs was greatly overblown.

The House promptly passed a minimum wage increase that would result in a $2.10 increase over a two-year period, from $5.15 to $7.25. Despite the modesty of this increase, there was considerable resistance and efforts were made to tie the bill to tax breaks.

In the Senate, however, where a minority party has more procedural tools at its disposal to thwart legislation, a filibuster (a procedural maneuver requiring 60 votes to allow a bill to move forward) was used by Republicans to force supporters of the increase to attach business tax cuts to the bill, in the amount of $8.3 billion. A further tax break was only narrowly rejected.

Minimum wage opponents in the Senate tried other strategies to derail the bill as well. Perhaps the most audacious of these was an amendment -- garnering 28 votes -- which would have effectively taken minimum wage entirely out of the federal government purview, leaving it up to individual states.

Although the Senate bill and the ultimate minimum wage law agreed to by both chambers contained small business tax cuts, the labor rights community had cause to celebrate as the minimum wage, after a decade without adjustment, was finally raised. The civil rights community lauded this accomplishment, as raising standards of living across the board for working people has a pronounced benefit for minorities and economically disenfranchised groups.

Employee Free Choice Act

During the summer of 2007, a second major piece of labor legislation was brought forward, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called EFCA "the most important legislation helping workers economically in many, many years." It was designed to address the persistent problem of employer intimidation of employees in order to prevent them from voting to form a union in secret ballot elections.

Supporters of the bill, noting the many documented cases of employers firing, threatening and bribing employees in the period leading up to a secret ballot election, urged that the process be changed so that employers would recognize unions whenever a majority of employees signed petitions manifesting their desire to form a union.

The bill also increased penalties for discipline levied against workers in retaliation for their union activities. In addition, it attempted to neutralize another employer anti-union tactic -- delaying or refusing to agree to a first contract after a union is formed, in order to undermine union support. The proposed law set up mediation and arbitration to facilitate reaching first contracts.

The bill passed in the House. Then, the Senate again used the filibuster to defeat the bill, even though it commanded majority support in that chamber. Labor and civil rights groups were disappointed. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) strongly supported the bill. LCCR President and CEO Wade Henderson noted, "I don't think the public is fully aware of the nature of the struggles many workers endure in trying to form unions."

Indeed, LCCR and other civil rights groups have worked cooperatively on economic justice and civil rights legislation. LCCR was co-founded by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The bond has persisted for more than a half century.

In the tradition of this partnership, LCCR and American Rights at Work co-authored and released a report in October 2007 about the civil rights implications of FedEx's practice of treating its "independent contractors" as employees, in order to raise awareness around the importance of fair labor practices and EFCA. This report, titled "Fed Up with FedEx." can be found on LCCR's website: www.civilrights.org.

Other Labor Issues

In other legislative matters concerning labor, the Senate also staved off an effort to strip all collective bargaining rights from airport screeners. Opponents of screener collective bargaining rights argued that this effort would compromise their public safety duties -- even though countless firefighters, police officers, and other safety personnel were already unionized and still courageously defended public safety. The House resisted efforts to eliminate Davis-Bacon requirements from projects funded under the Homeland Security bill. The Davis- Bacon Act calls for the payment of prevailing wages on construction sites, preventing contractors from undercutting local wage rates by paying lower rates on large-scale federal projects.

In a year of both victories and disappointments, both the workers' and civil rights communities are optimistic that by working together, they can achieve success on EFCA and other legislation in the near future.

The Civil Rights Monitor is an annual publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Previous issues of the Monitor are available online. Browse or search the archives

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