Sen. Bernie Sanders will reintroduce the PRO Act into the Senate this session. | David Becker/AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will reintroduce the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act. He should use it to really throw the book at corporate crooks.
Sanders will be able to push it through his panel, via a one-vote majority there. If all 49 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents hang together to outvote the chamber’s corporate puppets, also known as Republicans, there’ll actually be a debate on it in the Senate.
Unfortunately, the Senate filibuster rule or the Republican-run and equally ideologically polarized House Education and the Workforce (not “Labor”) Committee will then kill the bill.
So let’s take a leaf out of the Republican playbook and make the PRO Act even tougher on corporate crooks and their aiders and abetters, like union-busters, than it is. You’ve heard of “messaging” bills? Make the PRO Act a real message to that criminal class and to the rest of the country: Abuse, exploit, and break the law against your workers and you’ll pay a huge price.
As you know, the PRO Act, as written by Sanders and then-House E&L Chair Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., plus labor’s legislative representatives, would make gaining union recognition easier and ban many obstacles—such as captive audience meetings which feature illegal intimidation, lies, and threats bosses now use to thwart organizing drives.
Bosses who don’t bargain after workers vote union would face mandatory arbitration. Card-check recognition would be explicitly in federal law. Delay tactics bosses use to postpone elections would go. Joint employers would be jointly responsible for obeying or breaking labor law. Illegally fired workers would be reinstated as soon as they win a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge’s order in their favor, rather than being forced to wait through interminable delays, first at the board and then in the courts.
The PRO Act would empower the NLRB to easily seek court injunctions against flagrant labor law-breakers, such as Starbucks and Walmart. And instead of forking over only net back pay to harmed workers, Sanders proposed firms would face civil fines of $50,000 for a first offense and $100,000 for subsequent ones.
But the new version of the PRO Act we envision is a messaging bill, remember? So let’s really clobber criminal companies and their honchos where it hurts. Here are the additions we’d make:
High fines, maybe on a sliding scale varying by corporate size. The basic idea is “hit ‘em in the wallet, hard.” One way: Add a “0” to the end of those fines above, making them $500,000 for a first offense and $1 million for each following offense. And each instance of labor law-breaking would cover one worker, not dozens. The numbers add up.
Let’s see, the first 101 workers Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz illegally fired for trying to unionize would cost him $500,000 for worker #1 and $1 million each for numbers 2-101. Even Schultz couldn’t just shrug off $100,500,000 in fines. Nor could his board of directors. And if they, and his union-busters, aided, abetted, or condoned the lawbreaking, they’d be fined, too.
Further, if individual Chapter 7 bankrupts can’t avoid paying “debts for certain criminal restitution orders,” according to the legal website Findlaw, outlaw that escape hatch for firms.
Commit the crime, do the time. Corporate pooh-bahs shrug off fines, which are civil penalties. But crime is crime, even—maybe especially—among executive suits in executive suites. Make labor law-breaking, formally called unfair labor practices, a criminal offense.
South Korea does. In December 2019, Samsung Electronics Board Chairman Lee Sang-hoon was sentenced to 18 months in jail “for sabotaging labor union activities” by illegal spying and illegally stalling bargaining. Six other Samsung senior honchos joined their boss in doing perp walks in handcuffs. Nineteen more received suspended sentences in Seoul District Court. A higher court later tossed his sentence, but the others stood.
“We humbly accept that how the company perceived labor unions didn’t meet citizen’s eye-level and society’s expectations,” Samsung said. “We will establish a forward-looking and healthy labor union culture that is based on the spirit of respect for our employees.” A higher court overturned Lee’s conviction, but the other verdicts stood.
Extend criminal penalties. The Protect The Right To Organize Act made more offenses–such as captive audience meetings—labor law-breaking. We’d go even further and make more people, besides line managers, CEOs, company directors, and other top executives, guilty of labor law-breaking. Extend criminal penalties to, to use the Nixonian phrase, currently “unindicted co-conspirators,” also known as union-busters. They’re as guilty as their clients.
No more letting firms off the hook when a contract is reached. This one’s prompted by the story we just posted about the settlement of the 175-day strike which Ingredion forced on its 120 workers, members of Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 100-G. Ingredion also brought in scabs to run the plant.
Undoubtedly as part of bargaining, the local withdrew its complaints of labor law-breaking—bad-faith bargaining, illegal spying, direct dealing with workers, and Ingredion’s refusal to recognize the union as their representative. With the settlement and the union’s withdrawal of its complaints, the NLRB closed the cases. It’s a common practice.
Why? Why should a labor law-breaker get away with what is in essence a plea bargain? Prosecutors use plea bargains to save the costs of criminal trials and obtain convictions. But where the crook is known, the crime is known and the impact on workers is enormous, there should be little plea-bargaining, and preferably none at all.
Ban hiring scabs. In 1938, the Supreme Court legalized letting firms hire “permanent replacements” for economic strikers. Letting firms do so undercuts the clout of workers’ most-powerful weapon of last resort, boss-forced strikes. And firms have no incentives to settle. Indeed, they frequently contract with scabs beforehand, anticipating pushing their workers out.
There’s no constitutional justification that we can see for letting firms hire scabs. End it.
Put all this in the PRO Act and you might get corporate chieftains and their lackeys to really think twice before combating their workers through illegal spying, threats, firing, and worse.
Just imagine everyone from an anti-union Starbucks manager on up to Starbucks CEO Schultz, plus his union-buster, getting hauled off to the hoosegow. Or the whole Walton family trundled off to Leavenworth after forking over $288 million for accumulated labor law-breaking against their workers over the years, as documented by Cornell Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.
The PRO Act may be a “messaging” bill in this Congress, but what a delicious prospect with additions like these. Let’s use it to really send a message to the criminal corporate class.
Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.
People’s World, February 3, 2023, https://www.peoplesworld.org/