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National Labor Relations Act at 80: Continuing the Fight to Protect Workers’ Rights | Commentary

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression and at a time of instability and uncertainty for families across the country, our nation recognized the need to protect the rights of workers to improve their pay and working conditions through collective bargaining. That’s why Congress passed a law called the National Labor Relations Act.

Under the NLRA, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law 80 years ago last week, a worker’s fundamental right to organize and collectively bargain became the law of the land. And to enforce that law, Congress created an agency dedicated to resolving disputes and preventing unfair labor practices. That’s why we have the National Labor Relations Board.

Through the middle of the past century, as more workers were able to join a union and as the NLRB protected that right, wages increased and kept pace with worker productivity, more families had the security of health care coverage and benefits, and we enjoyed broad-based economic growth.

Today, we need to do more to grow our economy from the middle out, not from the top down. Unfortunately, the past several decades have been dominated by trickle-down economic policies, with big corporations benefitting most and posting massive profits while workers — who are more productive than ever — pay the price with stagnant wages and longer hours. That leaves workers with less and less economic security.

More recently, Republicans in Congress have taken every opportunity they can to lob attacks on the NLRB — and by extension, attack workers who simply want a voice at the table in their workplace. Look no further than the partisan budget Senate Republicans approved in the Appropriations Committee that slashed more than $27 million from the NLRB’s current funding level. House Republicans want to do even more damage. The partisan House budget would cut NLRB funding by $74 million from the current level.

Under the Senate Republican’s damaging proposal, the NLRB would have to cut its staff by more than a third. That would dramatically reduce the number of labor violations that the NLRB is able to investigate and resolve around the country. That will mean fewer workers will have the chance to improve their wages and working conditions. It’s bad for businesses too. Employers also benefit when union election processes run smoothly and efficiently. In addition, responsible businesses face unfair competition when some employers are free to violate their workers’ rights with impunity.

To further hinder workers’ rights to have a seat at the bargaining table, Republicans included several extraneous provisions — known as riders — in their bill to hamstring the NLRB’s work. They want to prohibit employees from voting electronically in union elections. That would prevent the agency from streamlining the election process. And they want to prevent the NLRB from carrying out its responsibility to examine and adapt to the changing nature of the labor market so it can adequately protect workers.

When workers want to join a union, they aren’t looking for special treatment. They are simply trying to exercise their basic rights and make sure they have a voice at the table. When the NLRB examines and adapts the National Labor Relations Act to changing patterns in the labor market, or when it makes common-sense updates to union election procedures, the board is simply carrying out its duties under the law.

These blatant partisan attacks on this agency are unwarranted and unproductive, especially when the NLRA is the same law that has helped America’s middle class grow and thrive.

Instead of weakening workers’ rights, we need to strengthen the NLRA. For example, corporations that violate workers’ rights, such as firing employees who try to join a union, should face real consequences, and those workers should have immediate and meaningful recourse. Strengthening this law will help increase workers’ economic stability and security. We also need to make sure the NLRB can work effectively to make sure workers’ rights are protected. So, I’m going to continue to fight against Republican attempts to gut funding for the NLRB — and I’m going to keep working to make it work even better for workers and businesses across the country.

At its core, the NLRA is about making sure our workplaces, our government, our economy, work for all families, not just the wealthiest few. I believe Congress should be doing everything it can to make that a reality for more Americans by working on policies to grow our economy from the middle out, not the top down.

That would be a strong step in the right direction to bring back the American dream of economic security and a stable middle class life for millions of workers across the country.

Sen. Patty Murray is a Democrat from Washington.

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