Where Al Shanker Stood: Labor Law Reform

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was working in support of the union rights of striking African American sanitation workers. We thought it was an opportune time to reprint this July 17, 1977 piece, in which Al Shanker turned over his weekly column to his friend and mentor Bayard Rustin, advisor to King on nonviolent protest strategies, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and founding president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

The nation's labor laws need to be reformed to give workers a fair chance to organize. Enlightened opinion has long recognized that unions are essential if workers are to have any hope of dealing on an equal basis with their employers.

The nation's basic labor relations policy was expressed in the Wagner Act of 1935 as "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" and "protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing." The Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin amendments to the Wagner Act undermined those principles by creating an imbalance in favor of employers.

Although companies no longer employ the brutal anti-union methods of the past, many have adopted a sophisticated arsenal of devices -- legal, illegal, and extralegal -- to interfere with and frustrate the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

There is a basic inequality in the nation's labor laws. There are prompt, effective, harsh, even vindictive, penalties against union violations of the law. However, there are no comparable remedies against employer violations-- even the most flagrant violations during union organizing campaigns. The National Labor Relations Act provides speedy action to protect the rights of employers, but allows delay after delay to frustrate the rights of workers. Violations of equal severity are treated with unequal punishment. The law has naively and erroneously assumed that employers would accept the spirit of the law and respect the rights of workers.

Employers exploit procedural delays to prevent the law from being enforced for several years. The promise of collective bargaining can be dragged through the National Labor Relations Board and the courts for years and never become a reality.

The new brand of union-busters carry briefcases instead of clubs and brass knuckles. Their main strategy is delay. As one union-buster put it: "The name of the game is to prevent the election and chill the union off." It now takes an average of six months for an election to be held to determine if workers want to be represented by a union. There is no reason that elections cannot be held within a specified and short period of time. In fact, such a reform is essential if workers are to have an effective right to organize.

Workers fired by their employers because of their union activities must wait years for legal remedies. The employer may be forced to hire back the workers after two or three years, but the promise of eventual justice will not feed a family.

When an unfair labor practice charge is filed by a union it takes an average of one year for a cease-and desist order to be issued and the employer can still delay by refusing to bargain in good faith. In one-fourth of the union representation elections won in 1970, contracts had still not been signed five years later. For workers, justice delayed is truly justice denied.

Employers who illegally fire workers for supporting a union and employers who refuse to bargain in good faith after an election should be subject to prompt, enforceable court orders to stop such illegal activities.

Another vitally needed reform is that the government should stop subsidizing employers who consistently and repeatedly violate the national labor laws. Government contracts should no more be awarded to companies that violate labor laws than to those that violate laws against discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, or sex.

Big business is mounting a huge and expensive campaign to oppose labor law reform. Those who have always placed property rights above human rights continue to oppose their employees' attempts to exercise their right to representation and self-organization. They are going to be spending millions of dollars spreading the lie that labor law reform is a selfish power grab by big labor. They couldn't be farther from the truth.

Labor law reform is needed to insure the rights of unorganized and exploited workers. The right to organize and bargain collectively is still effectively denied to millions of workers. Black workers, who have shown an extraordinary interest in unions, are special victims of this unjust situation.

They make up a large percentage of workers who have been denied the right to organize. They are heavily concentrated in those industries and areas where employers have most ruthlessly resisted unions - the service industries, the South, and government employment. A fair chance to organize unions is an essential precondition for the economic advancement of blacks, women, and other minorities.

Every worker must have the right to self-organization and collective bargaining, with speedy processes and effective remedies to guarantee those rights.