News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Should Joining a Union Be a Civil Right?

A new book, "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right," shows how workers can press for real penalties against bosses who fire them for trying to unionize.

Continued from previous page


The central problem, according to the authors, is that labor law reform efforts have been too wrapped up in the complexities of the NLRA, an isolating context that sets labor and business up as two opposing special interest groups. By contrast, adjusting the Civil Rights Act emphasizes and protects the individual worker’s right to join a union, theoretically negating the specter of a brutish clash between large institutions.

“This effort goes to a question everyone can understand: Should you be fired for trying to join a union?” Kahlenberg told AlterNet. “We can elevate this discussion to a higher plane and take it out of the special interest box and put it into the more morally elevated notion of vindicating individual civil rights.”

This fresh focus could expand the appeal of reform. Everyone knows about the Civil Right Act and even most conservatives support it. (The book has already received verbal support and blurbs from influential labor and civil rights groups, including the NAACP.) The authors understand some political hurdles—Republicans and big business will always oppose anything like this, so reformers must wait for another sweeping Democratic victory —but they may underestimate other institutional barriers. All of the previous reform efforts were shattered on the battlements of the anti-democratic Senate (every proposal passed the House), which over-represents thinly populated, anti-labor states. Today, with unions weaker than ever before, and an influential wing of the Democratic Party shot through with anti-labor, pro-business ideology, it seems doubtful that even a carefully calibrated proposal like this could get through a Democratic-dominated Congress.

The question is likely to be academic for a long while. Complete Democratic control of Washington historically lasts for little more than one congressional session every 10 years. But when such a majority comes again, Kahlenberg and Marvit’s plan will be preferable to another attempt to tinker with the current rusted machinery. As the case of Cory Ballard and Sugarhouse Casino shows, it is time to try something new.

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.