Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Obama and the Future of Labor and Employment Law

November 13th, 2008 | Paul Secunda

Obama With the historic election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States and the substantial gains for Democrats in the House and Senate, there is almost certainty that there will be significant labor and employment law reform in the near future.

Not being a shrinking violet by any means, I would like to add my two cents about what such reform should be about.  Although I previously posted a similar analysis of what the next President should do on the Marquette Law School Faculty Blog about three weeks ago, I want to sharpen these past comments and add some new ideas.

President-elect Obama should first focus on the following four broad areas in the labor and employment law context: labor rights, workplace anti-discrimination and civil rights, employee benefit rights, and public employee rights.

Labor Rights: The percentage of American workers covered by union contracts is now below 8%, as opposed to 16% as recently as 1985. Without unions to fight for them, workers fall behind in wages, benefits, and standard of living. Unionized workers earn more and are more likely to have pensions and health insurance than non-unionized workers.  Workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation.

President-elect Obama should therefore sign the Employee Free Choice Act, a bipartisan effort to assure that workers can exercise their right to organize and secure initial agreements with their employers.  Obama should also act to restore collective bargaining rights to nurses and other workers excluded as “supervisors,” and to ban employers’ practices of permanently replacing striking workers. He should also sign into law the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act to assure public safety workers who put their lives on the line every day their right to bargain collectively.  Finally, President-elect Obama should work to appoint members of the National Labor Relations Board who will work to protect employee choice by outlawing employer captive audience meetings during election campaigns and overruling Dana Corp. and putting back in place the traditional voluntary recognition bar.

Workplace Anti-Discrimination and Civil Rights: President-elect Obama should work for legislation requiring employers to provide at least seven days of paid sick leave to employees and expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to cover more workers (to employers with 20 or more employees). He should also protect the wages of working women by signing into law a legislative nullification of the Ledbetter decision, which will promote paycheck equity and help close the pay gap that leaves working women earning only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

President-elect Obama should also sign legislation to extend § 1983 civil rights claims to actions against federal officials so that federal employees can vindicate their constitutional rights to speech and privacy. Finally, he should expand Title VII and fully include all LGBT individuals (yes, such legislation must include transgendered individuals) under its protections.

Employee Benefits Rights: With more than 47 million Americans-–including 9 million children–without health insurance, President-elect Obama needs to sign a universal health care plan into law before the end of his first term.  This plan structure should include guaranteed eligibility, comprehensive benefits, and affordable premiums and co-payments, with subsidies for families that cannot afford the premiums.  Additionally, ERISA should be amended to provide for less preemption of state health care finance laws so that states can experiment in providing all of their citizens adequate health care.  Obama should also work to amend ERISA to provide monetary, make-whole remedies to employees who suffer from mismanagement of their employee benefits and work for the legislative nullification of the Russell/Mertens line of Section 502(a)(3) equity cases.  In this regard, I have proposed the ERISA Civil Rights Act of 2009, which will act much in the way the Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended Title VII.  Among the changes, the right to compensatory and punitive damages in appropriate cases with caps, the right to a jury trial when such damage is sought, and right to make-whole, equitable relief under current Section 502(a)(3).

Public Employee Rights: First and foremost, President-elect Obama should select Justices who will overule the Garcetti case and return to Pickering and the mandate that employer efficiency interests and employee constitutional rights to speech, expression, association, and privacy be balanced under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  As to federal employees, Congress should amend the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and provide that federal employees are free to bring their First Amendment claims directly to federal court under a re-structured Section 1983, without having to go through the current inadequate, administrative remedies now available.  (This would entail a newly-constituted Supreme Court overruling the Bivens case of Bush v. Lucas).  Such legislation would also provide whistleblowers under Sarbanes-Oxley and in other areas the protection they really need to go out on the limb and report danagerous and fraudulent conditions in the workplace.

Believe it or not, the above suggestions would merely start the process of affording American employees the same basic workplace rights as their international counterparts. Note that I have not even broached what must be an essential component of any comprehensive labor and employment law reform in this country – the institution of just cause workplace protection as the default rule for American employees.

All of this will help return the United States to its international stature and allow it again to not only be a beacon of democracy and freedom, but also the envy of the world insofar as how it treats its working men and women.

Cross-posted from the Workplace Prof Blog.

About the Author: Paul Secunda joined the Marquette University Law School as an associate professor of law in the summer of 2008. He teaches employment discrimination, employee benefits, labor law, employment law, civil procedure, and seminars in special education law, global issues in employee benefits, and public employment law. Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He is also the author, along with Rick Bales and Jeff Hirsch, of the treatise, Understanding Employment Law, along with Sam Estreicher and Rosalind Connor, of the case book, Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law, and of the Teacher’s Manual to the 14th Edition of the Cox, Bok, Gorman & Finkin Labor Law casebook.Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media and has written numerous columns and op-eds for the National Law Journal and Legal Times. He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country, which is part of the Law Professors Blog Network.

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