by Emily J. Martin and Cortelyou Kenney, National Women's Law Center. Ms. Martin is the Vice President and General Counsel of the NWLC. Ms. Kenney is a Cross-Cutting Legal Projects Fellow at the NWLC.
Thirty-five years ago today, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was signed into law, remedying the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in General Electric Company v. Gilbert which held that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was not sex discrimination, but rather discrimination between pregnant and non-pregnant persons. Congress acted quickly to rebuke this analysis by passing the PDA, which recognizes what is obvious to most – that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex. The PDA also makes clear that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions must be treated at least as well as other employees “not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” As a result of the PDA, once-common policies – such as forcing pregnant women off the job regardless of their ability to work – are no longer permissible.
Yet pregnancy discrimination still persists more than a generation after the PDA’s passage. This is in part because stereotypes about pregnant women persist in the workplace, despite the law’s protection. But even more troublingly, pregnancy discrimination also persists because some courts have read the language of the PDA narrowly, ignoring both its plain language and its intent while also limiting its protections for pregnant workers.
Specifically, courts have opened loopholes in the PDA that have too often left without protection those women who need temporary work accommodations because of pregnancy. Many women work through their pregnancies without any need for accommodation, but some pregnant workers, particularly those who work in more physically demanding or less flexible jobs, need some adjustments in work rules or duties. When their requests for reasonable accommodations – such as being allowed to carry a water bottle, refrain from climbing ladders, or avoid heavy lifting – are refused, pregnant workers must often choose between their paycheck and a healthy pregnancy even when their employers provide similar accommodations to employees who need them because of disability or injury.
Treatment of workers at HealthBridge nursing homes in Connecticut and gaps in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) show how stacked some labor law can be against workers. Even when workers win a string of victories in court, employers can stall in placing workers back on the job. For example, six-hundred workers who make no more than $32,000 have been out of work since June, despite a court order directing HealthBridge to put them back to work. Meanwhile, 40 percent of American workers aren’t covered by FMLA. And too often employees covered by the law are punished by their employers for attempting to take leave. Law professor Anne Lofaso suggests some simple ways to improve labor laws in her new ACS issue brief, aptly titled “We Are in this Together.”
Through the decades, many proposals have been made to replace, repeal, or amend the National Labor Relations Act. Most have foundered for good reason. Amending the NLRA requires applying the precautionary principle – first, do no harm.
In the case of the NLRA, proposed amendments should be justified by showing that a change will promote the NLRA’s purposes and policies. The ultimate policy is to restore equality of bargaining power between employers and employees by “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” The basic goal was to balance the power corporation and partnership law gave employers to become collective with a law that gave employees the right to take collective action to improve working conditions.
The standard to measure the value of proposals to change the NLRA is not whether the change would increase the number of union members – although that certainly matters. It is whether the change would increase employee bargaining power. The purpose of increasing employee bargaining power was to improve the quality of work, and, ultimately, promote a fairer, more prosperous, more democratic society.
Congress was impelled to pass the NLRA because the increase in power employers had, as a result of corporation and partnership laws, so skewed power toward employers that wages and working conditions had spiraled down and led to economic collapse.
We have seen similar dynamics during the Great Recession with attacks on employee working conditions, and especially attacks on public sector employee wages and benefits – as well as through privatization. The ferocity of those attacks in recent years and the low percentage of union members raise concerns that the spiraling down of working conditions will lead to economic disaster. Desperate times seem to call for desperate measures.
However, these days, most people have little to no first-hand knowledge of how the National Labor Relations Board operates or of the purpose of the law. Here, then, is a brief NLRA / NLRB primer.
By J. Chris Sanders, General Counsel, United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 227
Michigan voters will have the opportunity to defeat so-called “right-to-work”in November, and ensure that Michigan workers will have constitutional rights on the job far above current federal law.
What is "right-to-work"? In short, big trouble for working people, a law that, as Martin Luther King said, guarantees neither rights nor work.
A little background: Right-to-work is a provision in the National Labor Relations Act. The trouble comes from the NLRA's weak constitutional underpinning. The NLRA is founded upon the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, affording the federal government the power to enact statutes and take other actions to regulate commerce. Unlike many countries, U.S. labor rights to organize and bargain collectively are not deemed fundamental. In other countries, these rights are founded upon those of freedom of speech, association, and assembly, but not in the U.S. Here, it's just about commerce, meaning business.
Right-to-work is all about business. The federal NLRA permits states to enact laws that keep unions weak and wages low. It requires labor unions, which are membership organizations, to bargain for and represent employees who choose not to be members for free, thereby weakening those unions and driving down wages.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is one of the surviving monuments of the era of progressive social legislation (extending from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s) during which Congress enacted the nation’s foundational health, safety and environmental laws. That statute empowered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to write safety and health standards designed “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” A separate “general duty clause” required every employer to provide a workplace that was “free from recognized hazards” that were likely to cause “death or serious physical harm.”
During the ensuing four decades, OSHA’s efforts to implement that statute have brought about substantial reductions in workplace injuries and illnesses, but far too many workers are still hurt or killed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. private sector employers in 2010 reported nearly 2.9 million injuries and around 200,000 workplace illnesses. The actual numbers are likely much higher because some employers underreport workplace injuries, and doctors frequently fail to inquire into the likelihood that particular diseases, like cancer, have a workplace origin. A total of 4,690 workers died on the job, which represents a fatality rate of about 3.6 deaths per 100,000 full-time employees. These rates declined slightly during the recession of 2009, but were on their way back up in 2010
The sad fact of occupational life in the United States is that OSHA has not lived up to its potential, primarily because for the 30 of the past 40 years, OSHA has been the subject of unrelenting attacks by the business community. These attacks have rendered OSHA largely incapable of promulgating new occupational safety and health standards and only barely able to enforce existing standards the general duty clause. In 2010, the Center for Progressive Reform published a report detailing serious regulatory dysfunction in OSHA due primarily to a lack of resources, a weakened regulatory process, intrusive review by the White House, and an outmoded statute.
Today we publish The Next OSHA: Progressive Reforms to Empower Workers,offering a wide variety of suggestions for how Congress, OSHA, and workers themselves can make the nation’s workplaces safer and healthier. I co-authored the report with fellow CPRMember Scholars Martha McCluskey, Sidney Shapiro and Rena Steinzor, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz.