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Congress finally invested in workers by funding the NLRB — but it’s only a first step

With the newly released omnibus bill, Congress is finally ending the funding freeze for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the federal agency that investigates labor law violations and protects workers’ rights on the job — with a long-overdue $25 million budget boost for the agency.

Congress is taking a step in the right direction. By investing in America’s labor watchdog, Congress is ensuring the NLRB has the resources it needs to enforce our country’s labor laws.

Workers across the country have driven a national wave of activism this year as they joined together to demand change, with historic union wins at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. Workers are winning union elections at the highest rate in nearly 20 years, and the number of workers joining a union is already double last year’s total.

Unfortunately, many workers who want to exercise their right to form a union must overcome illegal union-busting tactics. With the NLRB underfunded by Congress in the past decade, it has been unable to adequately enforce labor laws. Knowing this, some employers continue to break the law because they know that by the time the NLRB can act, the company may have already succeeded in busting the union. In fact, a recent report found corporations spend $340 million a year on union-busting firms that have repeatedly made headlines for suppressing worker voices. And corporate profits are at their highest level in over 70 years, so the scales are further tipped against workers.

Starbucks made national headlines by illegally denying pay and benefits, according to the NLRB, to thousands of workers who voted to join a union. Trader Joe’s abruptly fired workers and shut down a New York store only days before a union vote last summer. Activision-Blizzard tried unsuccessfully to prevent quality assurance workers from holding union elections altogether. And the harsh truth is, companies of all sizes regularly use tactics like these without making the news.

We know from personal experience how dangerous it is to leave union-busting CEOs unchecked: one of us was fired in 2008 soon after winning a union vote in California, and the other was fired in 2022 after a Seattle-area union election win. In the latter case, it took almost seven months for the NLRB to issue a complaint.

Congress failed to increase funding for the NLRB for nearly a decade, resulting in a 25 percent cut for the agency after adjusting for inflation. Since 2002, NLRB field staff levels have been cut by 50 percent. Without a funding boost, the NLRB’s critical staffing shortage would have caused major delays in everything from investigating labor law violations to administering union elections.

As America’s top labor watchdog, the NLRB is the only agency tasked with combating illegal retribution against workers seeking to join unions. And as we see a historic surge in union organizing this year, with new union elections up 58 percent in just the first half of 2022, it’s clear there is widespread support for strengthening the voices of workers. A 2022 poll shows 71 percent of Americans now support labor unions, and a strong majority of workers support organizing a union at their own workplace, including 46 percent of Republicans.

Democrats who ran on a pro-worker agenda won some of the most competitive 2022 midterm races; today, they are showing they are ready to deliver on those promises, by increasing NLRB funding.

This is a critical step in the right direction, but it is just a first step. The omnibus bill still leaves the NLRB underfunded — this budget increase alone will not be enough to address the backlog and meet the moment for workers who are organizing their workplaces nationwide.

Increasing NLRB funding also does not fix the fundamental issue that the agency’s penalties are not strong enough to discourage illegal behavior. Companies are not even fined for firing pro-union workers; they are only required to pay lost wages. Now, more than ever, workers need the Senate to take the next step by passing the PRO Act to fix outdated labor laws.

Congress must swiftly pass this omnibus that invests in America’s top labor law enforcement agency, and then take the next step to ensure the PRO Act is finally signed into law. Only then can we truly level the playing field and protect the right of all workers to form a union.

Sara Steffens is secretary-treasurer of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Jesse Mason is a labor advocate with CWA who is suing Verizon Wireless for alleged wrongful dismissal.

Tags labor laws National Labor Relations Board Omnibus spending bill PRO Act Unions workers rights

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