The nation watched earlier this year as heroic warehouse workers at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, made history.
Despite intense pressure, intimidation and bullying by one of the largest corporations in the world, they fought to reclaim their fair share of power and form a union. They spoke out about an experience familiar to so many working people — the stress of being overworked, underpaid, and afraid for the future.
Given the plans for a massive new Amazon fulfillment center in Woodburn, it is important we remember their courage — and the outrageous response from Amazon: inundating workers with egregious misinformation and anti-union propaganda; installing a mailbox on the premises to patrol the casting of ballots; and even changing traffic signals to prevent organizing at intersections.
As Oregon's U.S. senator and president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, the state's largest federation of unions, we have long advocated for the rights of workers to collectively bargain free from employer interference. Yet, union-busters, big business and woefully outdated labor laws continue to undermine workers' rights.
The massively uneven playing field in Bessemer illustrates the urgent need to improve our labor laws. That's why we're pushing to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act — the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression. It would dramatically increase penalties for employers that violate workers' rights, and so much more.
In the 86 years since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which states that it is U.S. policy to encourage collective bargaining, the law has been corroded by anti-worker amendments and court decisions. Pro-worker lawmakers have tried to fix the system, but a roadblock stands in their way: the Senate filibuster — the requirement to have a 60-vote supermajority to vote on a bill.
The filibuster — just like the anti-union laws that would be eliminated by the PRO Act — is a relic of the Jim Crow era, rooted in white supremacy. We all want bipartisanship; however, the filibuster has neither facilitated cooperation nor encouraged debate in today's hyper-partisan Senate. It serves as a minority veto that weakens our democracy and perpetuates inequalities.
If the rules of the U.S. Senate harm working people, we must change the rules.
We have both lived the benefits of union membership: Jeff's dad was a union mechanic, and his wife is a union nurse. Graham's grandfather was a member of the United Auto Workers, and his mom was union public school teacher. The family-sustaining wages, benefits, and workplace protections that come with a union card are personal for both of us.
A union contract is the best tool we have to close racial and gender pay gaps, and to ensure dignity and fair treatment for all workers — regardless of where they were born, who they are, or what industry they work in. We must pass the PRO Act to end these union-busting tactics and ensure that the next time workers try to unionize, they do so free from interference.
Every working person deserves a voice on the job, at the bargaining table, and on the picket line. Employers like Amazon should not be allowed to violate the law with impunity. It's time for accountability and action. It's time for the Senate to fix what is broken. It's time to reform the filibuster and pass the PRO Act.
Jeff Merkley is the junior U.S. senator from Oregon. Graham Trainor is president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.
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