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Senate looks at labor laws which unions say interfere with workers' right to organize

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

On Capitol Hill this week, it was a moment that Senator Bernie Sanders had been pushing for for a long time.

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BERNIE SANDERS: The fundamental issue we are confronting today is whether we have a system of justice that applies to all or whether billionaires and large corporations can break the law with impunity.

FLORIDO: Sanders was speaking at a Senate hearing on Starbuck's response to unionizing at its stores. Former CEO Howard Schultz was in the hot seat. But Sanders probably would have been happy to grill any number of CEOs who have fought back against union campaigns. His point - it's too hard for workers to form unions because companies are constantly engaging in illegal union busting and getting away with it. We wanted to explore that argument further with NPR's labor and workplace correspondent Andrea Hsu. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: We've heard a lot about union busting over the last year, not just at Starbucks, but also at Amazon, Tesla, Home Depot, other places. Why has this issue blown up?

HSU: Well, a couple reasons. These days, you know, a lot of union organizers are young and social media savvy, and they're speaking out loudly when they feel their labor rights have been violated. And also, under the Biden administration, the federal agency that enforces labor law has been pursuing a lot of these cases against employers.

FLORIDO: So what are some of the examples of these violations?

HSU: Well, so some workers have called out their employers for promising them a raise as long as they vote no for the union - on the union. And that's considered a form of coercion, which is illegal. Some union organizers, including at Tesla and Starbucks, have been fired after launching union campaigns - that could be retaliation, which is also illegal. Now, companies usually say that workers they fired were fired for misconduct, not for organizing a union, but in a number of cases, including at Starbucks, federal labor officials have investigated and found actually the firings were retaliatory.

FLORIDO: So when that does happen, can companies be held accountable?

HSU: Well, to a limited extent. Federal labor officials do have the authority to impose what are called make-whole remedies. So, for example, for a fired employee, that might mean getting reinstated with back wages. But there's no fine. And so many say for companies, this is just a cost of doing business. And there's actually a bill in the House right now called the PRO Act that would change this, but that bill is going nowhere. So, Adrian, for now, labor officials end up resorting to things like ordering a CEO to read a notice on video explaining how their company violated their employees' rights and promising they won't ever do it again. And Howard Schultz has actually been ordered to do this at Starbucks. But take a listen to what happened when Bernie Sanders asked him about that.

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SANDERS: Are you prepared to read that notice?

HOWARD SCHULTZ: No, I am not, because Starbucks Coffee Company did not break the law.

HSU: And he's saying that because Starbucks has appealed the findings of labor officials to the courts, a process that can take months and years.

FLORIDO: As I imagine, all of this is pretty discouraging for the workers trying to form unions.

HSU: Yeah, exactly. And delays are really common. You know, it was a year ago this week that the Amazon labor union had this huge victory unionizing a warehouse on Staten Island, but they still have no contract. And despite labor officials calling Amazon out for failing to bargain in good faith, Amazon just continues to challenge the whole election. And in the meantime, other Amazon union campaigns have failed. So, you know, workers may be deciding it's not worth risking their jobs to get involved in the union if there's no benefit for them.

FLORIDO: NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thanks so much.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.