Unionized workers may have the right to strike, but employers have the right to hire permanent replacements. The debate over the replacement issue inspired the Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act, a federal law proposed in the early 1990s. Although the bill stalled in Congress, lawmakers continue to write new workplace fairness bills to define the legal rights of workers and the obligations of their employers.
Federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions have dealt with the right to strike since the first labor unions formed in the 1900s. When a strike of federal air traffic controllers over wages and hours in 1981 led to firings and the hiring of permanent replacement workers, an outcry over the fairness of this action ensued. By the early 1990s, legislators were introducing a bill in Congress to limit the employer's right to hire permanent replacement workers and extend some legal protection to striking workers.
The Workplace Fairness Act was an amendment to two federal laws covering unions and strikes: the National Labor Relations Act and the Railroad Labor Act. The bill prohibited employers from permanently replacing workers who had staged an "economic strike," one that occurs over wages or benefits. Strikers were to be allowed to return to work at the conclusion of the dispute. In effect, the law would have overturned a Supreme Court decision of 1938, which allowed employers to hire permanent replacement workers in the event of a labor strike, and another decision of 1989 that decided the issue against striking TWA flight attendants.
The Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1993, the year of Cesar Chavez' death. The bill passed in the House but stalled in the Senate in the next year. Republican opponents of the bill staged a filibuster, which blocked the closing of debate over the bill and prevented a vote on the bill from taking place.
Although it died in the Senate, the original Workplace Fairness Act was not forgotten by advocates of employee legal rights. In 1999, a new Workplace Fairness Act would have prohibited discrimination by employers on any basis other than job performance. This bill also died before passage. Similarly titled "workplace fairness" bills entered the debate after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. The later Workplace Fairness Act mandates equal pay for equal work, an issue of special interest to female workers; a 2012 bill entitled Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to accommodate pregnant workers on the same basis as they provide accommodations to the disabled. As of early 2013, none of these bills have won passage in Congress.
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