We should never forget, at any time, the footholds of our democracy—the right to a representative governing structure, the right to free speech and assembly, the right to due process, and the freedom from arbitrary action, among other rights and freedoms. Yet, too many of us accept that, when we walk through the (physical or virtual) door of our workplace, a place where we spend a significant portion of our waking hours, we forfeit these rights and freedoms as a commodity, subject to the whims of employers who pay for our labor.
But over a hundred years ago, Congress declared in the Clayton Act that “[t]he labor of a human being is not a commodity or an article of commerce.” And soon thereafter, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the primary U.S. law that I am congressionally mandated to enforce, which exists to protect the rights of workers to have a democratic voice in their workplace. It does so by protecting workers’ rights to organize to freely choose representatives and improve workplaces and collectively bargain with employers over wages, benefits, and other working conditions.
The Supreme Court would later characterize these rights as “fundamental” in its 1937 case upholding the NLRA, explaining that “[e]mployees have as clear a right to organize and select their representatives for lawful purposes as the respondent has to organize its business and select its own officers and agents.” NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 33 (1937). These are rights that are also considered fundamental human rights by the International Labour Organization and the United Nations. And, in fact, these rights are considered “enabling rights,” as they empower workers to exercise other rights and fully participate in democracy.
In order to effectively encourage and protect the right to collectively bargain, Congress understood that the initial stages (or the seeds) for such also have to be protected. For this reason, it drafted Section 7 of the NLRA to include the predicates to collective bargaining—the right to self-organization; to form, join, or assist labor organizations; and to choose representatives and otherwise act together in order to start the collective bargaining process. Section 7 of the NLRA also protects employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection in the workplace, authorizing workers to inspire, help, and protect one another—to be in solidarity—in order to improve their lot as employees, which also inures to the benefit of businesses and the overall global community.