Veterans fought for the right to collectively bargain—Congress should defend it

This weekend, Americans will observe Veterans Day, honoring the 20.9 million men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces. Over the last several years, many of these veterans have seen their job opportunities improve as the economy recovers from the Great Recession. Unfortunately, a large number of veterans are working in low-wage jobs. In fact, 1 out of every 5 veterans would benefit from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. In addition to raising the minimum wage, Congress should ensure that workers who have fought to preserve our freedoms return to workplaces where they have the freedom to join together to bargain for better wages and working conditions. On average, a worker covered by a union contract earns 13.2 percent more in wages and is much more likely to have health and retirement benefits than a peer with similar education, occupation, and experience in a nonunionized workplace in the same sector. A testament to the importance of union for wages and working conditions, veterans are disproportionately more likely to work in a unionized workplace. Compared to a 12 percent coverage rate overall, 16 percent of veterans—or 1.2 million veterans—are in a union or covered by a union contract.

Despite the benefits of collective bargaining for workers, unions have been under increasing attack. Since 2010, legislators in more than twenty states have introduced so-called “right-to-work” bills barring unions from requiring workers in the private sector who are represented by unions to pay the cost of that representation. In 2011 and 2012 alone, over a dozen states passed laws restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights. It is worth noting that nearly 1 in 5 employed veterans, including 1 in 3 with a service-connected disability, work in the public sector. Private employers, too, have intensified their opposition to collective bargaining. During the union election process, it is standard practice for workers to be subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity.

In 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions heard testimony from Clarence Adams, a field technician for Cablevision and a veteran of the U.S. Marines. Mr. Adams recounted his experience working with a large group of his co-workers to organize his workplace. Mr. Adams and his coworkers were forced to attend dozens of meetings where management misleadingly told them that the union they wished to join, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), was corrupt. Management also misrepresented the cost of union dues, and threatened wages and benefits would go down if they voted to join the union. Despite management’s best efforts to dissuade them, an overwhelming majority of the workforce voted to join the union on January 26, 2012. However, Mr. Adams testified that Cablevision refused to bargain with the union.

In January 2013, nearly a year after the vote to unionize, Mr. Adams and 21 of his coworkers were informed that they were being “permanently replaced.” Ultimately, pressure led to all 22 workers being rehired. But, it was not until February 2015, after a protracted legal battle, that the workers got their first union contract. It included raises and job protections. And, like other union contracts, improved the conditions for other workers at the company as well.

Mr. Adams ended his 2013 testimony with the following, “I am sad to say that my experience has taught me that our current labor laws are broken. Workers who dream of reaching the middle class and who hope for some job security shouldn’t have to endure months and even years of fear and intimidation at work. I was there when my country asked me to risk everything in Iraq. Is it too much to ask for my government to protect my right to join a union at work?”

This weekend, as lawmakers pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the millions of Americans who have served this country in the armed forces, they should consider Mr. Adams’ words. Veterans returning to the workforce, like all workers, deserve fair pay and safe working conditions. They deserve access to various kinds of paid leave—including paid sick days, vacations, holidays, and paid family and medical leave. And, they have more than earned the freedom to join together to bargain for these things. Lawmakers should pay tribute to our nation’s veterans by advancing policies that protect these rights, not make it harder for working people to access them. This Veterans Day, instead of voting for legislation like the so-called “Save Local Business Act”, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed just this week, that makes it harder for workers to form a union when they wish to, Congress should listen to Mr. Adams’s concerns and work to pass legislation that makes it easier for working people to bargain for better wages and working conditions.