As Labor Day approaches, the drumbeat of plans to save the labor movement in the US is cranking up. As reported in the Detroit News, organized labor is a pillar of the Democratic Party, but many white working-class voters and union members in swing states backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are working to win back those voters in the next presidential election, but party leaders and union members are telling candidates that they need to talk about issues that matter to working families.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released a plan Wednesday that would “at least double” union membership in the United States and “substantially raise wages” among middle-class workers. The announcement coincides with an AFL-CIO event for the Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa.
Sanders’ plan rests on major changes to federal labor law, including the end of “at-will” employment, meaning that companies would be prohibited from firing workers without just cause.
Sanders seeks to create a European-style system of collective bargaining, where union leaders and managers would agree on minimum standards for an entire industry sector rather than negotiating separately with each individual company.
Sanders’ plan would repeal state right-to-work laws that prohibit mandatory union fees charged to non-members to cover their share of collective bargaining costs, and allow workers to form a union through “card check” — an informal process that avoids a secret-ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Currently, card check is available if an employer agrees, but Sanders’ plan would make it the main tool for all union organizing.
The plan would codify an Obama-era standard on joint employment, which made it easier for businesses to be held liable for labor violations committed by their franchisees and contractors. The Trump administration is in the process of writing a more business-friendly rule.
Sanders would also give federal workers the same right to strike as private-sector workers, citingthe ill effects on federal workers from last winter’s 35-day partialgovernment shutdown. In addition, Sanders says he would sign legislation giving all public-sector workers the right to unionize, overruling state laws that limit public-sector unions.
Sanders says he would reinstate and expand the Obama administration’s so-called persuader rule, struck down by a federal judge in 2016, which required employers to disclose the hiring of outside consultants to counter union drives even when the consultants didn’t interact with workers (previously, consultants who interacted only with management were exempt). In addition, Sanders would make it illegal for companies to require workers to attend anti-union presentations as a condition of employment.
Sanders’ plan would also permit striking workers to conduct secondary boycotts and pickets that target companies that do business with their employer. The practice is prohibited by the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, which also ended unencumbered card-check elections and authorized states to pass right-to-work laws.
Sanders also said he would treat domestic and farm employees the same as other workers, making them eligible for overtime pay and giving them the right unionize.
Sanders’ plan would require sweeping changes to U.S. labor law — especially on sector-widebargaining — meaning Democrats would need to control both the House and Senate for the plan to have a chance. Even then, moderate Democrats might be nervous to enact such sweeping changes.
Sanders could accomplish smaller pieces of his plan independently through the NLRB and other agencies, including updating the Obama-era rule on anti-union presentations.
“What I believe is that we’re not going to grow the middle class of this country unless we revitalize the trade union movement and unless we provide the opportunity for millions of workers to do what they want, and that is to join trade unions,” Sanders told Bloomberg.
As one would expect, some aspects of Sanders’ plan are slightly left of other candidates. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, would require equal time for anti- and pro-union consultants in the workplace, but Buttigieg did not say he would ban anti-union presentations altogether. And while other candidates support ending right to work, they haven’t been as vocal about sector-wide bargaining.
Much of Sanders’ bill is based on legislation he introduced, S. 2810 (115), also sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).