Bernie Sanders’ Labor Plan Could Put a Union in Every Workplace in America

Shaun Richman August 22, 2019

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at an AFSCME rally speaks in support of the Employee Free Choice Act in the Upper Senate Park on Tuesday, June 19, 2007. (Photo By Philip Scott Andrews/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders released his Work­place Democ­ra­cy Plan on Wednes­day. His campaign’s labor plat­form makes the strongest case of any of the can­di­dates so far that he would be unions’ best ally in the White House in generations.

At a time when the Democ­rats’ offi­cial labor law reform pro­pos­al, the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act, would essen­tial­ly over­turn the anti-union Taft-Hart­ley Act, the race to the left for labor’s sup­port in the pri­maries demands bold­er poli­cies. Bernie Sanders does not disappoint.

The stand-out measures

Where Sanders’ labor plat­form is most excit­ing is its pro­pos­al for new work­ers’ rights and forms of union rep­re­sen­ta­tion that tran­scend the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board frame­work of enter­prise-based con­tract bargaining.

One is a just cause” legal stan­dard of employ­ment, which would mean that non-man­age­r­i­al work­ers — whether they are rep­re­sent­ed by a union or not — could only be fired only for a legit­i­mate, seri­ous, work-per­for­mance rea­son. This has been a cause that In These Times has long cham­pi­oned, and as Moshe Mar­vit and I explained else­where, would open up new path­ways to orga­niz­ing.” Bernie Sanders is the third can­di­date (so far) to embrace the reform, after Bill de Bla­sio and Jay Inslee, but he’s the first lead­ing con­tender for the nom­i­na­tion to do so. 

But the best pro­pos­al in Sanders’ plat­form is what he refers to as sec­toral col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing” but oth­ers in the aca­d­e­m­ic and think tank world have been call­ing wage boards.” Basi­cal­ly, he pro­pos­es to work with trade unions to con­struct new indus­tri­al stan­dards boards — with rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the employ­ers, work­ers and pos­si­bly that neb­u­lous con­cept, the pub­lic” — that can set min­i­mum stan­dards for wages, ben­e­fits and hours across entire sec­tors of the econ­o­my there­by tak­ing those issues out of com­pe­ti­tion. This is essen­tial­ly the frame­work of the First New Deal leg­is­la­tion, which the Lochn­er-era Court over­turned, and which the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act was ini­tial­ly meant to oper­ate along­side of.

Sanders’ wage board pro­pos­al was clear­ly influ­enced by the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress’ David Mad­lands and Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s Kate Andrias’ dogged research and advo­ca­cy for reviv­ing the wage board mod­el. It’s also not insignif­i­cant that a revived wage board is how Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) local 32BJ won a $15 min­i­mum wage for fast food work­ers in New York state, and that SEIU is rather bull­ish on expand­ing and export­ing the model.

This is pos­si­bly the most impor­tant labor law reform that a Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent (with a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate will­ing to nuke the fil­i­buster) could achieve. It’s that one that could put a union in every work­place in Amer­i­ca on day one. Because if unions had the legal reach to improve wages and work­ing con­di­tions across an entire indus­try, work­ers would join and sup­port the unions that were fight­ing for them—par­tic­u­lar­ly if we made it easy for them to make vol­un­tary pay­check con­tri­bu­tions—even before they win a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing elec­tion at their spe­cif­ic workplace.

The man with the plan

Sanders also offers a laun­dry list of good and over­due reforms. His pro­posed amend­ments to the out­dat­ed and inef­fec­tive Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act — like most of the can­di­dates’ plans — improve upon the PRO Act in sev­er­al ways. It adds card check recog­ni­tion and the right to a first con­tract for new unions, which were pro­vi­sions of the failed Employ­ee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that did not get car­ried over into the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic bill.

Sanders also pro­pos­es to ful­ly restore work­ers’ right to strike and to engage in sol­i­dar­i­ty activism. In the case of the lat­ter, that means wip­ing out more pro­vi­sions of the 1947 Taft-Hart­ley Act; in the for­mer, it means over­turn­ing an obscure 1938 Supreme Court deci­sion, NLRB v. Mack­ay Radio & Tele­graph Co., that allows employ­ers to per­ma­nent­ly replace work­ers who go on strike over eco­nom­ic demands. Employ­ers increas­ing­ly took advan­tage of this deci­sion dur­ing the Rea­gan administration.

Ban­ning per­ma­nent replace­ments was the labor movement’s top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty in the first year of Bill Clinton’s pres­i­den­cy. The Cesar Chavez Work­place Fair­ness Act of 1993 was the EFCA of its era, and sim­i­lar­ly died of a fil­i­buster in the Sen­ate. Now it is increas­ing­ly becom­ing a con­sen­sus posi­tion among Demo­c­ra­t­ic candidates.

There are also some poli­cies and pro­ce­dures of the NLRB that Sanders would change. These may be done through leg­isla­tive change, or Sanders may be con­sid­er­ing exec­u­tive orders and strict direc­tions to his future Board appointees. One is to pro­tect exist­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments when a union­ized employ­er is merged into a new com­pa­ny. Cur­rent NLRB rules on suc­ces­sor­ship allow an employ­er to tear up the con­tract and then bar­gain a union to impasse over con­ces­sions. Sanders used his cam­paign infra­struc­ture to sup­port work­ers rep­re­sent­ed by the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio & Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca at a loco­mo­tive plant in Penn­syl­va­nia this past February.

Sanders also wants to ban management’s most impor­tant weapon” in anti-union cam­paigns, manda­to­ry cap­tive audi­ence meet­ings. The courts have ruled that employ­ers have a First Amend­ment right to express their anti-union views, and employ­ers use the pow­er of the pay­check to force employ­ees to lis­ten to them. Bernie Sanders says that work­ers should have the right to walk out on a presentation.

One very atten­tion-grab­bing plan responds direct­ly to Joe Biden’s bad-faith argu­ments that a Medicare-for-All sys­tem would be unfair to unions who have his­tor­i­cal­ly trad­ed high­er wages for employ­er-spon­sored health insur­ance. Sanders’ NLRB would sup­port unions reopen­ing their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments in order to recoup as much of an employ­ers’ cost sav­ings from tax­pay­er-fund­ed health care as pos­si­ble as new wage gains. His plat­form implies that a union­ized employ­er that does not share finan­cial data and agree to shar­ing its cost sav­ings would be charged with com­mit­ting an unfair labor practice.

Final­ly, like many of the can­di­dates in the crowd­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic field, Sanders pro­pos­es to fix an orig­i­nal sin of the NLRA — its racist exclu­sion of domes­tic and farm work­ers from the pro­tec­tions of the Act.

Sanders also pri­or­i­tizes leg­is­la­tion that would accel­er­ate and cod­i­fy bad­ly need­ed reg­u­la­to­ry reforms that got bogged down by right-wing judi­cial activism and cor­po­rate oppo­si­tion dur­ing Obama’s sec­ond term. These include the Brown­ing-Fer­ris joint-employ­er stan­dard, which cur­tail cor­po­ra­tions’ abil­i­ty to hide behind fran­chise rela­tion­ships to avoid bar­gain­ing over work­ing con­di­tions that they dic­tate in real­i­ty. He also calls for an expand­ed per­suad­er rule,” which would force employ­ers to dis­close the names of their hired gun union-busters and give union orga­niz­ers equal access to work­ers dur­ing an orga­niz­ing cam­paign. A pro­pos­al to end the prac­tice of mis­clas­si­fy­ing work­ers as super­vi­sors” and inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” in order to avoid pay­ing ben­e­fits and over­time is lack­ing some­what in detail, but let’s just assume that Bernie co-signs what­ev­er Eliz­a­beth War­ren pro­pos­es.

In the pub­lic sec­tor, Sanders’ plat­form also calls for expand­ing the union rights of fed­er­al work­ers — includ­ing the right to strike and to bar­gain over wages. Ronald Reagan’s infa­mous ter­mi­na­tion of strik­ing air traf­fic con­trollers in 1981 was a sig­nal event in cor­po­rate America’s assault on unions. Iron­i­cal­ly, that strike was sparked by the fed­er­al government’s refusal to bar­gain over wages. The right to bar­gain and strike — long denied to fed­er­al labor unions — would like­ly make strikes over rou­tine col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing mat­ters less like­ly. But they would, as Sanders was quick to point out, empow­er fed­er­al work­ers to use their labor pow­er to put an end to rou­tine gov­ern­ment shutdowns.

He also pledges to sign the Pub­lic Ser­vice Free­dom to Nego­ti­ate Act, which was intro­duced by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Matt Cartwright (D‑Pa.) and Sen­a­tor Maize Hirono (DHawaii) in June and which would extend union rights to all state and local gov­ern­ment employ­ees as well.

Nev­er waste a crisis

The turf of U.S. pol­i­tics shifts beneath our feet like quick­sand. This is a moment of great pos­si­bil­i­ties and exis­ten­tial threats. One of our biggest chal­lenges as a labor move­ment is that too many of us — lead­ers, rank-and-fil­ers and left­ist crit­ics alike — view things as sta­t­ic, as stuck in a moment in time, whether that be 2009, 1993 or 1978; That real change won’t hap­pen with­out a crisis.

But we are already in a crisis.

The cri­sis right now is the threat of fas­cism, domes­tic ter­ror­ism and eth­nic nation­al­ism. These are all prob­lems that have been made pos­si­ble by the sys­temic cor­po­rate attack on union rights and a yawn­ing gulf of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. Cen­trist politi­cians and shapers of pub­lic opin­ion who have hard­ly been friends to the work­ing class are slow­ly wak­ing up to the role that unions play in polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion and vot­er turnout.

So even if Bernie doesn’t win the nom­i­na­tion — if it’s Eliz­a­beth War­ren or Kirsten Gilli­brand or even Kamala Har­ris — we still prob­a­bly have a can­di­date and a grow­ing por­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment who rec­og­nize that they have to deliv­er real wins for work­ing fam­i­lies if they don’t want to get turned out of office all over again in 2022 by a racist and dem­a­gog­ic death cult.

As a labor move­ment, now is the time to demand more. Much more. Let’s take the issue of just cause,” which is a basic human right enjoyed in much of the world and the lack of it is one of the foun­da­tion­al prob­lems that keeps most work­ers from push­ing back on employ­ers’ unrea­son­able commands.

Eliz­a­beth War­ren hasn’t even put out her full labor plat­form yet. I ful­ly expect it to be full of robust pro­pos­als to restore the legal rights and pow­er of work­ers with some delight­ful­ly wonky detail. If she joins Sanders in endors­ing just cause, the issue — which wasn’t on any union’s agen­da — could be on the fast track to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic party’s 2020 plat­form (as long as the can­di­date isn’t some­one who promis­es that noth­ing would fun­da­men­tal­ly change”).

Good ideas that are put on any pri­ma­ry candidate’s agen­da should remain on labor’s agen­da in the years to come. When it comes to ideas for restor­ing the legal pow­ers of work­ers, our approach should be yes, and!” SEIU Pres­i­dent Mary Kay Hen­ry has the right approach for these times. The union released its own list of labor law demands on the same day as Sanders, and chal­lenged every can­di­date to release a detailed labor plan explain­ing how they will make it pos­si­ble for all work­ing peo­ple to join unions.” The polit­i­cal moment, says Hen­ry, is no time for minor tweaks to our bro­ken sys­tem.”

Let the pri­ma­ry of ideas continue!

Update: The day after Sanders’ plan came out, Beto O’Rourke released a labor plan that includes wage boards.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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