The First Labor Plans of the 2020 Race Just Dropped. Here’s What to Make of Them.

Shaun Richman July 26, 2019

Bill de Blasio and Pete Buttigieg's labor plans both show how far the Democratic consensus has moved. But only one, de Blasio's, breaks new ground. (Photo of de Blasio in New York City Nov. 23, 2016 by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; photo of Buttigieg in South Bend, Ind., April 14 by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It was a tale of two cities’ may­ors (with pres­i­den­tial ambi­tions) this week. South Bend, Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg and New York’s Bill de Bla­sio — the two active-duty may­ors among the 20 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates still on the debate stage — released their labor and work­ers’ rights platforms.

Both may­ors include fair­ly robust pro­pos­als to over­haul and mod­ern­ize our nation’s main labor law, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act.

But that should no longer be con­sid­ered good enough. Giv­en that Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats’ offi­cial pro­pos­al right now, the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act, essen­tial­ly over­turns the anti-union Taft-Hart­ley Act, adds card check under some cir­cum­stances and impos­es mean­ing­ful finan­cial penal­ties for employ­ers who vio­late their employ­ees’ rights, woe to the can­di­date who doesn’t pro­pose to out­do it. Only one may­or, de Bla­sio, breaks new ground with his pro­pos­al; the oth­er, Buttigieg, offers a sur­vey course of think tank white papers and mod­er­ate reforms.

I’m actu­al­ly unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly opti­mistic that we may get the PRO Act — or some­thing close to it — if the Democ­rats win big in 2020. How­ev­er, we won’t end our country’s cri­sis of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and creep­ing fas­cism with­out a legal frame­work that puts work­ers’ rights and union pow­er into every work­place on day one.

This may be hard for union lead­ers and activists who have been in the polit­i­cal wilder­ness for four decades to under­stand. Most of us have expe­ri­enced beg­ging for scraps like card check and ban­ning per­ma­nent replace­ment scabs as the best we could expect Democ­rats to meek­ly fight for (and then fail to deliv­er). Now the stakes are high­er, the essen­tial­i­ty of unions to work­ing-class polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion and vot­er turnout is obvi­ous, and over­turn­ing Taft-Hart­ley is the con­sen­sus posi­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Which means that putting the labor movement’s fore­most polit­i­cal demand of the last 70 years in your plat­form is sud­den­ly Not. Good. Enough.

Fine. This is Fine.

Buttigieg’s plat­form attempts soar­ing rhetoric with a pre­am­ble about the verge of a new Amer­i­can era” call­ing for a fun­da­men­tal­ly new and dif­fer­ent approach to fix our bro­ken polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic system.”

Good, fine so far. The solu­tion, Buttigieg says, requires going above and beyond exist­ing leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als like the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act.’” But instead of doing that, Buttigieg’s labor plat­form goes side­ways with extra footnotes.

He wants to plug holes in the law that allow employ­ers to mis­char­ac­ter­ize work­ers as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and fix the weak joint employ­er” stan­dard that allows large cor­po­ra­tions like McDon­alds to avoid bar­gain­ing with hun­dreds of thou­sands of their employ­ees. He pro­pos­es to cor­rect one of the orig­i­nal sins of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act by final­ly expand­ing its pro­tec­tions to farm and domes­tic work­ers (whose exclu­sion was a racist con­ces­sion to Dix­iecrats), and to improve upon the Act by impos­ing mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar penal­ties that scale with com­pa­ny size” for vio­lat­ing work­ers’ orga­niz­ing rights, giv­ing unions a right to equal time” on dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns and cre­at­ing a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process for indus­try-wide bargaining.

He endors­es the Pay­check Fair­ness Act and a host of oth­er anti-harass­ment and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion bills that were already on the shelf, wait­ing for a gov­ern­ment that will final­ly pass them.

He also has a pret­ty detailed pro­pos­al for paid sick and fam­i­ly leave. Actu­al­ly, it’s vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to Bill de Blasio’s pro­pos­al (which I’ll get to below), except that he must feel some super­nat­ur­al neolib­er­al impulse to refer to it as access” to those things. That’s a red flag for me. And if those of us who wave the red flag were to engage in a drink­ing game that called for doing shots every time a politi­cian pro­posed access” to a vital­ly impor­tant thing that should be a right,” we’ll all be ham­mered for the dura­tion of the pri­maries if we don’t die of alco­hol poi­son­ing first.

But, in gen­er­al, Pete Buttigieg’s New Ris­ing Tide” labor plat­form is … fine. It’s clear that he got a lot of real­ly good advice from a lot of the smartest peo­ple try­ing to tack­le the prob­lem of the legal restric­tions on work­ers’ rights and the eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty that results from it. But it’s equal­ly clear that he glommed on to the nar­row­est, most tech­ni­cal tweaks to a bro­ken sys­tem and stu­dious­ly avoid­ed a more rad­i­cal rethink of our labor rela­tions system.

Buttigieg’s pres­ence in the race as a media dar­ling is slight­ly annoy­ing. It’s as if the D.C. estab­lish­ment con­vinced them­selves of their own non­sense that the rea­son so many vot­ers sup­port­ed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 pri­maries was because he’s a white guy, and if only they could find a younger, charis­mat­ic white guy (with just a twist of diver­si­ty) that they can gar­ner enough votes for the sta­tus quo ante.

It’s nice that he reads books (in self-taught Nor­we­gian, no less!) and speaks in lucid para­graphs.” But most of his actu­al con­tri­bu­tions to the dis­course – like every can­di­date who’s in the race to thwart pop­u­lar demands to expand gov­ern­ment ser­vices – wind up ques­tion­ing the val­ue of liv­ing in a soci­ety at all. Take his oppo­si­tion to free col­lege. As a pro­gres­sive,” he explained to an audi­ence of under­grad­u­ates in Mass­a­chu­setts, I have a hard time get­ting my head around the idea of a major­i­ty who earn less because they didn’t go to col­lege sub­si­diz­ing a minor­i­ty who earn more because they did.” There’s noth­ing remote­ly pro­gres­sive about a hOw d0 Y0u PaY fOR iT?” argu­ment that could just as eas­i­ly con­clude, Why have any pub­lic edu­ca­tion at all?”

Bill de Blasio’s pres­ence in the race is also annoy­ing. He has no short­age of crit­ics at home who point to our crises of mass tran­sit, afford­able hous­ing and police account­abil­i­ty as cam­paigns the may­or should be run­ning to the state capi­tol to fix. But he also has an impres­sive track record of deliv­er­ing wins for New York’s work­ing fam­i­lies and, we learned this week, an impres­sive­ly bold work­ers’ rights agen­da for the nation.

The right to have work­place rights

De Bla­sio begins his 21st Cen­tu­ry Work­ers Bill of Rights with an issue that’s near and dear to a lot of us here at In These Times: The Right to Due Process at Work. Sim­ply defined, due process at work, or just cause,” is the prin­ci­ple that an employ­ee can be fired only for a legit­i­mate, seri­ous, work-per­for­mance reason.

In last August’s spe­cial issue, Rebuild­ing Labor After Janus,” Bill Fletch­er pro­posed a labor move­ment for just cause laws as a way to end the tyran­ny of the non-union work­place,” one that active­ly dis­rupts the strat­e­gy of cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca and its right-wing pop­ulist allies.”

And in a recent piece mark­ing ten years of the magazine’s Work­ing blog, Jes­si­ca Stites not­ed that I’ve been using this plat­form to wage a lone­ly cru­sade on this issue for four years now.

Fel­low ITT con­trib­u­tor Moshe Mar­vit and I car­ried that cru­sade into an op-ed in the New York Times in Decem­ber of 2017. We were build­ing sup­port for an amend­ment to the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act that then-Rep. Kei­th Elli­son was draft­ing. (If any pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates who are cur­rent­ly serv­ing in Con­gress want to see a copy of that bill, slide into my DM’s…)

Although Ellison’s move to the Min­neso­ta Attor­ney General’s office has momen­tar­i­ly orphaned a fed­er­al bill for a right to your job,” the cru­sade was revived by a New York City Coun­cil push for fast food work­ers that pro­gres­sive city coun­cil mem­ber Brad Lan­der is dogged­ly shep­herd­ing to May­or de Blasio’s desk. (The bill’s true cham­pi­on was SEIU local 32BJ’s recent­ly depart­ed and dear­ly missed pres­i­dent, Hec­tor Figueroa.)

To be sure, de Bla­sio hap­pened to pro­pose my hob­by­horse. But the rea­son I’ve been argu­ing for Right to Your Job law is that it is a reform on anoth­er scale. It would increase the bar­gain­ing pow­er and legal rights of every work­er in Amer­i­ca. It has the poten­tial to put union rep­re­sen­ta­tion in every work­place and gives unions new and cre­ative ways to organize.

The rest of de Blasio’s plat­form is sim­i­lar to Buttigieg’s except for one key dis­tinc­tion: A num­ber of pro­pos­als high­light con­crete improve­ments that the city of New York has made in the lives of low wage work­ers dur­ing de Blasio’s two terms as mayor.

Like Buttigieg’s, De Blasio’s labor plat­form includes a right to paid time off, includ­ing paid sick days, paid fam­i­ly and med­ical leave and the right to at least two weeks of paid vaca­tion per year. Buttigieg pro­pos­es some­thing sim­i­lar, but de Bla­sio actu­al­ly imple­ment­ed a paid sick leave law that enti­tles work­ers to up to 40 hours a year of sick time, paid through an insur­ance fund.

De Bla­sio also pro­pos­es a fair sched­ul­ing law — mod­eled on one that fast food and retail work­ers won in New York — and a $15 min­i­mum wage and new pro­tec­tions for gig workers.

Labor wants more!

Unlike many on the left who are in the Bernie or Bust” crowd, I don’t have a horse in this race — yet. We’re months away from the Iowa cau­cus­es and I won’t even have a vote in New York’s April 2020 pri­ma­ry (I’m reg­is­tered in the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party).

But I’m enjoy­ing the race to the left on pol­i­cy, and watch­ing can­di­dates like Buttigieg reveal the empti­ness at the heart of busi­ness-friend­ly centrism.

No one can doubt Bernie Sanders’ labor bona fides. He has been on the front lines of work­ers’ strug­gles for half a cen­tu­ry, and the way that he has used his 2020 cam­paign infra­struc­ture to lift up spe­cif­ic orga­niz­ing cam­paigns and strikes and to use his bul­ly pul­pit to pres­sure mas­sive cor­po­ra­tions like Ama­zon and Wal­mart to raise their work­ers’ pay should be a mod­el for all the can­di­dates. But he is a blunt force instru­ment, and his indif­fer­ence to pol­i­cy details is frus­trat­ing on issues as com­pli­cat­ed as how to restore the legal rights and col­lec­tive pow­er of workers.

Eliz­a­beth Warren’s whole stock in trade is that she has a plan for that.” As a Sen­a­tor, she bucked the think tank indus­tri­al com­plex” by devel­op­ing a team of experts on her staff who reached out far and wide to pro­gres­sive thinkers for pol­i­cy ideas. Her staff have been pick­ing the brains of In These Times writ­ers on poli­cies to tip the scales in favor of work­ers for years. She would enter office with a slew of poli­cies to empow­er unions and work­er cen­ters to car­ry out the Robin Hood role the econ­o­my needs.

Any oth­er can­di­date who wants to appeal to vot­ers on labor issues has to pro­pose bold solu­tions to even be noticed, stand­ing next to Bernie and War­ren. Pete Buttigieg has fall­en short of that mark. Bill de Bla­sio has intro­duced a bold new work­ers’ right that no can­di­date was talk­ing about. He’s earned your $3 dona­tion to keep him on the debate stage, if only to ask the ques­tion: Why should your boss be able to fire you for no rea­son at all?

Update: Lat­er in the day on July 26, Gov. Jay Inslee (D‑Wash.) released the third labor plan of the race. Like de Bla­sio’s, it includes just cause protections.

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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