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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 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.
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Shaun Richman is a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College and author of Tell The Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century.