Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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

Monday, July 29th, 2019
Image result for Shaun RichmanIt 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 planof the race. Like de Blasio’s, it includes just cause protections.

This article was originally published at In These times on July 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.

Dem campaigns bulk up with hiring spree

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Daniel StraussSen. Elizabeth Warren has the largest staff in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. Sen. Bernie Sanders is close behind. And others trying to go big are weighing the dangers of the most expensive piece of the “invisible primary”: the people running the campaigns.

Warren had 303 people on her campaign payroll during the second quarter of the year, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission records. It’s a reflection of her campaign’s belief in the importance of early organizing, which is shared by Sanders’ campaign and its 282 people on salary and echoes the successful approach of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The early size of the 2020 campaigns roughly illustrates the current tiers in the Democratic primary, with the top five candidates in polling and fundraising and several underdogs hoping to lay groundwork for a future leap among the leaders. No 2020 Democrat has yet matched the size of Obama’s early campaign operation, which employed a whopping 432 staffers at this point in 2007 as he and Hillary Clinton (339 staffers) prepared for their primary. A large team can create positive feedback loops for campaigns, Democratic operatives said — organizing and gathering more supporters, which leads to higher fundraising and momentum and can be reinvested in more staff to keep the cycle going.

But staff buildups are also fraught with danger, reliant on unpredictable future fundraising projections to sustain them and prevent financial ruin.

“Every staff decision in terms of scale is a calculated risk,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the Democratic outside group focused on the 2020 presidential race. “Because you’re making some assumptions about whether or not you can sustain it over time.”

Warren and Sanders’ campaign staffs are well ahead of the next-biggest campaign — former Vice President Joe Biden’s — and the four others who have staffs numbering over 100: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

And Warren won an early gamble on staff by turning in a massive second-quarter fundraising total, $19.1 million, after a much slower start to the year, meaning she can sustain the big campaign she’s building — which cost her nearly $4.2 million in salary, payroll taxes and insurance in the last three months. Warren has managed to fundraise competitively with her top 2020 rivals despite eschewing traditional campaign fundraisers and focusing on online contributions instead.

“Ultimately, the risk paid off,” Cecil said. “I think it’s especially important when you think about how quickly the primary calendar moves.”

Booker and O’Rourke don’t generally poll near the front of the pack, and both have struggled to fundraise at the same level as the top candidates in the primary. But the large number of staffers on their payrolls underscores that their respective campaigns are betting an early heavy investment in bodies will pay off later in the primary.

“A couple of these campaigns jumped out early and hired a bunch of staff and really put those folks off the table,” said Brandon Davis, a veteran Democratic strategist. “There was an opportunity, which I think was a strategic play for hiring this staff — and both having a good operation and taking some folks off the table [for other campaigns].”

But some campaigns still have to prove they can survive the costs imposed by their size. Past presidential elections are littered with examples of large campaigns flaming out, like Scott Walker’s short-lived White House bid in 2015, or massively downsizing to try to survive until the voting starts, like John McCain’s in 2007.

There are already signs of the financial stress imposed by hiring a big staff in 2019.

Just over half of Booker’s $5.3 million in total second-quarter expenses were on personnel (including salary, payroll taxes and insurance), and Booker spent $740,000 more than he raised from April through June. Personnel accounted for nearly one-fifth of O’Rourke’s outlays in the second quarter, when he raised $3.6 million but spent a whopping $5.3 million.

Even on the smaller end, staff can still squeeze an upstart presidential campaign budget. Staff costs helped put Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (66 people on salary) and Amy Klobuchar (79) in the red for the second quarter, though both, like Booker, have some cash leftover from their Senate campaign accounts to help handle the expense.

It’s clear why the campaigns want to build up in size, though, and spending breakdowns show how much campaigns value their manpower. Booker is the only candidate whose personnel spending accounted for the majority of overall spending in the second quarter, but Warren’s salaries, payroll taxes and insurance accounted for 39 percent of total expenses, while Sanders and Harris came in at 32 percent.

Steve Elmendorf, a deputy campaign manager on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that a large staff can be part of a feedback loop generating attention, fundraising and more staff hiring in a virtuous circle.

“It’s all self-reinforcing,” Elmendorf said. “They’re increasing their seriousness and get you paying more attention to them therefore they raise more money therefore they’re on the debate stage.”

That means a set of steps for the rest of the field, especially candidates who have been lagging in fundraising and polling.

“Everybody else has to figure out how they get in the game financially and get in the game in terms of the narrative out there,” Elmendorf said of the rest of the field. “I assume it’s go to the next debate and do what Kamala did which is try and create some conflict. Then they get noted then they can raise more money then they can hire more people.”

This article was originally published at Politico on July 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:Daniel Strauss is a politics reporter. He previously covered campaigns and elections for Talking Points Memo and before that was a breaking news reporter for The Hill newspaper. Daniel grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan where he majored in history.

Here’s Where the 2020 Candidates Stand on Labor

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

FOR A FEW DAYS IN APRIL, a grocery store chain in New England magnetically attracted Democratic presidential hopefuls. Thousands of Stop & Shop workers were on strike in the biggest private-sector walkout in years. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Ind.), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) all joined picket lines to stand in solidarity. Others tweeted messages of support.

“This is morally wrong what’s going on in this country, and I’ve had enough of it,” Biden said. “I’m sick of it, and so are you. We gotta stand together, and if we do, we will take back this country—I mean it.”

By May, the labor conflict making headlines was McDonald’s workers striking for a $15 wage. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Mayor Bill de Blasio (New York City), Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Gov. Jay Inslee (Wash.) joined street protests. Nearly a dozen others expressed support for workers.

“We have got to recognize that working people deserve livable wages,” Harris said, noting she once worked at McDonald’s.

During the primaries, Democratic presidential candidates have always made a point of showing up at union halls and playing up ties to working people: It’s one of the first pages in the Democratic political playbook. Biden officially started his campaign at a Teamsters banquet hall in Pittsburgh, announcing he is a “union man.” Warren kicked off her campaign at the site of the historic 1912 textile workers’ Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass. Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) mention union members in their extended family while speaking to union audiences.

The next by-the-book move is a pivot to the center during the general election. After fighting for union endorsements during primary season, the Democratic nominee zeroes in on swing voters, taking union voters for granted even as unions send a door-to-door army to get out the vote. Labor has been a core part of the Democratic Party’s coalition going back to the Great Depression.

Eighty years later, in 2016, something changed. Donald Trump had the best GOP presidential candidate performance with union households since 1984, trailing Hillary Clinton by only 8 percentage points. In 2012, Mitt Romney trailed Barack Obama in this demographic by 18 points. All of which raises the question: Are Democrats losing labor as a reliable constituency? Dems can still count on union endorsements, to be sure. But with Trump attacking from the left on free trade, support from white male union members—who still make up a plurality of the movement’s members—is up for grabs.

This uncertainty was born of neglect: Since the 1970s, as the country’s industrial base withered and unionbusting flourished, Democrats in Washington have done little to reverse the labor movement’s decline. Under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, union money and organizing muscle helped deliver control of Congress and the White House to Democrats. Each time, the party failed to pass labor law reform that would have empowered workers and bolstered the movement.

In 2016, the party paid an electoral price for their waywardness. This time around, will candidates do more than pander during the primaries? Public support for labor is at a 15-year high, especially among young people, women and college graduates. Nearly half a million workers were part of a strike or lockout last year—the highest figure since 1986. Might we finally see Democrats place unions at the heart of their political agenda? It’s far-fetched, but conceivable. Candidates know they can no longer take union votes for granted.

More significantly, the center of gravity on labor and economic issues has moved left.

“There’s this sense now that we have a big problem of inequality and capitalism run amok,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. “That’s clear on the Democratic side. But what is the solution? Is it about taxation? Or is it vitalization of the union movement? That latter idea has become more understood.”

In some ways, candidates’ rush to the left makes it harder to discern just how deeply committed they are to strengthening unions. Everyone always says they want to rebuild the middle class. Who really wants to rebuild the labor movement?

RAISING THE BAR

If you zero in on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) ACTthe answer appears to be: most of the leading candidates. Co-sponsored by 40 senators and 100 members of the House, the PRO Act offers a litany of labor law reforms. The larger context here is that the United States has among the weakest workers’ rights protections of any industrialized country—on par with Myanmar, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Over the past 40 years, employers have aggressively fought unionization through (perfectly legal) tactics like “captive audience” meetings, when workers must sit and listen to anti-union presentations, or the (sometimes legal) firing of striking workers.

The PRO Act would strengthen the right to organize and strike by, among other things, eliminating so-called right-to-work laws, banning permanent strike replacements, legalizing secondary boycotts and picketing, and broadening the definition of “employee” to include many current independent contractors. Compared to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the reform law pushed by the labor movement during the 2008 election cycle that ultimately died in the Senate, the PRO Act is a progressive smorgasbord. But the PRO Act does fall short of EFCA in one significant regard: While EFCA enabled workers to organize through a majority sign-up process (“card check”), the PRO Act only requires card check if an employer is found to have violated labor law during a failed union election. Every current senator running for president backs the bill.

With multiple leading candidates able to point to a history of support for unions, today’s Democratic field stands in stark contrast to the 2016 primary with its binary choice of establishment liberal Hillary Clinton versus change agent Bernie Sanders. Nearly all unions endorsed Clinton, many early on, rankling rank-and-file Sanders supporters. This time around, unions are in no hurry to back a candidate—only the International Association of Fire Fighters has done so (Biden got the nod). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association and others have unveiled new endorsement approaches to more deeply engage both candidates and members (and, one assumes, to close any perceived distance between the wishes of the rank-and-file and executive boards).

“There’s intensity for a bunch of candidates this time,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. The union endorsed Clinton in July 2015 and poured $1.7 million into her campaign and pro-Clinton PACs.

Heartburn from the calamitous 2016 election appears to be giving the union endorsement process a dose of democracy. As millions of union members decide who to back, they’ll be wrestling with the question of which candidate would most effectively fight for their interests. Because the leading Democratic candidates are staking out similar ground to make their case, it’s important to look at the candidates’ records, how central the union movement is to their theory of change, and what unilateral actions they would be willing to embrace as president (should Congress fail to act)

DIFFERENCES BIG AND SMALL

This much is clear across the Democratic primary field: Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and taxing the rich have become table stakes. All the leading candidates—Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Sanders, Warren—support both. Beyond those two issues, the top of the field is replete with differences big and small.

It’s easy to sort out where candidates stand on a raft of proposed legislation. It’s harder to know what they would try to do for the labor movement if all those proposals become moot—which will be the case should the GOP hold the Senate.

Biden is an old pro at signaling he’s a fighter for the union cause, but it’s hard to find an example of him sticking his neck out for workers. In May, Biden held a fundraiser at the Los Angeles home of a board member of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, a subsidiary of healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente. The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which has a longstanding dispute with Kaiser in California over mental health staffing levels, called on Biden to cancel the event. They never heard back, says NUHW President Sal Rosselli. NUHW members protested outside the house, but Biden “went into the event and didn’t even talk to our folks,” Rosselli says. “That’s very disappointing.”

Biden also didn’t endear himself to the labor movement by voting for NAFTA and supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, both of which unions opposed. Biden did support EFCA as a senator but has not committed to the PRO Act, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In contrast, the leading presidential candidates from the Senate have been out front on labor law reform. Sanders has been pushing the Workplace Democracy Act (WDA) for decades (beginning as a congressman in 1992), which is co-sponsored by Booker, Harris and Warren. The WDA can be seen as a forerunner of the PRO Act; it also legalizes secondary boycotting, stops companies from delaying a first contract with workers and gives bargaining rights to many workers who are currently classified as independent contractors. (Unlike the PRO Act, it would let all workers unionize via card check as a matter of course.) Sanders’ method has been persistence: He reintroduced the WDA throughout the 1990s in the House, then brought new versions into the Senate in 2015 and 2018. As with other issues, such as Medicare for All, the Democratic Party has now caught up to him.

It took Sanders years to earn the backing of any national union. They didn’t flock to him when he first ran for Congress in 1988, but came around after he won congressional campaigns in the early 1990s. Today, Sanders remains as outspoken as ever about the power of unions—they live at the heart of his agenda. “The trade union movement is the last line of defense against a corporate agenda that not only wants tax breaks for billionaires but wants to privatize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders told In These Times via email. “We must strengthen unions and bargaining rights of workers everywhere.”

It’s not hard to imagine the other leading candidates saying something similar—indeed, most have before crowds of union members. It’s Sanders’ long record of actually supporting labor actions that makes him stand out. Political candidates love to call their campaigns a “movement,” and Sanders is no exception, but it feels less cliched when a campaign actively urges supporters to join protests around the country—like those held by University of California campus workers and Delta Air Lines flight attendants. “What Bernie is doing is very, very unique,” Lichtenstein says. “The most radical thing in this campaign cycle that’s happened is Bernie using his email list to get people to picket lines and protests.”

In March, Sanders’ staffers became the first presidential campaign staff to unionize, starting a trend. Castro’s campaign staff followed in May, and Warren’s team did so in June. The candidates each publicly supported the union efforts. “Every worker who wants to join a union, bargain collectively, & make their voice heard should have a chance to do so,” Warren tweeted.

Unlike Sanders, Warren can’t point to decades of direct solidarity work with the labor movement, but the two New England senators share much in common. Yes, Warren has called herself “capitalist to my bones” while Sanders keeps trumpeting his democratic socialism, but both have New Deal liberalism deep in their blood—including the sense that worker empowerment is vital to economic justice—and they broadly agree that American capitalism needs structural change.

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is a good example. Introduced in the Senate in 2018, the bill would empower employees to elect at least 40% of board members at large U.S. companies. This new board could then (in theory) push management to do something about yawning pay disparities between the C-suite and average workers. For Sanders’ part, he unveiled plans in May to boost employee ownership of corporations and attended a Walmart shareholders meeting in June at the request of United for Respect, a workers’ rights group, to support a resolution to require Walmart to put hourly employees on its board.

Both senators want to do more than tinker around the edges of neoliberalism. This perspective, and a willingness to call out the rich as an enemy along class lines, is what sets them apart from their primary season peers.

“Strengthening America’s labor unions will be a central goal of my administration,” Warren told In These Times via email. “For too long, a worker’s right to unionize has been under attack. The rich and powerful have teamed up with the Republican Party to push for measures at all levels of government designed to decimate unions and collective bargaining.”

Warren says she wants to “modernize our labor laws for the 21st century,” noting various reforms included in the PRO Act, and that she would fight for “fully portable benefits for everyone and make sure that all work—full-time, part-time, gig—carries basic, pro-rata benefits.” She also wants to push to amend federal law so the president and federal courts cannot “enjoin lawful strikes that pose a threat to national health or safety.”

“Far too often, these injunctions have been invoked in strikes not because there is a genuine threat to national health or safety, but rather to curb the power of unions engaging in lawful strikes,” she says.

This attitude has endeared Warren to the labor movement. She spoke in Las Vegas at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Center for American Progress Action Fund’s National Forum on Wages and Working People in April, along with a handful of other candidates. “We need more power in the hands of employees,” she said. The Washington Post reported the crowd gave her its “most passionate response.”

THE REST OF THE FIELD

To be sure, other leading candidates have built up support within the labor movement. Buttigieg, for example, has been in tune with the building trades unions in South Bend. “He’s been fantastic,” says Jim Gardner, business representative of the Operating Engineers Local 150. Buttigieg spoke out against repealing the common construction wage and backed a “responsible bidding” city ordinance that requires any company bidding on a city contract to reveal OSHA violations, Gardner says. Buttigieg’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for Indiana state treasurer was run from the building trades office in South Bend, says Mike Compton, who was business manager with IBEW Local 153 until 2016. “Pete did what he could for us and with us,” he says.

Buttigieg tells In These Times, “I believe that unions must have a powerful seat at the table—to stand up against unfair and abusive practices and to collaborate in improving work environments and productivity.”

With no offense to South Bend, Harris’ deep ties to California unions could prove a bit more valuable come Super Tuesday. The state’s biggest unions backed her 2016 campaign for Senate and the former president of SEIU California, Laphonza Butler, is one of her top strategists. “We’ve known Kamala since she first ran for district attorney in San Francisco, and we have supported her and endorsed her ever since,” NUHW’s Rosselli says. “She’s extremely responsive to workers’ issues, union issues.”

In May, Harris unveiled a gender pay equity proposal that would require companies to seek “equal pay certification.” Companies would be fined 1% of their profits for every 1% wage gap that persists between men and women. Harris has also championed measures to extend full labor rights to domestic workers and farmworkers, two groups excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (in a racist compromise with Southern lawmakers). And she has proposed the largest-ever federal investment in teacher pay: $300 billion over 10 years to boost teacher salaries by an average of $13,500.

As likely intended, the plan piqued the interest of at least one rank-and-file teacher, Lucy Moreno. An elementary school teacher and AFT member in Houston, Moreno frequently spends money out of pocket on school supplies. “We teachers are at our breaking point,” Moreno says. Most of the issues that will be top of mind for her this primary season hook to education—better pay, less testing and student loan forgiveness.

Moreno also liked what she heard from Biden in May at an AFT-sponsored town hall event. She says she has not been following the campaign of O’Rourke, the leading candidate from Texas.

O’Rourke’s relationship to unions has had a few bumps. He didn’t endear himself to the Texas AFL-CIO after failing to attend its January 2018 convention during his challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but ultimately won the endorsement. And as Vox has reported, O’Rourke’s voting record in Congress was more conservative than the average Democrat’s. He has backed easing regulations on Wall Street and raising the eligibility age for Social Security.

Booker’s current stance on labor and workers’ rights is solidly progressive (relative to the other leading candidates), but he has a bit of an Achilles’ heel: his longstanding support for school vouchers and the charter school movement in Newark, N.J., where he was a city council member and mayor. Along with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Booker wanted to make the city “the charter school capital of the nation.” Newark teachers unions were less enthused with the plan—and teachers nationwide may prove less than enthusiastic with Booker’s candidacy, given their growing willingness to strike.

The issue isn’t just Booker’s “school reform” past, but the way it illuminates his neoliberal tendencies. In a 2011 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he said that “disparities in income in America are not because of some ‘greedy capitalist’—no! It’s because of a failing education system.”

Of the candidates polling at 2% or less as of early July, none emerge as a “labor candidate.” Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), a long-time magnet for union donations, touts his Rust Belt credentials and says he was spurred to run by the closure of the Lordstown General Motors plant in his district. But Ryan’s stump speech rarely includes the phrase “union jobs.” He focuses on the need to invest in electric carmaking. Conversely, Inslee, more known as a “climate candidate,” has made unions and a job guarantee central to his climate plan.

Serial entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running as a capitalist who saw the light on economic inequality and the threat of automation. His trademark proposal is a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 a month that he calls a “freedom dividend.” In a 2018 Labor Day blog post, Yang gave the impression of having recently discovered U.S. labor history, enthusiastically relating the life story of Walter Reuther. He closed with an appeal to unions to support his freedom dividend, noting: “It would also dramatically increase worker bargaining power, as workers would have a cushion to fall back on and could push harder against exploitative labor conditions.”

Klobuchar never misses an opportunity to mention she is the granddaughter of a union miner and daughter of a union teacher and a union “newspaper man.” The line drew weak applause from union workers in March at the SEIU labor forum in Nevada, compared to cheers for Warren’s policy proposals. Klobuchar has also had to contend with reports of emotionally abusive behavior toward her staff.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), historically a centrist, has run hard to the left and brings up labor proposals, unasked, in interviews, including debt-free college, a Green New Deal, affordable day care, a national paid leave plan and equal pay. Her most noteworthy position may be full employment, which she tells Splinter News she will effect through “apprenticeship programs, not-for-profits, and community colleges to train local workers for real, available, good-paying jobs.

EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING

Presidential candidates always focus on legislation as a way of defining their values and political program, and a lot of them this cycle would do a lot of good for workers—from various tax plans to the PRO Act to the Family Act (introduced by Gillibrand in February, it would mandate up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave for various health reasons). But all of it will come to naught if the GOP holds the Senate, and even if Democrats gain the majority, don’t hold your breath: Pro-business Democrats couldn’t stomach EFCA in the Senate back when their party controlled all of Congress in 2009, so they will likely be happy to obstruct the far more expansive PRO Act.

Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America, notes that the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome, prevented EFCA from passing and watered down the Affordable Care Act.

“Are [candidates] prepared to work to change the way the U.S. Senate operates, should we be lucky enough to get 50 Democratic senators again?” asks Cohen, who is now board chair of Our Revolution, the organization that emerged from the 2016 Sanders campaign.

Warren, Buttigieg and O’Rourke are in favor of eliminating the filibuster. Sanders, Harris and Booker have vacillated but are leaning toward the status quo. Biden, who spent 45 years in the Senate, tends to defend the chamber’s traditions. He has spoken in favor of the filibuster, although not this year.

Nonetheless, given the likelihood of a divided government (or a divided party), the leading Dems are strikingly silent about how they might directly wield the Oval Office to bolster the labor movement.

A president can do plenty to drive a pro-labor agenda through the federal government without Congress, such as make strong appointments to run the Department of Labor (DOL) and sit on the National Labor Relations Board, says Moshe Marvit, a Century Foundation fellow who focuses on labor and employment. Actually enforcing current laws could make a huge difference, too—the DOL could, for example, aggressively bring lawsuits against companies that misclassify workers as contractors, while the IRS could pursue the same bad actors for tax evasion, Marvit says. Or the president could bring more people from workers’ rights groups and unions with firsthand knowledge of the challenges into policymaking—a teacher to run the Department of Education, for example. The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics could expand data collection on unfair labor practices, union-busting and other employer violations and sexual harassment in the workplace. And, says Marvit, it could restart its tracking of strikes and walkouts that involve fewer than 1,000 workers, which stopped a few decades ago.

In These Times asked Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren what they would do, legislatively and executively, given the chance. Biden, Booker, and Harris did not respond. Buttigieg and Sanders cited only legislative plans—Buttigieg, for example, wants a new National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act to cover workers historically excluded from collective bargaining, and Sanders wants to pass his Workplace Democracy Act, which includes “the right to know if [a] company spends huge amounts of money to run anti-union campaigns.”

O’Rourke sent a brief response, but a spokesperson expanded on it to say that the candidate would increase employer penalties for interference with worker organizing and increase investments in workers’ rights enforcement mechanisms. (Harris has also pledged to crack down on companies “that cheat their workers,” and Sanders has elsewhere promised to restore the Obama NLRB’s expanded overtime protections.)

Only Warren’s response detailed proposed executive actions, saying she would appoint people “who have a history of fighting for workers and are committed to fighting for workers’ rights” to help lead her administration. She also says she would give union members a “real voice” in trade deal negotiations, reimplement Obama’s overtime pay expansion rules and prevent employers from misclassifying workers as independent contractors. “I will use the White House bully pulpit to support workers,” she says.

Warren’s two-pronged approach is something Marvit would love—a governance approach that places the struggles of workers at the center of public discourse, while making policy changes in the background. Think of it as flipping the Trump script.

“Every president gets to define how they talk about the economy,” Marvit says. “Trump has made it all about trade and tariffs, so suddenly we’re all talking about trade and tariffs in the news every single day. Another president could really frame economic concerns around labor and employment issues. It will force people to choose sides.”

Imagine a president publicly condemning a company for misclassifying workers as contractors, and then harnessing the full range of executive branch powers—the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, the IRS—to punish bad actors. The scenario can only occur if the president thinks of workers not just as an interest group, but as their core constituency, Marvit says. “There has to be a worker concern in every single policy that is taken, whether you’re talking about healthcare, whether you’re talking about the environment, whether you’re talking about employment.”

Jane McAlevey, a former union organizer and author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, says that getting a sympathetic Democrat in the White House is only the first step. The next, McAlevey says, is a massive wave of strikes.

The relationship between direct action, power and creating a crisis with a Democrat in the White House is “the missing link so often in this discussion,” McAlevey says. The labor movement should back a candidate who will “restore the fundamental constitutional right to strike” (as the PRO Act effectively would) and commit to never calling out federal troops on striking workers. “We need a candidate … who commits to defending the right of workers to be on strike and using the full resources of the federal government to aid workers in re-claiming some of what’s deserved by the working class.”

Nothing like that has been seen in the United States since the 1930s, when FDR first entered the White House and waves of strikes followed. The backdrop was the Great Depression. Short of another crisis, far-reaching strikes are far-fetched. But one thing is clear enough: Waiting for Democrats to lead the labor movement out of decline is a losing strategy.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert, Ramenda Cyrus, Daniel Fernandez, Gabe Levine-Drizin and Alex Schwartz contributed research and fact-checking to this story. 

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at In These Times. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

“The Workplace Democracy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union legislation,” a spokesperson for Sanders told In These Times.

According to Sanders’ congressional office, the Workplace Democracy Act would enable unions to organize through a majority sign up process; enact ‘first contract’ provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract; eliminate “right to work” laws; end independent contractor and franchisee abuse; legalize secondary boycotts and picketing; and expand the ‘persuader rule’ to weaken union-busting efforts.

As Sanders explained when introducing the latest iteration of the bill last year, “Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren have all also taken symbolic actions since announcing their presidential runs in order to highlight their close relationship with unions and the working class.

Warren, for example, formally announced her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 strike by textile workers known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

“Supporting labor and making it easier for American workers to join a union is absolutely a priority for Sen. Warren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director, told In These Times. “She is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, introduced a bill in 2017 to ban “right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor organization and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Actwould also allow workers at corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to choose up to 40 percent of the company’s board of directors, shifting the balance of power toward the rank-and-file.

California is one of the last remaining union strongholds in the country, and Harris has hired the former president of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphonza Butler, to be her senior campaign advisor.

“Sen. Harris is a strong and passionate supporter of organized labor and workers’ rights,” the Harris campaign’s national press secretary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

“She’s sponsored multiple bills in the Senate, including Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, WAGE Act, Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, Workplace Democracy Act, and Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act.”

In February, Sanders publicly jumped in on the side of striking workers in Erie, Pennsylvania after announcing his own 2020 candidacy. Since 2016, he has also joined workers in fights against Amazonand McDonalds, helping them to win major wage increases.

“Many blue-collar workers supported Trump in the last election,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based national political analyst, said. “Both presidential candidates and labor leaders have to figure out ways and messages to move them back onto the progressive side if they hope to get 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate. The phrases ‘labor policy,’ ‘labor movement’ and ‘organized labor’ aren’t well understood by voters. ‘Health care’ ‘minimum wage’ and ‘improved education’ are understood. So give the candidates some credit for talking about important issues in a way people can understand.”

As Yepsen previously noted, however, this kind of thinking may help win elections, but it can also lead to a paradox. Focusing on easily-understood, ‘bread and butter’ issues—talking about working families but not union power—and relying on congressional voting records and scorecards instead of stump speeches and bold new proclamations won’t build a popular mandate for labor law reform, or the long term working-class political power that comes with it.

“Most Americans take for granted the things the labor movement has done for them over the decades—child labor, minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. “A lot of workers have forgotten that too. The good news for labor is that people seem to be waking up. The polls show support for unions increasing and look at the success teachers have been having.”

On another measure, worker militancy has been on the rise—a record number of workers engaged in strikes or work stoppages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be harnessed by voters in order to push even the strongest candidates into elevating union rights as a priority issue on the campaign trail.

Workers in early voting states can help do so by attending campaign events and asking the candidates to publicly explain their support for the Workplace Democracy Act—or whether or not they back a national “right to strike” law for public sector unions.

The more explicit presidential politicians are about labor rights on the stump, the more likely union power will become a “day one” issue if a Democratic president takes power in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effective ways to both win progressive social change and defend workers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack.

About the Author: David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
This blog was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 
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