The Democratic presidential candidates are pushing a smorgasbord of measures long demanded by organized labor, as they try to make sure they win the union vote after members surprisingly embraced Donald Trump in 2016.
With declared goals such as doubling union membership, imposing new ways of collective bargaining, and stripping states of right-to-work laws, the 2020 Democrats are catering to organized labor more than in recent election cycles.
Left-wing candidates such as Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have blazed the trail, advocating changes to law and executive orders that would alter the labor landscape in America, but there is little daylight between them and candidates considered more moderate.
For example, all three senators running for president — Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar in addition to Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren — are co-sponsors of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the Senate. The legislation, which would be the most sweeping labor move by Washington in decades, passed the House on a mostly party-line vote this month after hours of debate. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also backs it, while former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s labor platform notes repeatedly he wants to expand workers’ opportunities to organize.
The bill would codify many of the labor policies of the Obama administration. Supporters say it would give workers more power in labor disputes, put teeth into laws against retaliation against organizing workers, offer collective bargaining to perhaps millions of new workers, and erase right-to-work laws now on the books in 27 states.
“It is an extremist, radical platform that is going to hurt workers, earners and job creators,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the libertarian Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “I think if most voters knew how extreme it was they would be shocked.”
Under the legislation, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal entity responsible for enforcing labor law, could hit employers with $50,000 fines for violations, could invalidate elections if there is a complaint, and workers could receive expanded damages if they are retaliated against for attempting to unionize. If a union loses an election, the NLRB could decide that the union instead won, citing petitions or authorization cards, known as “card check,” from a majority of workers.
And, much like a recent law passed in California, more workers would be classified as “employees” instead of contractors, drastically changing the arrangements of many participants in the “gig economy” and entitling them to benefits such as healthcare.
Labor leaders are lobbying for the PRO Act. “And to those who would oppose, delay, or derail this legislation — do not ask the labor movement for a dollar or a door knock, we won’t be coming,” tweeted AFL-CIO labor federation President Richard Trumka.
The AFL-CIO and major unions such as the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America did not respond to requests for comment.
“This is all sort of a blueprint, or a template for a lot of changes in labor laws that are going to be coming,” said Ruben Garcia, a professor at the University of Las Vegas law school and a co-author of the Clean Slate for Worker Power proposal that some 70 academics published in January.
Mr. Garcia said voters may not have a clear picture of all the proposals, but said he believes they constitute a renewed emphasis by the Democratic candidates on unions.
“The PRO Act and the Clean Slate have put all these ideas out there in the campaign for candidates to get behind or not,” he said. “Some of the stuff is pretty esoteric — you can’t really put it on a bumper sticker.”
Opponents contend the PRO Act moves worker benefits far past an increase in the minimum wage and would radically tilt the business landscape in favor of organized labor, give sweeping powers to appointed bureaucrats at the NLRB, provide endless honey pots for trial lawyers and destroy workers’ rights to hold free and secret union elections.
“I would bet a very large sum of money that most voters do not know what all this is,” said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The PRO Act would basically reverse the pro-business, pro-individual rights and pro-economic growth that’s been gradually put in place since the Wagner Act in the New Deal. Labor will be aggressive in its demands and its ‘ask,’ if a Democrat wins the White House.”
As an avowed democratic socialist, Mr. Sanders casts himself as aggressively pro-labor, although his campaign has hit some rocky patches recently with unions in Nevada and California. In Las Vegas, his dispute with the local Culinary Workers Union chapter stemmed from his Medicare for All policy that could undo the Cadillac health care plan its members enjoy, although his proposal does have the approval of huge unions such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the SEIU.
Mr. Sanders‘ “Workplace Democracy Plan” highlights five bullet points that include “double union membership in Bernie’s first term,” eliminating at-will employment in the U.S., easing the path for unionization in the private sector, and erasing right-to-work laws.
The Democratic front-runner also favors an arrangement known as “sectoral collective bargaining” in which a contract is struck that makes what Mr. Garcia called a “bargaining obligation” for all workers in a sector instead of specific companies. The practice is common in Europe, particularly in countries such as France, Belgium and Austria where more than 90% of the workforce falls under such contracts.
“It’s a command control type of economy as opposed to free enterprise,” Ms. Greszler said. “It takes out competition for workers because there are no incentives — instead of letting businesses manage themselves as they know best, they will establish a workers’ pool and dictate wages, hours, everything.”
Like many Democrats, Mr. Sanders argues the decline of unions — they now represent less than 11% of workers, half the percentage they did in 1983 — has sparked income inequality and has undermined the American dream.
“It was the trade union movement that built the middle class in this country, and it is the trade union movement that is going to rebuild the middle class in America once again,” his platform declares.
Such explicit union support has been lacking from some recent Democratic candidates, said David Madland, a senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the liberal Center for American Progress.
“So is this willingness to proclaim support for labor, to appear with it, to walk in strikes,” Mr. Madland said. “I think what you are seeing is a recognition and acknowledgment — with rising inequality, the capture of democracy by certain voices — that unions are a critical piece of the solution to that.”
In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won union support by only 8 percentage points, down from President Obama’s 18-point lead among union households in 2012.
The sweeping pro-union proposals come at a time some union advocates say is a rosy one despite their declining membership and clout, particularly since the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in 2018 deprived them of automatic dues collection for public-sector unions. The decision means a big hit to union revenue, since one-third of public-sector workers belong to a union, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last month, compared with 6.2% of private-sector workers.
“You have fewer people in unions in the private sector — 6% — than you did when Congress granted the right to organize,” Mr. Madland said. “On the other hand, more people in public opinion polls have a positive opinion of unions than they have in a long time.”
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