Time to Aim Higher for Workers’ Rights

Published October 12th, 2017 -  - 10.12.1711


Larry Cohen is the Board chair of Our Revolution, the successor to the Bernie 2016 campaign, past president of the Communications Workers of America, and a founder and past chair of Jobs with Justice.

Labor activists must aim much higher if we are to push through the severe structural obstacles that limit organizing in the US. And now is the time as workers’ rights in the US are at a 100 year low and sinking at both the national and state level. The right to organize and negotiate is now virtually out of reach for 90% of American workers. It will be at least 2021 before a sympathetic Congress, if there is one, could hope to legislate solutions with support from the President.

Now the question is what kind of a movement can we build for the next three years and do we believe that we can win real reform? It’s now clear that we will need to aim even higher than the 2006-2009 campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act. Let’s start with the premise that it is generally accepted throughout the world that without some form of strong negotiating rights covering most workers, it is virtually impossible to close the wealth gap. Just as importantly without unity among workers, black, brown and white, we will not have the political momentum to demand much at all.

If the above is true, union leaders and their lawyers will need to rise to the occasion and focus on private sector workers, realizing that not only are they 80% of the workforce, but also that, if they have few rights and falling incomes, they are increasingly unlikely to support their public sector counterparts. Similarly, we need to realize that obstacles to change in the US are now at historic highs, compounded by poor voting rights and unrestricted spending politically for wealthy contributors and in the workplace for management.

Four years ago, Convention Resolution 1 at the AFL-CIO convention called for support to end the preemption limitations on state and local governments in the National Labor Relations Act preventing those governments from using the NLRA as a floor and adding to it.  In a September post on this site, and in a symposium they hosted at Harvard, Sharon Block and Ben Sachs asked, “Is it time to end preemption?”   In recent years, partly because of NLRA reform failure, there have been many successful campaigns to pass higher state and local government minimum wages since the national law (FLSA) does not preempt state or local action as long as the federal floor is maintained.

As chair of the AFL-CIO organizing committee, and co author of the 2013 Convention Resolution 1, I was disappointed at the hesitation in many unions and their general counsels to support changes that would allow for state or local government experimentation while preserving the NLRA as a floor. At the time, there was a Democratic Senate and President and hopes of winning back a pro worker majority in the House. If labor itself is reluctant about change, legislative action is hopeless.

Four years later, it now seems even more obvious that the potential rewards of real change far outweigh the risks. In the early 1930s, there were similar concerns about national legislation but the initial passage of the NLRA led to nearly 10 million workers winning bargaining rights in the following 10 years. We must be willing to take the inevitable risks that change will bring, given the now desperate condition of workers’ rights in our nation.

So, with the hope that the list will grow, here are three proposals that open up new possibilities for federal, as well as state and local government, statutory labor reform:

1—End preemption so that state and local governments can use majority sign up as an alternate route to union recognition.

2—Envision sectoral bargaining as a real possibility as we think about the mass movement we need for any significant reform. The Republican Party now opposes collective bargaining as an obstacle to free market capitalism and Republicans are unlikely to agree to anything that remotely resembles collective rights for workers.

Change will require a deep political movement, most likely within the Democratic Party and there is little reason why big ideas that could produce real change should be viewed as impractical or impossible. Sectoral bargaining has been a huge positive force for economic justice in France, Germany and Brazil among others. We should consider sectoral bargaining by law and not voluntary agreements that can be ended at any time.

3—In the mean time, why not push for sectoral minimum wages above the federal or state minimum wage and in many cases above $15 per hour. There are no barriers to such campaigns now. Imagine firing up financial workers in New York or Cleveland to demand $20 per hour or more from top management that can make $20 million a year. These sectoral campaigns would be like the fast food campaigns, but aiming for a much higher wage given the profits and productivity in finance and other sectors. South Africa has used sectoral minimum wages to increase wages in various industries, most notably mining. If sectoral bargaining makes sense, why not consider building momentum with sectoral minimum wage campaigns that get workers to see the value of their own involvement, productivity and potential.

These three specific proposals are not nearly as important as establishing the general case that decades of attacks by management and the courts have all but destroyed the promise of collective bargaining and union membership for those who have not inherited it. There will always be important exceptions, but it’s time to aim higher and look across the world at what is working and how we build the movement in the US that begins to make real reform more than a dream.

When we began the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act it too seemed out of reach, but within a few years Speaker Pelosi and her Democratic majority passed it in the House with 15 Republicans joining a 60% “Yes” vote. Senate rules and Ted Kennedy’s illness and resulting inability to return to the Senate prevented its debate and passage on the Senate floor. We can do our part to build the movement that can replicate the election of 2008 one day; but our part must include our own insistence that we will never deal adequately with economic inequality without workers at the bargaining table. If electeds at the federal, state or local levels want to join the movement for real change, and expect working Americans to support them, they will need to include the rights of those workers and their dreams near the front of the line.

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