Workers Need a Bill of Rights

Andrew Strom

Andrew Strom is an Associate General Counsel of Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ in New York, NY.

Except for about a month in the summer of 2009 when the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate, for the entire twenty-first century any proposal to substantially increase workers’ rights at the national level has had to be prefaced by the comment that, “of course, this is not politically feasible now.”  But rather than just spending the next four years fending off misguided Republican legislation, I think it’s time to step back and focus on principles that should guide workplace legislation.  Toward that end, here are some thoughts on a potential workplace bill of rights.

There might be some other rights that should be included in this list, and maybe folks have ideas about better ways to phrase the various rights.  But, I think it would be helpful for the labor movement, worker advocates, and the Democratic party to start talking about this bill of rights in order to refocus our discussion about jobs.  The measure of a good job, whether it is in manufacturing or the service sector, should be whether it provides these rights to workers.  In addition, we should be thinking about what changes we need to see in our laws to ensure that all workers enjoy these basic rights on the job.  Some of these issues can be addressed at the state level, although of  course, that would mean that these rights would exist in only a handful of states.  Here’s my proposed worker bill of rights – let the debate begin.

  1. A Right to a Living Wage:  We ought to be able to reach consensus that if you have a full-time job, you should earn enough to lift yourself out of poverty.  It is unconscionable that in many parts of this country, employers can still legally pay workers as little as $7.25 an hour.
  2. A Right to Work:  As I have previously pointed out, before anti-union forces hijacked the term, labor leaders such as Eugene Debs used to talk about the right to work.  FDR proposed a “right to a useful and remunerative job.”  We ought to have a national policy goal of full employment for all those who are willing and able to work.
  3. A Right to Quit:  One way to make jobs better is to ensure that workers are able to quit undesirable jobs.  This right exists on paper, but as a practical matter many workers are unable to exercise it.  Imagine how the balance of power would shift if workers who quit were eligible for unemployment benefits, or if national economic policy included a genuine commitment to full employment.  Another obstacle to the exercise of this right is the abuse of non-compete clauses, which may apply to as many as 30 million workers.  And if the Republicans succeed in overturning part or all of the Affordable Care Act, workers may be even more tied to their jobs to avoid a gap in health coverage that might cause their insurance costs to spike
  4. A Right to Be Treated Fairly:  When workers are fired for reasons they think are unjust, they often want to sue their employer.  I have had hundreds of conversations with workers where I have explained that in this country there is, in fact, no right to be treated fairly by your employer.  Workers who are covered by collective bargaining agreements generally have protection against being fired without “just cause,” a concept that includes traditional notions of fairness.  But most workers have no comparable protection.  And this isn’t just about firings – supervisors routinely play favorites, letting their friends get away with rule violations that would have serious consequences for others, or granting promotions or time off based on their own personal likes and dislikes rather than objective factors. In addition, as long as a supervisor is an equal-opportunity offender, workers have little recourse if their boss is abusive.   I suppose some people might defend the boss’s right to lash out, or think that cronyism or nepotism are effective business strategies, but most of us want workplaces where systems and safeguards are in place to guard against abuse, favoritism, or discrimination, and to ensure that all workers are treated fairly.
  5.   A Right to Time Off for Yourself and Your Family:  Before he became President, Donald Trump used to mock President Obama for spending time on the golf course, but now Trump golfs almost every week.  We all need time to relax a little.  And, if you or your kids are sick, you need to be able to stay home.  This idea is the driving force behind paid sick leave laws gaining momentum across the country. But, while those laws represent progress, workers need both paid sick leave and paid vacation.  Workers also need control over their schedules, including the right to regular days off and the right to refuse overtime.
  6.   A Right to Retire With Dignity:  Perhaps if we all had jobs like Supreme Court justices that provide the time and the means to go to the gym every day, the summer off to travel, and a bunch of smart, young assistants to help get the work done, we might want to keep working into our 80s.  But the rest of us, especially people who do physical labor, need to be able to retire.  And, the sad fact is that fewer and fewer workers can afford to stop working.  Last year, a shocking report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that 100 top corporate CEOS have retirement funds equal to the retirement savings of 41 percent of American families.
  7.  A Right to a Safe and Healthy Workplace:  This is a right that was theoretically guaranteed by the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970.  But, according to a report put out by the AFL-CIO, for too many workers this right exists only in theory.  In 2015, more than 4,800 workers were killed on the job, an estimated 50,000 more died from occupational diseases, and even though underreporting is widespread, nearly 3.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported.
  8. A Right to Freedom of Speech:  This country is known for its commitment to free speech, and citizens across the political spectrum cherish their constitutional right to free speech.  But the constitution only protects that right against the government. In most workplaces, this bedrock democratic principle is missing.  It’s reassuring to know the government can’t punish you for attending an anti-Trump rally, but not so comforting to realize that in most states, your employer can fire you for your off-duty political activity. And, at the workplace, while some laws protect workers who speak out on the job, too many workers fear they will be fired if they criticize management.
  9.   A Right to Participate in Decisionmaking:  Employers often give lip-service to the idea of workplace democracy.  But the truth is that very few workplaces actually give workers a meaningful say in any important decisions.  The National Labor Relations Act was supposed to bring about industrial democracy by giving workers a real opportunity to bargain with their employer over wages, benefits, and other conditions of employment.  Unfortunately, since the NLRA was enacted, the scope of subjects where bargaining is required has narrowed, so even in unionized workplaces there is no right to bargain over decisions such as a change in the scope of the enterprise.  Whether it’s through unionizing or some other vehicle, virtually all workers would like to have a greater say when it comes to decisions at their workplaces that affect their lives.





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