Earlier this year, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign boasted that a deal it cut with its workers to form a union demonstrated a commitment to worker rights. Relations quickly got sticky, however, when the workers complained that they were receiving “poverty wages,” below $15 per hour. Now Sanders, seeking to regain some momentum for his campaign among unionized workers, has released what he calls a comprehensive plan to revive America’s labor movement. It’s a bold agenda, with recommendations to roll back portions of labor law dating back 60 years, impose new restraints on employers, and limit workers’ ability to opt out of union membership—despite polls showing that most Americans believe workers deserve that option. The goal, Sanders says, is to double union ranks, which would mean adding nearly 15 million new members.
Sanders proposes to institute “card check,” the process by which unions can organize a worksite just by getting a majority of workers to sign a card saying that they want a union. The last time that Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, they failed in that effort. Nevertheless, he is trying to resurrect the idea, saying that it would simplify the process of unionizing, which now requires that workers sign a card to authorize a secret-ballot vote on whether to unionize. Critics note that since card-check campaigns are public, workers can be intimidated into signing, which is why secret ballots should remain a key feature of unionization efforts. Indeed, the Supreme Court, in NLRB v. Gissel Packing, described authorization cards as “inherently unreliable” because of a “natural inclination of most people to avoid stands which appear to be nonconformist and antagonistic to friends and fellow employees.”
Democrats express support for card check—but only when there isn’t a chance of passing it. A Democrat-controlled House passed card-check legislation in 2007, when members knew that then-president George Bush would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. But when President Obama took office in 2009 and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, key legislators backed off their support, effectively killing any chance at passing the legislation. Today, a union can use card check to win the right to represent employees at a workplace only if the employer agrees to the process. Sanders thinks he can finally persuade Congress to make the process mandatory everywhere.
Sanders wants to roll back the right-to-work provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Though a Republican-controlled Congress passed the legislation, which allows states to enact labor laws letting employees opt out of joining unions and still retain their jobs, a significant number of Democratic legislators helped override President Truman’s veto of the legislation. Right-to-work has become increasingly popular and accepted, with 71 percent of Americans saying that a worker shouldn’t be forced to join a union that organizes his or her workplace. Since 2012, five states have passed right-to-work laws, making a total of 28 states that now let workers opt out of unions. Sanders would need Congress to invalidate those laws.
Sanders would also give federal workers the right to strike and force states to allow their government workers to unionize. That would undo a lot of history. The 1935 Wagner Act, which established the process by which private-sector workers could organize into unions and gain the right to bargain collectively, pointedly excluded government employees. In a press conference, and then in a letter to the head of the National Federation of Federal Employees, President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained why public employees were excluded from the Wagner Act. “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” wrote the author of the New Deal, who grasped the paradox of letting government workers strike against the people. President John F. Kennedy later gave federal workers the right to organize, but his Executive Order 10998 also limited their right to bargain collectively. Meantime, while many states permitted their employees to unionize, others limited the ability of public workers to bargain collectively, including Georgia, where teachers and police cannot collectively bargain, and Texas, where it’s illegal for teachers to do so.
Sanders wants to bail out underfunded union pension plans by raising taxes on wealthy Americans. His proposed Keep Our Pension Promises Act targets so-called multiemployer pension plans, typically run by unions in private-sector industries like construction, where workers may work for a variety of different employers. Nearly a third of these plans are seriously underfunded and heading toward insolvency for an assortment of reasons, including the failure of their trustees to invest wisely. The plans also tended to hand out higher benefits when they were well-funded, squandering surpluses that would have insulated them from their current woes. In 2014, Congress passed a plan to help these pension systems survive by allowing them to reduce worker benefits, but Sanders wants a federal bailout, which he would finance by limiting the amount that people can accumulate in their 401(k) accounts (thereby exposing more income to taxation) and more aggressively taxing certain high-end real-estate and art-market transactions.
Sanders’s program includes an eclectic mix of other proposals, including allowing secondary boycotts during strikes, which would permit unions to pressure the suppliers and clients of a company that workers are striking against not to do business with their employer. In perhaps the most speculative of all his proposals, Sanders would ensure that any savings that employers realize in a Medicare for All plan would go back to workers in the form of higher wages. He needed to make that pledge because unions have been troubled by his proposal. They worry that universal government health benefits wouldn’t match what they have bargained for themselves from employers. And in that case, they’re probably right.
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