More than 70 scholars, union leaders, economists and activists called on Thursday for a far-reaching overhaul of American labor laws to vastly increase workers’ power on the job and in politics, recommending new laws to make unionizing easier and to elect worker representatives to corporate boards.
The report argues strengthening labor unions and worker power would be the most effective strategy to combat America’s economic inequality and corporations’ sway over the economy and politics.
“Today, the struggle to preserve democracy in the face of extreme wealth concentration is acute because we live in an historical moment when vast disparities of economic power have been translated into equally shocking disparities in political power,” says the report, Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy.
“A large part of the explanation for our current crisis of economic inequality is the decline of the labor movement. Unions redistribute wealth – from capital to labor, from rich to poor – and without unions we have lacked for a check on economic concentration.”
The report calls for having workers elect “workplace monitors” at every workplace in the nation to educate workers about their rights. With many union leaders and presidential candidates calling for sectoral bargaining, the report recommends enacting a law that would require such industrywide bargaining once 5,000 workers or 10% of the workers in an industry, whichever is less, request such bargaining.
Such a radical recommendation would greatly increase workers’ bargaining leverage at a time when unions represent just 6.2% of private-sector workers, down from a peak of 35% in the 1950s.
The Clean Slate report, nearly two years in the making, aims to rethink American labor law from scratch. “We firmly believe that we’re past the point of tinkering around the edges, that to really fix the problems in our economy and political system we need a fundamental rethinking of labor law,” said Sharon Block, one of the report’s main authors and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.
The report says unionizing and gaining a voice at work far too often mean a huge battle with companies and their anti-union consultants. “Democracy at work should be a right, not a fight,” the report states. “For too long, securing power and voice at work has required workers to fight herculean battles against nearly impossible odds.”
Among the Clean Slate report’s recommendations:
• Require the creation of employee committees, similar to German-style works councils, at any workplace once three workers at a worksite petition for one. These committees could have a voice on work scheduling, safety, new technologies and managerial decisions that affect workers.
• Allow minority unionism. Once 25% of the workers at any workplace sign cards saying they want a union, the employer would be required to recognize that union and bargain with it. This would be a sharp departure from the current system in which companies have to bargain with a union only after they demonstrate majority support, usually through a vote, with that union becoming the exclusive representative of all workers.
• Require corporations to let employees elect 40% of the members of corporate boards, and require a supermajority board vote on decisions that have the greatest impact on workers.
• Adopt a national system of “just cause employment”. Under this system workers can be fired only for just cause, ending America’s longtime system of at-will employment.
• Give domestic workers, farmworkers, incarcerated workers and disabled workers collective bargaining rights. “Labor law reform must start with inclusion to ensure that all workers can build power and to address systemic racial and gender oppression,” the report states. “Our nation’s labor laws have long excluded too many workers,” most notably farmworkers and domestic workers, who are disproportionately workers of color.
• Allow unions to bargain over a far broader array of issues, and not just wages and working conditions. Allow unions to bargain over, for instance, a company’s dumping toxic chemicals or contributing to climate change or the need for affordable housing.
• Give independent contractors a right to bargain collectively and make it far harder for employers to misclassify workers as contractors.
• Make it easier to unionize by prohibiting employers from requiring workers to attend meetings where managers or consultants give anti-union speeches. Greatly increase penalties against employers that break the law in fighting unions.
• Prohibit employers from using permanent replacement workers to take the jobs of striking workers.
“This is an attempt to lay out a comprehensive vision of what labor law reform ought to look like,” said Ben Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s main authors. “We need this as a kind of North Star to know where we’re going when we have a chance to do reform of any kind.”
One of the report’s main themes is that when unions were at their peak they were a vital countervailing force to corporate power – at the workplace, in political campaigns and in policymaking.
To increase the voice of workers in politics, the report calls for a “public campaign finance system to limit corporate influence and allow greater participation by workers and their organizations”. The report also recommends mandating same-day voter registration, early voting and voting by mail. It also calls for mandating paid-time off for workers to engage in civic activities, including voting.
Harvard’s Block, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, said it’s vital to have a series of legislative proposals ready if and when progressive candidates come to power.
She noted that the Democratic presidential candidates “are talking about big picture progressive change they want to take. Our pitch is labor law is a way to do these things. We see it as the key that will unlock the door to a fairer economy and democracy.”