Pro-Labor are not the Same as Pro-Union Policies

Labor Organizing Organizing

New Orleans       To have a number of Democratic candidates for President full-throatily espousing policies that seem to favor labor is so rare that it earned a headline in the New York Times saying, “Democrats Grow Bolder With Pro-Labor Policies.”  Hey, that’s got to be good news under any circumstances, so let’s see what it’s all about.

We know virtually all of the candidates are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Andrew Yang who is not at the top of the pack is still getting solid attention advocating for a guaranteed annual wage or universal basic income, as it’s known more broadly.  Something is bound to happen on this issue, one way or another.  The federal minimum wage can’t stay permanently at $7.25 per hour.

A good number of candidates understand that the definitions of employees versus independent contractors must be clarified so that tech and other exploitation of workers can be stopped.  Fast forward to thirty years from now when there will be a story every other day in the papers, if indeed there are still papers, about the social security crisis then when tens of millions of app-workers from this period don’t have enough benefits to survive their lengthening lifespans and government has to bailout the workers because it subsidized the tech predation now while narcotized by its hype.  Importantly, this can be done through the Department of Labor, rather than Congress, so it might actually happen as well.

Other candidates want to prohibit non-compete agreements and mandatory arbitration.  One blocks worker mobility, while the other handcuffs workers to bad work and employers.  Admittedly, it is amazing how non-compete agreements have spread even to the service industry, but most of this advocacy is a plum for professions, techsters, and middle-class, suburban voters.

More candidates are talking about sectoral bargaining, largely I would bet because SEIU has made this a litmus test for their support.  The Times reports that some support for these positions around sectoral bargaining are coming from a group at Harvard and something they have convened called the Clean Slate for Worker Power, which has assembled some folks to “reimagine labor law from the ground up.”  I can already see the skepticism clouding your faces.  I looked at the program for their first convening in March and sectoral bargaining didn’t seem to be much in evidence actually, compared to the discussions about worker centers, community-labor partnerships, new formations of organized workers, and worker-support and partnership efforts, many well-known.

The interest in sectoral bargaining seems to come largely from the European experience.  The concept is that with a showing of support in an industry there would be tripartite discussions convened by the government involving representatives of employers and unions to negotiate baseline levels of wages and terms and conditions of employment for workers in these industries.  Extensive conversations with union organizers in Europe indicate that indeed wages and standards rise for nonunion workers at some level, which might be why it has a growing popularity among the chattering class.  Organizers are careful to point out that the body of labor laws benefiting workers is also much deeper and more expansive than we have in the US.  Additionally, though all argue that it helps unions survive at some existential level, none argue that it builds unions and or worker power on the job, independent of unions.  In fact, my recent visits with organizers in the Netherlands and Germany found me listening to the ways that sectoral bargaining had co-opted unions and left workers weaker.  Some ostensibly pro-labor proposals are not the same as pro-union policies, especially of the legal and rights infrastructure for workers and their unions do not receive more protection.

There does seem to be robust discussion of what we have advocated for over 25 years:  majority unionism, or what some of them call minority unionism.  That’s good news, especially if it comes with any commitment to actually engage in the real work!

To underline this quick inventory, I would argue none of this is enough.  We need to push harder.  The position of workers won’t substantially change, unless the ability of unions to protect and advance their interests is not welded tightly to the same policies.