New report offers blueprint for a ‘clean slate’ for workers to fight economic inequality and strengthen labor unions

“Democracy at work should be a right, not a fight.”

SOURCECommon Dreams

To effectively combat economic inequality and even the playing field between corporations and the people they employ, a new report argues, the U.S. must entirely overhaul labor laws to provide a “clean slate” for all workers.

Two academics at Harvard Law School joined with more than 70 labor leaders, activists, and economists to publish the report, entitled “Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy.”

The document, which took two years for professors Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs to develop, makes a number of recommendations for placing power in the hands of workers—giving them more rights in the workplace than they had at the height of the labor movement and in the 1950s, when union membership in the U.S. was at its highest, at 35%.

“Across our history, access to economic and political power has been unforgivably shaped by racial and gender discrimination, as well as by discrimination based on immigration status, by sexual orientation and identity discrimination, and by ableism,” reads the report. “What we need, then, is a labor law capable of empowering all workers to demand a truly equitable American democracy and a genuinely equitable American economy.”

Only 6.2% of private sector workers in the U.S. today are union members. This decline has come about as employers intimidate workers into remaining unrepresented and require union leaders to obtain the favor of a majority of workers in order to gain bargaining rights.

Under Block and Sachs’s blueprint, companies would be prohibited from compelling employees to attend anti-union meetings or presentations—which have been used by some of the biggest employers in the country—and required to recognize a union once just 25% of workers sign union cards.

“Democracy at work should be a right, not a fight,” reads the report. “For too long, securing power and voice at work has required workers to fight herculean battles against nearly impossible odds.”

Other recommendations include:

  • the creation of work councils, with members exclusively elected by employees, which would have a say in scheduling, safety measures, equity, and other issues affecting workers;
  • a national just-cause system under which companies would be prohibited from terminating a workers’ employment without sufficient reasoning;
  • a law prohibiting employers from giving replacement employees the jobs of workers who have gone on strike; and
  • mandated paid time off for workers to take part in civic activities, including voting.

Sectoral bargaining, which is common in Europe and supported by two Democratic presidential candidates—Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—is another major proposal in the report.

“Through sectoral bargaining, labor law can take wages out of competition, relieving the downward pressure on pay that has so greatly contributed to the increase in income inequality,” Block and Sachs wrote in Newsweek on Thursday. “It would also reduce the incentives that firms now feel to fight unionization, and it would solve the puzzle—which plagues multiple industries and the gig economy—of who qualifies as an ’employee.’ Since all workers would be covered by sectoral agreements, it would no longer matter very much who is an employee and who is not.”

The report also advocates for improving upon the labor laws passed in the early-to-mid 20th century by extending protections and collective bargaining rights to many workers who don’t have them, many of whom are women and people of color.

The labor movement has been largely exclusionary to domestic workers, farmworkers, incarcerated and undocumented people, and independent contractors, Block and Sachs write.

“By starting from a ‘clean slate,’ we can rethink the historical racist and sexist forces that shaped the current, limited landscape,” the report reads.

The proposals were developed with the input of labor leaders including Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Saket Soni of the National Guestworker Alliance, Nicole Berner of the SEIU.

The report won praise on social media Thursday from workers’ rights advocates:

“Fundamentally redesigning our labor laws, rather than pursuing incremental reforms to our current laws, would provide the foundation for building powerful organizations for working people,” the authors wrote in Newsweek. “At a time when the foundations of our democracy are being questioned, the project of creating a widespread system of workplace democracy is urgent.”


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