An SOS Call for America’s Workers
The new Clean Slate report alerts the public and policymakers about the dismal state of worker power and worker voice.
BY STEVEN GREENHOUSE JANUARY 24, 2020
MATTHEW HENDRICKSON/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES VIA AP
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike last fall in the nation’s third-largest school district. The new Clean Slate report calls for more worker power nationwide.
On one level, the new report “Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy”—released Thursday and written by more than 70 professors, labor leaders, and activists—is an ambitious menu of recommendations for how to remake America’s labor laws.
Over its 125 pages, the report calls for making it far easier for workers to unionize and do industrywide (sectoral) bargaining. To make workers less frightened to speak up, it calls for ending America’s traditional system of at-will employment and replacing it with a system in which workers can only be dismissed for just cause. It proposes establishing employee committees, much like Germany’s works councils, at any workplace, as soon as three workers petition to have such a committee. Those employee committees might have a say on health and safety, the pace of work, or the introduction of new technologies.
But the Clean Slate effort, headed by two Harvard Law School professors, is much more than a series of bold recommendations. It is a sounding of an alarm. In it, some of the nation’s leading labor experts and worker advocates are shouting to the public and politicians about the dismal state of worker power and worker voice in the world’s wealthiest nation.
In the United States, corporations fight far harder than their counterparts in other industrial countries to defeat unionization. And federal law often calls for barely a slap on the wrist when companies brazenly break the law to beat back unions. This goes far to explain the diminution of union power in the U.S. over the past half-century.
Only 12 percent of U.S. workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements. In France, that number is 98 percent.
In the United States, the percentage of workers in unions has dropped from a peak of 35 percent to just 10 percent, and a paltry 6 percent in the private sector. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements. In France, that number is 98 percent; in Sweden 90 percent; in Germany 56 percent; and in Britain and Canada 28 percent.
The Clean Slate report connects this diminishing of union power to a defining challenge in America today: economic inequality. “It is all too common today to work full time and still live in poverty,” Ben Sachs, a Harvard law professor and one of the report’s main authors, told a crowd of more than 100 people—including contributors to the report and supporters—on Thursday morning in Cambridge as part of the official rollout. “What’s worse, this economic inequality translates seamlessly into political inequality as the wealthy use their material resources to influence government policy.”
The report notes that income inequality in the U.S. is the highest it’s been since the Census Bureau started keeping track of the distribution of incomes more than five decades ago. The 20 wealthiest people in the U.S. own more wealth than half of the nation’s households combined. A full-time Uber driver would need nearly 150,000 years of wages to match what former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick earned from the Uber IPO.
“A large part of the explanation of our current crisis of economic inequality is the decline of the labor movement,” reads one key passage. “Unions redistribute wealth—from capital to labor, from rich to poor—and without unions we have lacked for a check on economic concentration.”
In many other countries, the major political parties include a Labor party, Socialist party, or Social Democratic parties expressly created to enhance the power of workers. That’s not the case in the U.S. The report cites a study by professor Larry Bartels stating that recent political science reveals that “the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution” receive “no weight at all in the voting decisions of their Senators.”
Professor Sachs said, “The dire assessment by political scientists is that today in America the majority does not rule.” He added, “As economic wealth gets more and more concentrated, the wealthy build greater and greater political power that they, in turn, convert into government policy that enables them to build even more wealth, and on, and on.”
The report is a wake-up call that something bold, even radical, needs to be done. Its authors see radical inequality and recommend radical solutions that seek to make the capitalist system fairer to workers, by giving them more power and say on the job, in politics and in policymaking. As Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and also one of the report’s main authors, put it, “The problem of inequality is on a different scale than in other countries, and the solutions have to be on a different scale.”
The dozens of recommendations include:
Give workers the power to elect 40 percent of the members of corporate boards. Moreover, corporate boards would need a supermajority to approve decisions with the biggest impact on workers.
Permit minority unions: Employers would be required to recognize and bargain with unions if 25 percent of the workers at a workplace sign cards saying they want a union. This would be a sharp break from the status quo in which corporations are required to bargain with a union only after it shows majority support. Under current law, that union becomes the exclusive representative of all workers, and minority unions are not recognized.
Require employers to engage in industrywide or sectoral bargaining once 5,000 workers or 10 percent of an industry’s workforce (whichever is smaller) petition for such bargaining. (The secretary of labor would help define which employers are in which industrial sectors.)
In every workplace, employees would elect a monitor who would help enforce rights and educate workers about their rights. At larger workplaces, there would be one monitor per 500 workers.
Require employers to bargain over a far wider set of issues. Under current law, unions generally can bargain over only wages and working conditions. The report recommends that unions be allowed to bargain over, for example, their company’s contribution to global warming or its violations of consumers’ privacy or the difficulties its workers and the greater community face finding affordable housing. The report says unions should also have the power to invite community groups to join them at the bargaining table.
Include farmworkers and domestic worker under federal labor law—these two groups of workers, largely workers of color, were not included when the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, giving most private-sector workers a federally protected right to unionize and bargain collectively.
Give independent contractors a right to bargain collectively.
In one sense, the Clean Slate report resembles Lewis Powell’s famous 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce, which complained that “the free enterprise system” was under vicious attack and that corporate America had to do far more to respond to and overcome its critics. The Clean Slate report is a similar cri de coeur, but from the left. It says labor unions and workers are facing an unfair assault.
More from Steven Greenhouse
Powell’s report laid out a detailed plan for corporate America to spend heavily—on books, pamphlets, think tanks, a speakers bureau, advertisements, sympathetic professors, and organizations that could help win the appointment of corporate-friendly judges—to beat back the attacks on “free enterprise” and to consolidate corporate power against its critics.
Nearly five decades later, it’s unarguable that Powell’s plan worked. Corporations have huge sway in Washington and state governments, and corporate profits and the stock market sit at or near record levels (all while wages have largely stagnated and income inequality has mushroomed).
At the heart of the Clean Slate report is the belief that strengthening worker and union power is the surest way to reduce inequality and create a fairer economy and democracy. But unlike Lewis Powell, the report doesn’t spell out how to get there from here. Those ideas will have to come from a future report.
UNIONS LABOR FUTURE OF WORK INEQUALITY
Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter for 31 years, including 19 as its labor and workplace reporter. He is the author of the new book ‘Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.’
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