Restore Worker Power in LABOR LAW

By Jaffe, Sarah | The Progressive, February-March 2020 | Go to article overview

Restore Worker Power in LABOR LAW


Jaffe, Sarah, The Progressive


Trying to narrow down a progressive labor policy agenda to a couple of pages is impossible: Just about everything is labor policy.

The Green New Deal, as Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA says, is labor policy. Health care is labor policy. As Sean Crawford, an autoworker and member of United Auto Workers Local 598, tells The Progressive: "I'll never forget having my insurance canceled during the GM strike while my wife was pregnant." Singlepayer health care, he says, would take this weapon away from the boss.

Anti-trust laws and progressive taxation--limiting the power and wealth of companies like Amazon and Walmart--are also labor policy. Trade policy is labor policy. Says labor historian Erik Loomis, "There is no legal reason why the United States cannot apply principles of labor rights in all its trade agreements. It simply chooses not to because the government has not much cared about the conditions of workers overseas."

But in the interest of sketching out a plan, let's agree to narrow the focus a little bit. Labor in the United States is governed by a patchwork of state and federal laws, Supreme Court cases, and National Labor Relations Board decisions. Some states allow collective bargaining for public sector employees but ban strikes; other states have so-called right-to-work laws that allow workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to opt out of paying representation fees.

Minimum wages are all over the place; certain types of workers remain exempt from the protections of New Dealera labor laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some states and cities have enacted paid sick time provisions, family leave, and fair scheduling protections.

Expanding these existing protections so that they apply to all workers would be an important first step. Every worker should have minimum wage and overtime protections; we should raise the federal minimum wage and permanently index it to inflation, while allowing localities to raise it higher.

We should also give farmworkers and domestic workers the protections they were exempted from in the 1930s, as some states and cities have begun to do; ensure collective bargaining rights; give all workers access to paid sick time and paid family leave; and extend "just cause" protections--which currently exist only in Montana--to all, meaning that workers throughout the country would not be fired for no good reason. The right to strike, Nelson says, is critical: "Any worker who holds the unfettered right to withhold labor also has the ability to demand respect for that work. For this to truly work, the law must outlaw no-strike clauses that fundamentally undermine worker power and equal standing with the owner class."

Another big step forward would be giving workers the ability to form a union through majority sign-up (known as "card check"), rather than a protracted union election process. Once workers have elected to unionize, companies should not be able to perpetually drag out the bargaining process to delay a contract. And, as Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance says, we must push back against the spread of binding arbitration agreements that workers often sign unknowingly, stripping them of their right to sue their employer. (One response to this abusive practice is California's Private Attorney General Act, which lets workers file suit with the backing of the state.)

U.S. labor law has lagged behind a changing economy for decades, but the rapid rise of the so-called gig economy has shown just how bad it is. "Things like insecurity at work, low wages, atomization, and isolation, these aren't unique to gig workers and they're symptoms of a continued erosion of labor standards where companies contract out [jobs] to lower their bottom fine," explains Brian Chen, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. Bernie Sanders's Workplace Democracy Act proposal would hold parent companies responsible for the labor practices of their subcontractors. …

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