The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats add to ‘Better Deal’ platform with a slew of pro-labor-union ideas

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks with reporters outside the chamber on July 25. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House and Senate Democrats are rolling out another plank in their “Better Deal” platform today, a series of pro-labor reforms aimed at “strengthening the collective voice and negotiating rights of workers.”

Like the rest of the Democrats’ policy proposals, the eight-part labor plank has no serious chance of passage in a Republican-controlled Congress. Like previous planks on the economy and banking, it reflects talks among Democrats, their staff and outside analysts who want to see a more progressive party.

“Democrats are redoubling our commitment to working men and women with these proposals,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said in a statement. “We’re offering the middle class and those struggling to get there a better deal by taking on companies that undermine unions and underpay their workers, and beginning to unwind a rigged system that undermines every worker’s freedom to negotiate with their employer.”

The labor plank of the Better Deal is ambitious, anticipating court and National Labor Relations Board decisions that could go against unions in the next four years. Among them:

  • A “federal law that provides public workers with the same rights and freedom to engage in collective bargaining as their private sector counterparts,” designed to prevent the piecemeal right-to-work efforts that have taken off in Republican-run states since 2011.
  • A ban on state “right-to-work” laws altogether, as “they have been found to reduce union membership by up to 10 percent and have resulted in lower wages and decreased access to employer-provided health care and pensions.”
  • Making it easier to strike with a “ban [on] the permanent replacement of striking workers.”
  • Limiting employers’ ability to campaign against union drives. “When companies taint the election process by using captive audience meetings, the NLRB will set the corrupted election results aside and require the employer to bargain with the worker representative,” Democrats write in the Better Deal white paper.

The main problem facing this installment of the Better Deal is one that’s bedeviled every Democratic policy rollout: The difficulty of getting anyone to notice.

Democrats and activists always planned to use this week, long anticipated as the beginning of the GOP’s tax cut push, to propose policy alternatives. On Tuesday, Schumer and other Senate Democrats rolled out a plan to expand 401(k) plans, to exploit voter worry about how Republicans might tax those plans to pay for lower overall tax rates. The Democrats’ proposal: Allow people under 50 to save $24,500 in the plans annually, and people over 50 to save $30,500.

But the rollout of that plan, at a news conference attended by Capitol Hill reporters, got relatively scant coverage. The Better Deal is covered not as an ongoing messaging effort, but as one event in July that quickly lost voters’ attention. (“It quickly disappeared,” wrote Post columnist Dana Milbank on Tuesday night.)

The 401(k) plan and the Better Deal labor plank follow a similar theory of messaging, hammering issues that have been elevated — and mishandled — by Republicans and the Trump administration. Democrats believe that the White House gave away a serious political advantage in early 2017, when after meeting with building trades leaders, the president let a “trillion dollar infrastructure plan” drop off the first-year agenda. Trump, who had made historic electoral gains with union members, didn’t consolidate them.

But labor leaders have remained irritated with the Democrats. Last week, at the AFL-CIO’s conference in St. Louis, union members passed a resolution in favor of “new directions in electoral politics,” a shot across the bow of Democrats and their resilient neoliberal wing.

“In the results of national elections, whether the candidates elected are from the Republican or Democratic Party, the interests of Wall Street have been protected and advanced, while the interests of labor and working people have generally been set back,” read the resolution. While continuing to endorse “friends and allies of workers,” the AFL-CIO “pursues a strategy of advancing our core issues through referenda and ballot initiatives and propositions at the statewide and local level; studies the viability of independent and third-party politics; and explores other reasonable means of advancing the interests of labor in electoral politics.”

The Better Deal’s labor plank is designed to quiet some of that angst, and demonstrate that Democrats will roll back anti-union laws if they win power. But the party is unlikely to get many chances to discuss its ideas this week. On Wednesday morning, instead of talking up the party’s tax and labor plans, Schumer was engaged in the latest of many spats with the president over immigration and visa policy.

But later in the day, Schumer joined Democrats for a roll-out of their preferred message.

“We’re going to work very hard to get some of our Republican colleagues to sign on because it’s the future of America,” Schumer said at a press conference. “We hope we can get our Republican colleagues to sign on. If not, we’ll campaign on this issue.”

“We want to put this out to the public,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “Public sentiment is everything.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed reporting.