The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders has a new plan to raise wages: Save the unions

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a new plan for workers. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced a plan Wednesday that he says will lift the nation's lagging wages by restoring power to unions and protecting workers in the gig economy — both top items on the labor movement’s wish list.

The Workplace Democracy Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and 10 other Democrats, would make it easier for workers to organize, supporters say.

The bill would allow employees to form a union by a majority sign-up process, rather than an election (which proponents say heightens the risk of employer meddling); require companies to negotiate with a new union within 10 days of receiving a request; mandate that workers in every state pay some dues to unions that represent them; and expand the law’s definition of “employer,” a hotly debated term as the country’s contractor workforce expands.

The catch, of course, is that President Trump and the Republican-led Congress aren’t likely to entertain these traditionally liberal goals — and they have virtually no chance of soon becoming law.

But Sanders said he hoped his push would shift the conversation about jobs from the dropping unemployment rate to stagnant wages.

The jobless rate hit an 18-year low of 3.9 percent in April, according to the most recent government data, while pay growth stayed flat.

“It’s not a question of just jobs — it’s a question of what those jobs pay,” Sanders told The Washington Post. “Many of the occupations that are growing in this country do not pay workers a living wage.”

The nation’s largest labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association, have endorsed the measure.

The odds of this effort taking off on Capitol Hill, though, are “literally zero,” said Joseph Slater, a labor professor at the University of Toledo College of Law.

However, he said Democrats might embrace a pro-union measure ahead of the November midterm elections as a way to show their support for blue-collar voters, many of whom flipped red in 2016. Of the roughly 700 counties that twice voted for Barack Obama, a full third backed Trump, with most across the Rust Belt. 

“They may want to send a message to their base,” he said. “You show your base that you’re serious about this, and unions are still an important part of Democrats’ base.”

Sanders said the left should prioritize bolstering labor groups, whose strength has faded over the past three decades.

“What this bill is about,” he said, “is saying the American people believe that unions are a positive force for our economy.”

A worker covered by a union earns 13.2 percent more on average than someone with similar education, experience and responsibilities in a non-unionized job, a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute found.

Still, union membership has halved since the early 1980s: Last year, 10.7 percent of American workers belonged to a union, compared with 20.1 percent in 1983.

To reverse this trend, Democratic senators are proposing to end Right to Work rules in 28 states that ban unions from requiring all employees in a bargaining unit to pay dues.

Critics say Right to Work rules have weakened the labor movement and created a “free rider” problem — forcing unions to represent and provide services to people who don’t contribute to their efforts.

Supporters, meanwhile, say workers shouldn’t have to pay dues to organizations that, say, support political candidates they oppose. A Supreme Court case is pending on this matter, although it applies only to public-sector unions.

Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Good Jobs Nation, an advocacy group that helps low-wage federal contractors organize, said requiring workers to fund unions would feed labor’s resources — and ultimately fatten wages.

“Because union density is so low, corporations are able to unilaterally set the terms and conditions of employment,” Geevarghese said, “and their interest is to pay as low as humanly possible.”

Trey Kovacs, a policy analyst at the right-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said workers should be able to opt in or out of supporting unions.

He proposes updating the law so that only dues-paying members enjoy union-secured benefits, leaving the rest to market forces.

“If droves of workers are leaving unions,” Kovacs said, “they may have to recalibrate what they’re doing to better serve members.”

On the employer front, the Sanders bill would clarify that a company exercising any control over a worker’s day — how they deal with customers, the uniforms they wear, the scripts they follow — be held responsible for labor violations at their establishments. (The Trump administration, by contrast, rescinded an Obama-era guideline that recommended that corporations such as McDonalds make sure franchisers adhere to employment laws.)

The Democrats’ bill also would extend protections to contractors such as Uber and Lyft drivers. An estimated one in five Americans are now employed under contract, and the shift worries worker advocates, who say companies can avoid paying benefits.

Under Sanders’s plan, workers would be considered employees (and entitled to protections such as overtime pay) unless the services they perform are “outside the usual course of the employer’s business.”

Kovacs said such a move would cost workers who seek flexibility. Ride-share drivers, for example, control their own schedules.

“I don’t think it makes sense to say every worker is an ‘employee,’ " he said, “when lots of workers desire that autonomy.”

Read more:

The Supreme Court will soon decide if workers should pay union dues — again

Trump tried to save their jobs. These workers are quitting, anyway

Half of millennials could be competing with robots for jobs