Gov. Jay Inslee (D) of Washington state. (Jovelle Tamayo for The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee just unveiled what he calls the Evergreen Economy Plan, a blueprint for significant new investments in infrastructure, clean technology and green jobs. He would spend $300 billion a year in federal funds building a green economy, spending he says would leverage twice as much in private spending, for a total of $900 billion a year.

While much of what’s in his plan is the kind of thing you think of when you hear “green jobs,” Inslee also includes proposals to reshape the American workplace.

I spoke to Inslee Thursday morning, and focused on that aspect of his plan. While Inslee’s presidential candidacy hasn’t gotten as much attention as many of his rivals, he brings things to the race that other candidates don’t. Most obviously, he has made climate change the foundation of his campaign. And his economic ideas are centered on reviving labor unions.

“As far as I can tell, I’m the first candidate running for president in 2020 who has put a major emphasis on restoring collective bargaining rights,” he told me.

Inslee argues that the issues of labor and climate are intertwined.

“We have two existential threats to the health of our society,” he said. “One is the climate crisis and the other is massive income inequality and the fact that half the people in the country haven’t had a raise for about twenty years.”

The reason, according to Inslee, is the decline of unions, which “has been a principle cause for the massive income inequality and the lack of wage growth in this nation. It’s a linear equation, almost: the decline of union membership and the decline of wages relative to productivity.”

So to revive unions, Inslee proposes:

  • Allow “card check,” which establishes union representation in a workplace once a majority of workers sign cards expressing their desire to be represented by a union.
  • Streamline the National Labor Relations Board process for handling charges of labor law violations. Vigorously punish those violations when they’re found.
  • Promote labor partnerships with local governments.
  • Outlaw forced arbitration, which the Supreme Court recently validated.
  • And perhaps most dramatic, pass a federal law overruling state “right to work” laws, which are now in force in 28 states, making union organizing extremely difficult.

This is where the politics get even more difficult than the rest of Inslee’s proposal.

Even if Republicans cling to climate denial, you could see them consenting to certain kinds of spending that Inslee proposes. Research and development on battery technologies? Sure, whatever. Grants for energy-efficiency upgrades? As long as contractors in my district get a taste, why not?

But on promoting unions, you’ll hit a wall of GOP opposition. Republicans and their corporate allies have invested decades and untold sums of money in destroying collective bargaining in the United States. Since 1983, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data, overall union membership has been cut in half, and private-sector membership has fallen by almost two-thirds.

That wasn’t an accident. It happened because Republicans know unions are a foundation of Democratic power, not just because they partner with the Democratic Party but because unions politicize people. They encourage them to see their situation in larger terms: Your problem isn’t just that your boss is a jerk, it’s that there’s an entire system that keeps your wages and benefits low and makes sure you have no power.

Which is why as soon as Republicans take control in a state, passing laws to undercut unions is one of the first things they do.

A key part of the rhetoric that sustains that war on unions is the idea that workers have to choose between representation and having a job at all, and that as a society we have to choose between economic growth and treating people with dignity on the job.

Inslee is plainly contemptuous of those ideas. Reviving unions, he says, “is absolutely intrinsic to ending income inequality." Washington state, he notes, “has one of the highest union participation rates, and consequently — not despite, but because we have a high-wage plan in our state, we’ve got the best GDP growth and the best wage growth.”

“I’ve got the highest minimum wage in the United States in Washington,” Inslee says, "and the best economy at the same time, so don’t tell me that high wages are not consistent with economic growth.”

Republicans will say the economy couldn’t be better than it is right now, because unemployment is low and wages are finally starting to creep up. Inslee counters that Republicans are “living in la la land, because they don’t talk to people who really work.” Those people are working harder and producing more, he says, but all the gains from their productivity are being reaped by those at the top.

And he didn’t sound optimistic about working with Republicans on these issues. Asked about the lockstep conservative opposition to acting on climate change, Inslee said: “There’s no rational explanation for why a large group of people in America would deny clear science. It’s not my job to explain it, my job is to make sure we overcome it.”

Which is why Inslee says that if Democrats take control of the Senate next year, they should get rid of the filibuster. He has no illusions about a future of bipartisan compromise. And though he may be near the bottom of the polls at the moment, he’s talking about issues that ought to be higher on everyone’s agenda.

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