by Barry Eidlin
Bernie Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Plan, unveiled yesterday, is the best plan for promoting workers’ rights ever proposed by a major US presidential candidate. Whether they support or oppose it, all the other Democratic candidates will have to respond to it.
Bernie Sanders unveiled his Workplace Democracy Plan (WDP) yesterday. The plan is based in a deep and sophisticated understanding of the fundamental problems facing workers today; it is the most serious, comprehensive, and equitable plan for promoting workers’ rights ever proposed by a major US presidential candidate.
Just as he did with Medicare for All, Sanders’s WDP will now set the terms of the debate around workers’ rights in the Democratic presidential primary. Whether they support or oppose the WDP, all the other candidates will have to respond to it.
The plan is a comprehensive effort to reorient labor policy around the idea that these policies exist to actively promote workers’ rights, as opposed to setting up the state as an ostensibly “neutral” arbiter to balance labor and management’s competing interests. It recognizes and seeks to redress the inherent power imbalance between workers and their employers, an imbalance that derives from the simple fact that an individual worker’s need to stay employed is greater than an employer’s need to keep that worker employed.
That’s why the WDP removes barriers to workers’ ability to join together in unions by implementing a “majority sign-up” process, whereby workers unionize when a majority in a workplace says they want a union by signing authorization cards. It recognizes that the decision to unionize is one that workers should make among themselves — without outside interference from employers, as the current union recognition system allows for.
That’s also why it restricts employers’ ability to force workers to attend anti-union meetings, requires employers to disclose when they use anti-union consultants, and guarantees union organizers equal time in the workplace to talk with workers. Once workers have unionized, it also requires employers to negotiate a first contract or face binding arbitration. Additionally, it extends union rights to all public sector workers, and finally removes the arbitrary and racist exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from labor law protections.
The WDP recognizes that workers’ rights can only be exercised and enforced collectively. Too often, employers and courts have used a warped interpretation of individual rights to undermine workers’ collective rights. Nowhere is this more apparent than with “right-to-work” laws, which use the pretext of protecting individual workers’ right not to join a union to erode union solidarity. They do so by allowing individuals in unionized workplaces to avoid paying the costs associated with negotiating and enforcing the contracts from which they benefit. The WDP would close that loophole by banning right-to-work laws.
The WDP also promotes workers’ ability to exercise their collective rights by enforcing and expanding the right to strike. Sanders recognizes that this is “a worker’s line of defense.” It’s “the means that you have to tell your employer, ‘Hey, we’re serious.’” To that end, it bans employers from using permanent replacements (“scabs”) when workers go on strike, expands the right to strike to public-sector workers, and allows for “secondary boycotts,” where workers pressure their employer by taking action against economically linked companies.
More broadly, the WDP proposes a set of policies that prevent employers from shirking their responsibilities toward workers and sets standards for workplace protections across the board. It would require employers to demonstrate “just cause” before firing workers. It would prevent them from misclassifying workers as “independent contractors” to deny them benefits and protections, or avoid paying them overtime by deeming them “supervisors.” It would also block large corporations from hiding behind franchising and contracting agreements to avoid responsibility for workers’ wages and working conditions by recognizing them as “joint employers.”
Likewise, it would require companies to honor existing union agreements when they merge. Additionally, it would set up a system to protect workers’ pensions, and ensure that employers transfer health-care cost savings resulting from Medicare for All to workers in the form of wage and benefit increases.
Most ambitiously, it proposes a system of sectoral bargaining and wage boards to negotiate wages, benefits, and hours at an industry level instead of firm-by-firm, the way many European countries currently do. Not only would this increase work and living standards for millions of workers, but it would curb race-to-the-bottom tendencies by limiting employers’ ability to undercut each other. With wages and benefits taken out of competition, firms would instead have to compete based on quality, service, and efficiency.
Taken together, the proposals in the WDP would amount to a fundamental shift in the balance of power. And here is where Sanders’s proposal is at its most impressive.
Sanders understands that winning the WDP will require a mass mobilization of people willing to fight for it. In other words, it is less of a policy proposal than a call to arms: winning the reforms contained in the WDP will be the result of mass mobilizations that shift the balance of power. They will not themselves cause that shift.
In proposing the WDP, Sanders is setting a target that movements can shoot for. It raises workers’ expectations by laying out a vision of a world where workers can exert meaningful control over their lives at work. In this, he is fulfilling his self-described role as “organizer-in-chief.”
While much of what Sanders is doing at this point is at the level of rhetoric and symbolism, it’s important not to underestimate how crucial this rhetoric and symbolism is. Recall that in the early 1930s, shortly upon taking office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first attempt at promoting workers’ rights was part of something called the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Section 7(a) of that law proclaimed that “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” But the act itself was toothless, providing no mechanisms for guaranteeing or exercising the right to organize.
Nonetheless, union organizers seized on the language of Section 7(a) to bring the message to workers across the country that “the president wants you to join a union.” The result was a spark of worker self-organizing that lit the fuse for the explosion that came a few years later. The actual content of Section 7(a) as a law was irrelevant. What was important was the legitimacy it gave unions, and by extension the horizon it opened up for workers, who could now see the idea of organizing a union as something within reach.
Even without getting the WDP passed, Sanders can use the plan to galvanize workers’ movements by setting the bar high when it comes to what workers deserve. The mobilization around the plan can shift the terms of debate and the sense of what is possible, much as we have already seen happen around the $15-per-hour minimum wage and Medicare for All.
Sanders has no illusions about what it’s going to take to win workplace democracy. He knows it will take a fight, and with the WDP, he is mobilizing troops for battle. As he put it on Twitter on the same day he unveiled his plan: “If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.”