Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sees a lot to like in the wave of teacher strikes, from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona. But what pleases him most is that the revolt is being driven from the bottom up, as teachers start their own grassroots movements and the unions follow their lead.
“If you’re noticing what’s going on, the teachers are ahead of their union officials. I’m very impressed by that,” Sanders told HuffPost. “To my mind, this is the tip of the iceberg, with workers standing up.”
Sanders said the teacher walkouts are evidence that more workers would like to band together in unions if only the law made it easier. To that end, the senator led a group of Democrats in unveiling a bill Wednesday that would dramatically reform labor law and boost the dwindling ranks of unions in the private sector, where just 6.5 percent of workers are members today.
“The facts are very clear that workers in unions earn significantly higher wages than non-union workers,” Sanders said. “The reason we have seen such an assault not only on existing unions but against the rights of workers to join unions is employers know that. If they can prevent workers from becoming organized, they can pay insufficient wages.”
Sanders’ bill, called the Workplace Democracy Act, would remove several of the major barriers to organized labor’s growth.
It would ban “right to work” laws, which allow employees to opt out of paying union dues even though the union must still bargain on their behalf, leading to what unions call “free-riding.” In recent years, Republicans and business groups have pushed to expand the reach of right-to-work laws, which are now on the books in 28 states, including traditional labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin.
The bill would also guarantee workers the right to form a union after a majority in their workplace have signed cards saying that is their wish. “Card check,” as the process is known, lets organizers bypass the holding of a secret-ballot election, before which employers often pressure workers to vote no.
Democrats pursued card check legislation in 2009 with the Employee Free Choice Act, but they failed to pass a bill before Republicans took back the House in the 2010 midterm elections. Unions and their allies in Congress still rue the missed opportunity.
“I think it would have made a huge difference” if the Employee Free Choice Act had passed, Sanders said.
Among its other provisions, Sanders’ current bill would make it easier for unions to seek mediation when they can’t reach a first contract with an employer in a reasonable period of time. Negotiations over a first contract can be an effective stall tactic for businesses, sometimes dragging on for years.
The bill would also legalize secondary boycotts, allowing unions to target an employer’s clients as a way to pressure the employer. Secondary boycotts were outlawed in 1947 under the Taft-Hartley Act, the same law that paved the way for right-to-work statutes.
With Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House, Sanders’ legislation has no real chance of becoming law anytime soon. But it could be another indicator that high-profile Democrats plan to make rejuvenating the labor movement a priority, particularly as progressive activists have been pushing the agenda to the left since the 2016 elections.
The Democrats who’ve signed on as co-sponsors of the Workplace Democracy Act include Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). Part of the bill has already made it into the Democrats’ “Better Deal” platform, which calls for an end to right-to-work laws and was unveiled by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) late last year.
The popularity of labor unions has increased markedly since the Great Recession. A 61 percent approval rating in 2017 is the highest that Gallup has seen since 2003. Yet public policy appears to be moving in the other direction, as GOP-led states peel back collective bargaining rights and the Supreme Court considers making the entire public sector a right-to-work zone.
Sanders argues that the weakened state of unionism in the U.S. doesn’t just threaten workers’ wages and benefits ― it undermines the progressive social programs that unions fight for.
“You could make the argument that right now the trade union movement, as weak as it is, is the last line of defense against a corporate agenda that not only wants tax breaks for billionaires but wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders said.
“If they can break the trade union movement or make it without any power,” he asked, “who is going to stop that agenda?”