White House Contender Jay Inslee Rolls Out A Plan To Restore Unions, Boost Wages

The Washington governor says his state has proved putting workers first is good for the economy.

Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee is unveiling a plan he touts as a way to revive U.S. unions and increase worker bargaining power after decades of decline. And he asserts that his experience implementing progressive and labor-friendly policies as governor of Washington gives him the experience to make that happen on a national scale.

His state’s story “absolutely blows up (President) Donald Trump’s trickle-down theory of economics,” Inslee, who first won the governor’s office in 2012, told HuffPost via phone. “If you adopt worker-friendly policies, it is the key to economic growth. We have a middle-out strategy… and our economy is absolutely screaming with growth.”


Inslee’s detailed plan, “The American Dream: Investing in Unions and Workers,” was provided by his campaign to HuffPost ahead of its planned release later on Friday. The blueprint would overhaul U.S. labor policy in sweeping ways, much like his climate plan ― which has been his core message ― would do for the environment. It would also turn into federal law some of the most progressive worker policies now percolating at the state and local levels.

Some of the ideas have become standard fare in the Democratic agenda these days ― a $15 minimum wage, guaranteed paid family leave and a ban on right-to-work statutes. But much of Inslee’s plan targets laws, policies and agencies that unions and worker advocates have long complained are broken or ineffective.

For example, he wants to make it illegal for an employer to hold one-on-one meetings with workers to discourage them from unionizing. He wants to use federal contracting procedures to promote union membership. To address pay inequities, he wants to bar companies from asking prospective employees for their salary history, just like a state measure he signed into law.

“I think we’ve seen a direct diagnosis of the central problem of our economy, which is massive income inequality”

- Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee

Inslee said such measures would upend a legal framework he said aims to keep unions small, wages low and benefits as skimpy as possible. He knocked Republicans for what he called their anti-worker policies, and said the Democratic Party need to more aggressively defend unions that are now on the ropes.

The share of U.S. workers belonging to a union is hovering around a historic low of just 6.4% in the private sector.

“I think we’ve seen a direct diagnosis of the central problem of our economy, which is massive income inequality,” Inslee said. “I believe the restoration of union participation is absolutely fundamental to tackling [that issue]. Our party needs to be much more intentional on restoring that force.”

Inslee’s key goals are:

Raising wages. He endorses the same $15 federal minimum wage that House Democrats recently passed, but also proposes a $25 minimum wage for workers in clean energy. In addition, he wants to expand the scope of prevailing wage laws, which require certain minimum wages on public projects.

Restoring union membership. Like many of the Democratic presidential candidates, Inslee wants to block right-to-work laws, which give workers covered by union contracts the option to not pay any union fees. And along with others in his party’s race, he wants to pass “card check” legislation, which would make it easier for workers to unionize. But he also wants to give workers greater rights to strike, as well as “just cause” protections that would make it harder to fire them. (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow contender in the Democratic contest, proposed the latter this week, as well.)

Wielding the federal government’s contracting power. Inslee said a Democratic president could take steps to boost unionism even in the face of an uncooperative Congress. That includes promoting the use of project labor agreements, in which unions negotiate the wages for government-funded projects, and working neutrality agreements into federal contracts. Such agreements require that employers don’t oppose a unionization campaign by their workers.

“These are all things that can be done by executive decision-making,” Inslee said. “The executive branch has enormous ability to drive just and worker-friendly policies.”

In polls, Inslee has been struggling to climb out of the lower tier of the crowded Democratic presidential field. So far he’s been overshadowed by high-profile candidates who also have progressive resumes on worker issues, particularly Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both close allies of the labor movement. Detailed plans like his one for climate change is why Vox’s Ezra Klein described Inslee as having ”the worst substance-to-popularity ratio″ in the entire Democratic field.

“I believe the restoration of union participation is absolutely fundamental to tackling income inequality.”

- Inslee

Although he lacks in star power, Inslee says Washington, D.C., could use more of the progressive policies he and others have championed in Washington state.

It has been the proving grounds for the $15 minimum wage, with Seattle and one of its suburbs, SeaTac, implementing that figure. (The state wage floor is currently $12, tied for the highest in the country.) Washington has also been in the vanguard of mandating paid sick leave and making more workers eligible for overtime pay. With the Trump administration watering down national efforts on that front, the state’s labor department has stepped in with a proposal to extend overtime protections to an additional 250,000 workers.

Inslee ordered the agency to develop those changes after the federal reforms got bottled up. Businesses have said the plan goes too far and will be a burden for employers, but Inslee argues it will put more money in workers’ pockets and ultimately boost the state economy even more.

Inslee said: “What do you get when you have the highest minimum wage, the most robust family leave, the most ambitious overtime [proposal]? According to Donald Trump, he’d say you cratered your economy. We have the fastest GDP growth…. It’s the exact opposite.”

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