The Labor Question Hillary Hasn't Answered

During previous debates, the presidential candidates have staked out positions on how they would take executive action on a broad range of controversial issues from immigration to the environment. Before this week, though, neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton had discussed how they would use the power of the presidential pen to help America's workers win higher wages and organize unions. Now Bernie Sanders has come out in support of the "Model Employer Executive Order," a proposal that would help transform millions of poorly paid jobs into good jobs that pay living wages and respect workers' rights. Hillary Clinton has so far avoided taking a position on the issue.

Clinton's "cautious politician" hedging on the Model Employer order should concern progressives, because for more than a century the strategic use of presidential executive power has played a key role in shaping U.S. labor relations for good or ill.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan famously issued an order to fire and permanently replace 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Inspired by Reagan's example, CEOs went on to make the permanent replacement of strikers commonplace in the private sector, devastating unions and thereby contributing to the wage stagnation workers face today.

If Reagan's decisive executive action weakened worker bargaining power, then an equally bold application of presidential power could help us reverse course. Indeed, given a dysfunctional U.S. Congress, tackling the forces that have disempowered workers, undermined collective bargaining, and exacerbated inequality will require courageous executive action.

Both Clinton and Sanders promise to raise workers' wages and protect the right to organize. In truth, neither will be able to overcome Republicans' ability to block labor reform legislation unless they use executive action.

Since 1959 every effort to reform U.S. labor law has been blocked by a Senate filibuster. There is no reason to believe that this pattern will soon end.  Even if Donald Trump's candidacy badly splits the Republican Party in November, Democrats have virtually no chance of winning both control of the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof Senate majority. 

Yet significant action reversing declining labor standards and eroding bargaining power is still within reach. Previous Democratic presidents used executive power to advance worker rights when Congress could not - or would not - act.

Woodrow Wilson created the National War Labor Board during World War I and supported its recommendation that defense workers be allowed to bargain collectively. In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt used an executive order to challenge racial discrimination in employment. And in 1962 John F. Kennedy issued an order introducing collective bargaining to the federal government, thereby triggering a wave of public sector unionization. 

Each of these presidential actions became templates for later legislation. The right to collectively bargain set forth by Wilson's War Labor Board in 1918 was written into the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act in 1935; FDR's prohibition of racial discrimination in the defense industry in 1941 was embodied in the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and the principles of JFK's 1962 executive order allowing government workers to bargain collectively were adopted by dozens of state legislatures and then written into the federal Civil Service Reform Act in 1978.   
The next president can build on these precedents to put us on a new course. With the stroke of a pen, he or she can transform the federal government from the nation's biggest, most influential creator of low-wage jobs into a good job creator. Many workers employed by federal contractors--including food service, janitorial, and other service workers--do not earn a living wage; in fact, some earn so little that they qualify for public assistance. Their employers, meanwhile, resist these workers' efforts to unionize and bargain collectively. 
The Model Employer Executive Order would give preference in government contracts to employers who pay living wages, grant paid sick days and family leave, offer full-time employment, and respect workers' rights to bargain collectively. It would transform the lives of millions of Americans, even those who do not work for federal contractors. Just as Reagan's decisive action did, it would broadly influence patterns of private sector labor relations, and, like the orders issued by Wilson, FDR, and JFK, it would serve as a foundation for new labor laws.

As the Democratic candidates prepare to debate in New York on the same day tens of thousands of low-wage workers walk off their jobs across the nation asking for "$15 and a union," Hillary Clinton needs to tell us whether she would do what previous Democratic presidents have done and use the power of the pen to help workers advance again.