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Here’s How Presidential Candidates Can Support American Workers

Amy Traub

Policy solutions to undo the suppression of workers' voice and labor standards.

As Democratic candidates for President debate on Tuesday night, they are sure to grapple with the grim situation facing Americans at work. Although unemployment is falling, wages are frozen. Many jobs demand ever-changing schedules that leave little opportunity for planning a life. Workers are disrespected, and obliged to work in unsafe conditions. Even professional employees and the most highly-educated workers increasingly confront sweatshop-like conditions.

These facts are clear. Yet the candidates must also acknowledge that the swelling tide of workplace woe can be traced back to a single source: working people don’t have much of a voice on the job, or in the economy as a whole.

President Obama‘s “Summit on Worker Voice” last week brought these concerns to the forefront. On one level, the President urged working Americans to use their voices to start conversations with coworkers about the changes they’d like to see on the job.(“A voice at the lunch table,” says a recent video from the Department of Labor “can lead to a voice at the bargaining table”)  On another level, the President made it clear that institutional changes are necessary in order for working people to be effective in exercising their voice on a truly meaningful scale: the nation needs to strengthen labor laws and make it easier for Americans to join unions. [Full employment – a topic for another day! – is also crucial.]

Indeed, a new brief from the President’s Council of Economic Advisors documents how unions continue to deliver higher wages and better benefits for their members, contribute to workplace safety, and also improve the jobs of non-union workers. Other research details how the decades-long decline in union membership has contributed to skyrocketing inequality. At a time of growing public support for labor unions particularly among workers who are paid low wages, policies that enable people to organize without fear of retaliation could make a substantial difference in the employment landscape.

Candidates taking the debate state on Tuesday will find no shortage of policy ideas.

Last month, Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, which would strengthen penalties against employers who illegally retaliate against workers who act collectively, whether it is to form a union or to win any other improvement at work. The bill would impose monetary penalties on employers who violate workers’ right to organize; require employers to pay victims three times the amount of back pay;  and authorize personal liability for responsible corporate officers. Significantly, the legislation would also hold employers jointly liable for violations committed against temporary or contract employees, and would ensure that workers receive remedies regardless of their immigration status.

And last week, Senator (and Presidential hopeful) Bernie Sanders joined Reps. Pocan and Norcross to introduce The Workplace Democracy Act, which would make it easier for working people to band together for a voice on the job by enabling them to form a union when the majority sign cards agreeing to unionize.  The bill would also set a timetable for employers to negotiate a first contract with the new union.

While both bills lay important legislative groundwork, the political reality is that a Tea Party-dominated Congress is highly unlikely to pass either piece of legislation anytime soon. And even as the National Labor Relations Board maneuvers within current law to uphold workers’ right to organize, the Supreme Court is poised to consider the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could further undermine workers’ ability to join together in strong unions, particularly in the public sector. Meanwhile, organized labor is under attack in a growing number of states. And the still-secret language of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal raises concerns that American workers will be forced into greater competition with countries where workers and their unions are brutally suppressed, pushing wages down.

Movement that takes us one step forward and two steps back still leaves the nation headed in the wrong direction. With so many of the other core issues the Democrats will debate—from the burden of student debt, to the unaffordability of childcare, to climate change and the dominance of big money in our politics—intertwined with the need for working people to have a greater voice, it is critical that the next president get this right.

The suppression of workers' voice and labor standards more broadly didn't occur by accident and cannot be undone in a haphazard way. What's needed from the next President is a strategy that amplifies the voice of working people on a variety of fronts, from supporting empowering legislation to using executive power (for example, signing a "good jobs" executive order preferring federal contractors that respect employee rights to collective bargaining) and focusing explicitly on workers' rights when trade agreements, Supreme Court appointments, and other key decisions are made. To get their votes, every presidential candidate should promise to lift up workers' policies tomorrow night.