Progressive Democrats led by Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MASS), and others are leading the charge to rewrite federal labor laws that has no chance of passage in the current Republican-dominated Congress – but sends a powerful signal about what a blue wave in the coming elections could mean to workers and business.
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The Democrats are taking on the “gig economy,” which has mushroomed in recent years as startups, tech companies, Internet businesses, and others have used part-time workers and employees labelled as “independent contractors” instead of regular employees.
This is often as a way to get around having to pay higher wages and especially to avoid providing benefits like health insurance, vacation time and maternity leaves.
“Innovation is great,” Sanders told Bloomberg News this week, “but you need an economy that works for ordinary people, not just the 1 percent.”
“There are reasons why, decades ago, we as a society put in place these basic minimum standards,” added Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Sanders is scheduled today to introduce legislation to make major changes to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.
His bill would make it easier for workers to prove they are employees with the right to the benefits of an employee which usually include health care, vacations and more.
Sanders’ bill would also give these “gig employees” the right to unionize and benefit from collective bargaining with employers.
The right to organize is the law for employees but not for these “independent contractors” who often do not get a minimum wage, overtime or anti-harassment protections.
Backed by labor unions, and other Democratic leaders in the Senate including Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sanders’ bill would ban state “right to work” laws that make joining a union optional for workers even when the majority of employees vote for it.
It would also allow unionization by signing up a majority of workers without a secret ballot that in practice has led to corporate coercion and employee manipulation.
President Obama tried to put many of these reforms in place using an executive order last year but Trump quickly scrapped the changes as soon as he took over.
In recent years at the state level, where Republicans have a majority, the attack on unions and the effort to keep “gig” workers from gaining employee rights has been like a freight train whistling down the track with the passage of “right to work’ laws.
Such laws have passed in Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, Utah and elsewhere, sometimes with support from so-called “Democrats” as well.
A recent ruling by a California court imposes a test on the definition of an employee that gives many more “gig” workers the rights of an employee and that has helped spur this movement to protect workers and not just give everything to employers who can afford high priced lobbyist and to make big campaign donations.
Business advocates, predictably, see this as a disaster that could impede innovation and an attack on a company’s right to do what it believes will increase profits which in turn helps it raise funds or raise its stock price.
“Not all management decisions are made to screw the employees or the unions,” former NLRB member Marshall Babson, an attorney representing businesses, told Bloomberg. There are a lot of decisions that are made because they think that’s the best way to run the business.”
Sanders certainly does not agree: “We cannot live in an economy where we do what is only good for the employer,” adding that “it’s about time that we start looking at the needs of workers, and not just large corporations.”
If nothing else, this approach will turn into talking points for Democrats in the coming midterm elections and beyond.
If one or both Houses of Congress does flip to the Democrats in November, Sanders’ bill could get a lot of momentum, even if it takes until a new president is elected in 2020 to get it signed.
The gross unfairness of income distribution in the U.S. today is not just an economic issue but also a social issue that has to do with how people live, how they raise families, how they pay for health care, education, and basic necessities.
Big business is a bully that will just keep taking as long as it can and it will take a blue wave and strong leadership to level the playing field but with Sanders bill, at least there is a ray of hope on the horizon.