Labor Law for All Workers: Empowering Workers to Challenge Corporate Decision Making

Apr 4, 2014Richard Kirsch

This is the sixth and last in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers to Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.  Today’s post outlines possible policy solutions to several major challenges to organizing workers in today’s economy. Over the next year, the Future of Work project will be exploring many of these ideas in depth. Their inclusion here is to begin surfacing ideas, rather than as final recommendations for reform.

If we are to give American workers the ability to bargain for a fair share of the wealth they create, we need strengthen labor law – as discussed in my last post – and bring in 34 millions workers (one-in-four) who are now excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.  These include domestic workers, farmworkers, front-line workers with minimum supervisory responsibilities, and public employees. The law should also be extended to include many workers now considered “independent contractors, ” even though an employer effectively determines their pay and working conditions. Examples range from truck drivers and cab drivers to adjunct faculty.

Some of the most innovative and effective organizing of low-wage workers is being done by new types of worker organizations. Worker centers and other groups can and often do perform public services, such as job training, occupational safety and health training, monitoring compliance with labor laws and enrolling workers in a variety of public programs. Government funding should be awarded to the worker groups for these services. Public entities could also bargain directly with worker groups, such as those representing home health care workers. And when government directly or indirectly pays for workers – for example home health care workers are funded by Medicare and Medicaid, – it should require that workers have decent wages and benefits, and provide sufficient funding.

We should also imagine broadening the scope of traditional labor law in the United States, to challenge traditional corporate prerogatives in the economy. When corporate growth comes at the expense of workers, it slows down the economy, because workers have less to spend. Corporations hurt communities when they relocate to seek lower paid workforces and lower taxes, or lobby against worker protections. When corporations lobby for lower taxes, they shirk their responsibility to pay for public services – from the roads on which they transport their goods, to the schools that educate their workers – resulting in deteriorating services and higher taxes on individuals and other businesses that do not get tax breaks.

Organized workers can serve as a powerful antidote to the concentration of corporate power. The law should block corporations from transferring jobs from unionized to non-unionized facilities and from making long-term investment decisions that modernize non-union facilities at the expense of union facilities. Under current law, these practices are banned only when the NLRB can prove that the employer was motivated by anti-union bias, a high bar that is difficult to reach.

The law should require unionized employers to recognize the union as the representative of new workers at any new facilities that the employer establishes or acquires. Unionized employers should not be allowed to close their business or specific facilities without first offering them for sale on the market. Bankruptcy courts should not be able to change union contracts without permission from the union.

The scope of subjects over which employers are currently required to bargain with their employees could be expanded to a number of other subjects that impact workers and communities, including the introduction of new products, decisions to invest in new facilities, pricing, and marketing. In that way, the welfare of workers - not just the interests of shareholders and executives – would be considered in business decisions. Strikes could also be allowed over a broader range of corporate policies, including decisions that impact communities and consumers.

Workers could also be given more of a role in corporate decision-making by requiring employers to allow the formation of “works councils,” an organizational form common in European countries. Works councils are established jointly by employers and worker organizations to represent workers in decisions in the workplace, ranging from personnel and management decisions to policies governing working conditions and major investments and locations. The current provisions in the NLRA, which are designed to block the formation of employer-controlled unions, may need to be amended to clarify that works councils may be set up when the workers approve of the councils and are not objectively dominated by the employer. Another measure would require that corporate boards of directors include representatives of unions, who would have full access to all corporate data.

Local, state, and federal governments could leverage public contracts and subsidies to require employers to comply with workers’ rights to organize. For example, they could prohibit employers from running anti-union campaigns and they could require the recognition of card check elections or other forms of establishing majority support. Government could also require that firms that receive public contracts and subsidies meet standards for pay and benefits, as President Obama has done with his recent executive order establishing a $10.10 minimum wage for workers of federal government contractors.

I’ll conclude with an observation about the politics of the variety of purposely-ambitious policy ideas I’ve outlined in the last two posts in this series. Good ideas can play a key role in organizing workers and in the other ways of making change. It is much easier to get where you want to go if you know where you want to go. Good ideas give people hope that there can be a better world and help them see the way forward.

But the power to win these policies will come through organizing people at work and in their communities, through changing culture and the public’s understanding of the importance of organized workers in moving the economy forward. The most important of these will be organizing workers to demand that they receive a fair share of the wealth they help create.

We hope that the ideas and discussion generated by the Future of Work in America will inspire Americans to ensure that every job respects the dignity and value of every worker, as we build an America of broadly shared prosperity.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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