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A Paris Agreement for the Workers of the World

Democrats want to reduce inequality and save the labor movement, but how? One policy organization has an ambitious new proposal.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 2015, nearly every country on Earth signed the Paris accord, a recognition that climate change is an existential threat and that the solution is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That historic pact has inspired a left-leaning think tank to put forth an even bolder international pact to address the crisis of inequality by increasing labor’s strength.

In a paper released Tuesday, the Roosevelt Institute calls for “a fundamental re-visioning of the role of government in rebuilding worker power. Instead of resignation, despair, modest legal changes, or waiting for unions to save themselves, we recommend ambitious and linked strategies at the international and domestic level to strengthen labor institutions.” To that end, it proposes the Workers Power Agreement, “a new international labor rights framework modeled on the Paris climate deal. Unlike the Paris deal, where countries set targets for reducing carbon, countries in a new Workers Power Agreement would adopt targets for increasing union density in nations. Like the Paris deal, countries would retain sovereignty over how they achieved these targets.”

There should be no doubt that inequality is as real a problem as climate change. President Donald Trump boasts of the economy’s health, but data presents a very different picture. Previous research by analysts with the Economic Policy Institute found that the U.S. has rates of economic mobility, a key measure of inequality, that are much lower than the rates of most other developed countries. And as the U.S. Census Department’s September poverty numbers reinforced, America’s wealthiest households are experiencing economic gains that aren’t shared equally across all economic brackets. The supplemental poverty measure—which, as The New York Times noted on September 13, is generally considered a more accurate measure of poverty than the national poverty rate—actually increased last year.

As Alana Semuels recently detailed in a piece for The Atlantic, a pair of studies from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic Policy Research supports the conclusion that a steep decline in union membership negatively influenced wages for unionized workers and non-union members alike, and that union membership has also been shown to shrink the racial wealth gap. Further research, published by Princeton University economists through the National Bureau for Economic Research in May, examined 80 years of data to conclude, in part, that “unions have had a significant, equalizing effect on the income distribution over our long sample period.” (The Princeton study was limited by the constraints of the available data, which examined union membership by household and not individual union members, but researchers did establish that unions had “their own causal effect in reducing inequality.”)

“I think that is something that is not discussed to the degree that it ought to be,” said Cedric de Leon, director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. De Leon believes the data supports one conclusion: that inequality correlates to rates of union membership. “And there’s a very simple reason for this,” he added. “If you’re in the union, then the boss doesn’t dictate to you what your wages will be. You actually have to sit across the table from the union and negotiate over wages, working conditions and benefits and that creates an upward pressure on wages.”

As a proposal, WPA presupposes a problem—that U.S. workers have few rights, and need more protections—and then places that American problem within a global context. A country’s inequalities have consequences beyond its borders. As Roosevelt’s proposal notes, domestic inequality destabilizes nations, which influences currency valuations, immigration policies, and trade relationships. Relatedly, right-wing governments promise voters a strong economy, but rather than pass economic policies that build up worker power and raise wages, they direct voter hostility at foreign workers. “This is not good for countries like Canada or Denmark, which have more successfully adapted their domestic labor markets to globalization’s challenges,” the report concludes.

The WPA would bind participating nations in a commitment to strengthen worker power, though it would leave the means by which a nation can honor its agreements up to its elected officials. Nations would commit to certain benchmarks, like increasing union density, and those benchmarks would vary depending on the existing health of a nation’s trade union movement. Nations who fail to meet those benchmarks would be penalized, though Roosevelt believes those penalties should “be advisory and not carry a specific sanction beyond public humiliation and reputational costs.” “One thing [Paris] did really well is it balanced the ends of policy with the national means of achieving that policy,” said Todd Tucker, the political scientist who authored the Roosevelt Institute paper. (Some nations already have the proposed reforms in places, and others do not. But just as the U.S. is among the top countries in greenhouse gas emissions, it also distinguishes itself in most measures of economic inequality and union strength.)

According to Tucker, the WPA provides one possible framework to address a real and pressing problem. “It does give us a few things,” Tucker said of the WPA model. “One is that it establishes that there is now a growing body of academic research that documents a link between the demise of the labor unions, and declining unionization ratios, and increasing inequality.” The result, in theory, would establish a pattern of globalization that distributes its economic gains to workers, and not just elites in developed and developing states. U.S. workers might experience an especially pronounced increase to the rights they’re able to wield at work, but that’s simply because the U.S. lags so far behind other developed states in this regard.

The WPA isn’t without flaws. Even if the concept became reality, it wouldn’t be a permanent safeguard. Nations can leave such agreements, as Trump is demonstrating. The same flaw would probably present a real danger to a WPA, since it, like the Paris agreement, would engender deep antipathy from the political right in its member states. The WPA’s very existence would challenge one of the central tenets of laissez-faire economic doctrine—that the sort of market regulation that would inevitably follow from increased union density would negatively impact a nation’s economic health. And if the U.S. or another major nation pulled out of the WPA, the consequences for workers could be severe.

There’s no chance of the WPA becoming reality soon. Democrats likely won’t retake all of Congress in the November election. Even if they do, they won’t control the White House until 2020 at least. But the work of politics spans beyond electoral victories. Democrats don’t just need to fill seats, they need ideas. Health care reform proposals, like Medicare for All, have emerged as one way for both Democratic candidates and elected officials to expand the party’s progressive political imagination. Labor rights should be part of the conversation about how to remedy economic disparity. Unions are popular, too: In 2017, a Gallup poll put public approval of labor unions at 61 percent—the highest rate since 2003. And in June, Pew Research found that just over half of Americans view the decline in union membership negatively, though sentiment divides sharply on partisan lines.

Experts agree that building worker power, as a means of addressing inequality, should be a priority for Democrats if the party successfully retakes power. “Social legislation certainly matters, but union density is a critical part of the puzzle. If the Democrats are really serious about addressing economic inequality, they can’t just do things like insist on raising the minimum wage floor,” de Leon said. “The labor movement is pushing the 15 dollar minimum wage. That’s good, but that is still not workers having power in the workplace.”

“There’s a big discussion right now about how workers’ wages aren’t growing and that’s totally true, but that’s not a recent phenomenon,” said Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute. “For most of the last 40 years, we’ve seen a situation of rising productivity growth. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but it’s been marching along. Whereas for most of that period, wages for most workers have been largely stagnant, and that growth represented by the productivity growth is going somewhere. It’s going to people at the top. It’s massive, rising inequality. That’s what has characterized our economy in recent decades, and it’s just a huge imbalance of power.”

She added, “Policymakers who want an economy that works for everyone and not just for the already well-off should be calling that out and talking about what needs to be done to solve that.” In August, Shierholz and two of her colleagues produced a report on what they call First Day Fairness, or labor policy priorities for a prospective Democratic supermajority. The agenda calls for stricter penalties for employers who interfere with worker organizing, or who penalize workers for attempting to organize. It would also require employers to bargain contracts with unionized workers in a timely manner, and ban employers from replacing workers on strike with secondary labor.

De Leon supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have preempted a number of EPI’s current proposals by requiring employers to reach a contract with unionized workers within a certain timeframe and increased penalties for employers who obstruct the organizing process. Democrats introduced the bill in 2009, when they had supermajority, but they failed to pass it nonetheless. More recently, Democrats introduced a number of bills that would have addressed some root causes of weakened worker power. The Workers’ Freedom To Negotiate Act, introduced by Representative Bobby Scott in the House and Senator Patty Murray in the Senate, would allow the National Labor Relations Board to assign financial penalties to employers who wrongfully terminate staff and would prevent employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union meetings. Similarly, the Workplace Democracy Act, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Mark Pocan, would end right-to-work laws by repealing part of the Taft Hartley Act and ban employers from mischaracterizing union-eligible staff as supervisors or as contract labor.

Whether it’s these bills or a WPA or the Employee Free Choice Act, or some yet-to-be-announced labor platform, Democrats will have plenty of ideas to choose from should they ever find themselves with unified control of government again. The question is whether they’ll actually take advantage of that opportunity to empower workers.