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The Return of the Empowered American Worker

It’s been a while since American laborers—rather than just their union leaders—were properly courted. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are hoping to fill the void.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 1978, resigning United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser delivered a scathing critique of the American managerial class.

“I believe the leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” Fraser said.

Looking at Fraser’s diagnosis as a prediction for the current day, the only part he was missing was how the government would join the managers.

While unions have never been as powerful in the United States as they are in Europe, tales of workers standing up on a mass scale abound: The Farmers Alliance that bandied together to battle the federal corruption of the 1880s; the Flint factory sitdown strikes of 1936 and the rise of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the wake of New Deal legislation; the explosion of textile unions in the 1950s and their eventual integration in the 1960s.

The wildcat teacher strikes of the past two years and the ongoing UAW strike against GM prove this fight is still alive among the workers—in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 485,000 workers took part in work stoppages, the highest number since 2007. But the state legislatures, the courts, Congress, and the Oval Office that once lined up behind labor seem to have lost enthusiasm for concrete reforms for the workplace. Government is rarely more than a rhetorical labor ally, candidates courting union leadership for their backing.

Two 2020 Democratic candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have now proposed plans to change that. Sanders, as part of his Workplace Democracy Plan, called for legalizing the right to strike for federal workers, banning permanent scabs, and industry-wide wage standards (rather than have the fights be shop-by-shop), among other proposals. Warren’s plan, released Thursday, would ban non-compete and no-poach agreements, let workers elect forty percent of large companies’ boards, reject mergers that reduce wages, and extend rights to farm and domestic workers.

Both plans are stepping stones. Warren’s plan is particularly unusual, in that it would empower more workers to assert their rights individually (which, in theory, would lead employees to understand and demand their organizing rights, which would eventually lead to more collective action, which would lead to unionization). Throughout the 17-page plan, the word “union” is used just twice. But the idea of asserting legal protections established by collective action undergirds the entire document.

Because the unraveling of American organized labor happened gradually over the last four decades, the decline in worker protections and benefits has been normalized by board-room corporatists. Nowadays, “benefits” like paying off student loan debt or working from home are increasingly rolled out by companies to temporarily curb any complaints from their underpaid and disadvantaged workers, at least until the next round of layoffs or complaints about stagnant wages arose. Then, more tequila shots, more Run-DMC concerts.

Hoping to eschew this new normal and get the American worker to a place where some semblance of economic stability exists, Warren’s plan is an instruction manual for redrawing the power map to be more in workers’ favor. Sanders’s plan also includes an ambitious call to double of nationwide union membership, an admirable and clearly necessary task. But take a moment to consider what that means in the historical context—as of 2018, the union membership rate in America dropped to 10.5 percent, down from 10.7 the previous year. If Sanders accomplished his goal, that would mean 21.0 percent of workers would be unionized, which would bring the U.S. a hair below the rate of 23.0 percent that unions boasted among salaried employees in 1979, around the time of Fraser’s speech. The fight is to simply push the nation’s workforce back to the starting line.

Of course, the decline of unions and the middle class they helped build has been bemoaned by politicians so many times at this point that the fight against the plight has been just as normalized as the plight itself—Warren’s initial claim to fame, her book The Two-Income Trap, hit shelves 16 years ago. It feels regular, almost boring at this point, to hear a presidential candidate speak vaguely about fighting for the middle class or those in poverty. It is, in part, how President Donald Trump became President Donald Trump—where his opponent trotted out lines about how America was “great already,” Trump, mushed in between the racist rants, managed to speak some truth about the present condition of workers.

“Our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal,” he told a crowd of manufacturing laborers in June 2016. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization—moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.”

The approach by Sanders and Warren—a universal workers plan, if you will—isn’t new either. North Carolina Senator John Edwards courted the nation’s labor force early and often in his bid for the 2008 ticket. But he didn’t just reserve his time for the major union leaders. He altered his schedule to meet with kitchen workers on their breaks. He listened to delivery workers describe their back-breaking hours. He spoke with hotel workers about low wages. Then he engaged in an extramarital affair and fathered a child behind the back of his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and the nation was left to choose between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, in the places that actually matter for workers’s rights, namely state legislatures and federal regulatory boards, an anti-worker movement was underway.

The National Labor Relations Boards has been increasingly filled by conservatives with little desire to rebuild labor strength in the United States. A product of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, there are 28 Right-to-Work states and counting; the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME extended similar open-shop abilities to government employees. These are issues that cannot be unilaterally addressed by a single presidential administration. It requires a rejiggering of the entire system: the courts, of Congress, and, the executive branch.

Unions have long been pandered to by politicians. But the current reality is that the path to organizing is a steep hill, filled by management teams with short-term promises for organizing staffs, sometimes followed shortly by threats and eventual firings. In offices and work floors and workspaces across the nation, when at-will employees face discriminatory actions, be it for their gender or race or their subsequent decision to file HR complaints, or stagnant wages, the realistic options for those with families to support and rent and debt payments to make are slim. Without a union representative, the path to obtaining outside legal assistance in the wake of a mistreatment by an employer is unnerving and costly. This leaves workers to either accept their current degrading working conditions or to take their chances on the open job market. Far too often, instead of addressing this universal reality, American politicians have sought to blame workers’ woes on outsourcing, undocumented workers, drugs, or changes in family structures: a response that distinguishes between groups of workers rather than dealing with their shared experience.

Rather than setting these people against one another, Sanders’s and Warren’s plans offer a shared vision. By uniting temporary H2A field laborers with the workers on manufacturing floors, and the teachers with the home health aides, Warren and Sanders move past the shallow rhetoric that has defined the Democratic Party’s messaging of recent and into territory that allows for both the unionized and the individual worker to see a hopeful path forward. The policies are not particularly new or fresh in the grand scheme of things, but they don’t need to be. They just need to exist. As history has shown, the workers can take it from there.