By Alexia Fernandez Campbell
VOX September 5, 2019
Presidential candidates are going all out to win over working-class Americans.
Julián Castro marched with McDonald’s workers in North Carolina. Pete Buttigieg rallied with Uber drivers in San Francisco. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders joined striking supermarket cashiers on the picket lines in Massachusetts.
It’s easy to dismiss these gestures as the usual photo ops, but they reflect the labor movement’s resurgent influence in politics. Most of the Democratic frontrunners are also releasing detailed policy platforms that promise workers everything they’ve ever wanted. Paid parental leave — yes. A $15 minimum wage — check. Paid sick days — done.
And for the first time, most candidates are really paying attention to working women and the challenges they face in the workplace, such as lower pay and few accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Sure, not every candidate is promising workers major reform. Some candidates are more interested in incremental changes. But even so, the 2020 Democratic primary election is shaping up to provide the most ambitious blueprint to overhaul US labor laws. And with public frustration toward billionaires and CEOs mounting, it seems like a smart campaign strategy.
“This is our moment to dream big,” Warren said during her campaign announcement event in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a location she picked because of its role as the birthplace of the US labor movement.
Reading the labor platforms for each of the 10 candidates who qualified for the third Democratic primary debate next week, two groups emerged: the labor reformers and the labor supporters. Most of the frontrunners fall into the first category — Beto O’Rourke, Buttigieg, and Sanders have all put out astonishingly detailed proposals that would shift the balance of power from businesses to workers. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang are in the second group. They seem to see themselves more as allies to workers and labor unions than true change-makers.
Most of the reformers — Cory Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders, and Warren — also explicitly support all the following legislation:
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would ban “right to work” laws that allow employees to opt out of paying union fees in unionized workplaces, even though they get the benefits of collective bargaining. (O’Rourke supports this too.)
The Schedules That Work Act, which guarantees predictable schedules for workers, or extra pay if they have to work irregular schedules.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would bar employers from using an employee’s salary history to determine wages, ensure that workers have the right to discuss wages without retaliation, and require employers to justify any pay discrepancies. (Castro and O’Rourke support this too.)
The Family Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to workers, funded through a payroll tax on businesses and employees. (Castro supports this bill too.)
The Healthy Families Act, which would require most businesses to provide full-time workers with at least seven days of paid sick leave. (Castro and O’Rourke support this too.)
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act would essentially amend federal labor laws to include domestic workers. But it would also extend new benefits to them, such as guaranteed paid time off, privacy protection, and a written employment contract.
The Raise the Wage Act, which gradually raises the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexes future increases to wage growth. It also abolishes the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. (Castro and O’Rourke support this bill too.)
Klobuchar has backed all the bills mentioned above in the Senate, except for the Schedules That Work Act.
Here’s a summary of each candidate’s labor platform. Without a doubt, Democrats would need to control both chambers of Congress to make most of these promises a reality.
The Labor reformers
Booker’s labor platform is thin and somewhat vague, which is an argument for placing him in the “labor supporters” category. But his one signature plan is big enough to shift the balance of power in favor of workers in fundamental ways. That’s the Worker Dividend Act he sponsored in the Senate.
The bill would curb how companies buy back their own stocks, forcing them to give workers a cut. The Worker Dividend Act would mandate that companies buying their own shares must also pay out to their own employees a sum equal to the lesser of either the total value of the buyback or 50 percent of all profits beyond $250 million.
As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explains, the bill is “a critique of the overall operation of an economic system that people on the left have long argued is systematically broken and stacked against everyone but the very wealthiest Americans.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Buttigieg has one of the most comprehensive labor platforms, including more than just a wish list from labor unions. He wants to make sure domestic workers and farmworkers are covered by US labor laws, which closes a huge loophole that allows employers to exploit vulnerable workers. He promises paid parental leave, a $15 minimum hourly wage (indexed to wage growth), and to let Uber drivers and other gig workers unionize. Here are some other highlights:
He wants stronger, multimillion-dollar penalties for large companies that interfere with union elections.
He wants to let McDonald’s employees and other franchise workers bargain collectively with multiple employers at the same time, also known as sectoral bargaining. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained that concept, which is common in Europe.)
He wants to establish a consistent preference in federal government contracting for unionized employers that provide workers with fair pay and benefits.
He backs the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require businesses to make accommodations for pregnant workers.
Buttigieg also suggests a smart change to temporary visas for foreign workers. High-skilled and low-skilled workers in the US on H-1B or H-2B visas, for example, would no longer be tied to one employer under his proposal. That has been one of the biggest problems with the guest worker programs. Businesses that employ foreign workers end up with too much power over that workforce, making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Castro probably has the weakest platform in this group. He hasn’t proposed any major plan to extend new rights to workers, but he does support many of those that his competitors have come up with.
He wants to guarantee at least seven days of paid sick leave for all workers at large companies, by passing and building on the Healthy Families Act.
He supports at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to be used during pregnancy, new child leave, to care for a sick family member, for recovery from mental or physical illness, or for other family-related reasons.
Castro wants to ban discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity by passing and building on the Equality Act.
He wants to help close the gender pay gap by protecting workers against retaliation for discussing salaries, preventing employers from requiring salary history, and raising the standard of proof for employers to implement pay disparities by passing and building on the Paycheck Fairness Act.
He wants to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to ensure protections against sex discrimination are included in the Constitution.
He wants to tax the income stockbrokers and others earn from capital gains at the same rate as labor income.
Harris has focused her labor platform on working women and public schoolteachers, in particular. She supports a $15 minimum wage and wants to create stricter penalties for companies that commit wage theft.
Here are more details from her plan to boost wages for teachers:
The average teacher in America would receive a $13,500 raise — an increase of about 23 percent to their base pay.
The Department of Education will work with state education agencies to set a base salary goal for beginning teachers in every state. Under Harris’s plan, states and school districts will increase every teacher’s salary until, at a minimum, they meet the goal.
America’s highest-need public schools, which disproportionately serve students of color, will receive funding to increase teacher pay even further.
Harris would also invest billions to “elevate” the teaching profession, through teacher and principal residencies and early-career mentoring programs. Half of the funding would go to historically black colleges and universities and other institutions that serve ethnic minorities.
All of this would cost about $315 billion, her campaign says, and would be paid for through an estate tax.
Harris also supports collective bargaining rights for teachers in all states.
Here’s one other, non-teacher highlight in her plan:
She wants to require businesses to obtain an equal pay certification that proves they’re not paying women less than men for doing the same work.
O’Rourke has a massive labor platform that carefully lays out his plan to boost union membership rates.
He wants to guarantee collective bargaining rights for all workers, including government employees, domestic workers, and farmworkers.
He’s a believer in sectoral bargaining, which makes it easier for workers and their unions to negotiate with multiple employers in an industry.
O’Rourke wants to strengthen the “joint employer” standard so that corporations can’t use outsourcing and franchising to avoid bargaining with them. Unionized workers would be able to bargain with firms that are not their direct employers but still have power over their working conditions (like McDonald’s workers who are employed by a franchise, but whose work is heavily controlled by the corporation).
He wants to crack down on the misclassification of gig workers and other workers as independent contractors. O’Rourke plans to tackle misclassification as one of the top enforcement priorities of his Labor Department, and says he supports turning the “ABC test” into law, which would presume workers are employees unless their employers can prove otherwise (similar to California’s AB 5 bill).
Establish wage boards in industries with low union membership to deliver immediate wage gains.
Restore the Obama-era overtime rule. The Obama administration proposed raising the salary threshold that entitles workers to overtime pay — time and a half for work over 40 hours a week — from less than $24,000 to around $50,000. The Trump administration is now seeking to replace the Obama rule with one raising the threshold to less than $36,000.
Sanders has done perhaps more than any candidate to move Democrats toward more progressive labor policies. He sponsored the Raise the Wage Act and came out with a dramatic labor platform last month.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan explains, rebuilding union membership is central to Sanders’s platform. His plan outlines a series of executive orders and bills that aim to strengthen union membership, punish employers who engage in union-busting practices, and raise wages and benefits.
Here’s what Sanders is proposing to do, without Congress:
End federal contracts with employers that pay workers less than $15 an hour without benefits, pay executives more than 150 times more than average workers, and hire workers to replace striking workers or outsources jobs.
Put a moratorium on pension cuts.
Much of Sanders’s plan, like many other candidates’ plans, would require legislation. That includes:
Creation of a sectoral collective bargaining system where boards set minimum standards for an entire industry, including minimum pay and benefits
Giving all government employees the right to unionize
Banning at-will employment, which allows businesses to fire employees at any time and for any reason. This would require companies to fire employees for a “just cause.”
Require companies to begin negotiating with a union within 10 days of receiving a request, setting up a system of both mediation and binding arbitration if employers try to drag their feet on negotiating a first contract.
Repeal the provision in the Taft-Hartley Act that allows states to pass “right to work” laws. Twenty-eight states have these laws on the books, allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues, ultimately weakening the union representation.
Codify the Browning-Ferris joint-employer standard, an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board decision that redefined who technically “employs” US workers by acknowledging an employee can have more than one employer (for example, a temp agency and the company contracting with it could both be one temp worker’s employer), and therefore can participate in collective bargaining.
Make it easier for workers to strike. First, the plan gives federal workers the right to strike. Currently, while federal employees are allowed to form a union, they aren’t allowed to strike. The plan supports a ban on employers permanently replacing striking workers. It also backs workers who want to participate in a secondary boycott to pressure their employers around clients or suppliers.
So far, Warren’s labor platform focuses on fixing international trade, just like President Donald Trump’s did. Unlike Trump, however, Warren has a detailed proposal to boost US manufacturing without starting trade wars.
While the US economy and US businesses have benefitted from free trade, it has also wiped out hundreds of thousands of union jobs in the US as manufacturers moved factories abroad.
Warren’s plan focuses on investing a lot more money in research and development of green technology.
Here are the highlights:
She wants to manage the value of the dollar to make it cheaper for foreign markets to buy American goods.
She plans to change the way companies use federally funded research. Under her plan, companies could no longer use taxpayer-funded research to develop products that will be manufactured overseas (Warren cites the iPhone as an example). And some of the profits generated from the research would be reinvested in domestic manufacturing and worker training programs.
Warren wants to increase spending on federal apprenticeship program by a lot — from about $200 million to $20 billion over 10 years.
She wants to create a new federal department, called the Department of Economic Development, which would focus on investing in rural communities and smaller cities.
Warren plans to invest $2 trillion over the next 10 years in green research and manufacturing, as part of the Green New Deal.
She also promised to use executive orders to help improve the work conditions for women and people of color. That includes denying federal contracting opportunities to companies with poor track records on diversity and equal pay, banning companies that want federal contracts from using forced arbitration and noncompete clauses that restrict workers’ rights, and banning contractors from asking applicants for past salary information and criminal histories.
The labor supporters
Despite his brand as a working man’s man, Biden’s labor platform is hardly revolutionary. It’s short and simple:
He supports a $15 federal minimum wage.
He wants to stop companies from classifying low-wage workers as managers in order to avoid paying them the overtime they’ve earned.
He wants to make it easier for workers to form unions and collectively bargain.
He suggests banning noncompete clauses in employment contracts that make it hard for employees to find better jobs.
He wants to ease occupational licensing requirements.
Klobuchar has one of the vaguest labor platforms of the candidates who qualified for the third debate. Here’s all it says about workers’ rights on her campaign website:
As the granddaughter of an iron ore miner and the daughter of a union teacher and a union newspaperman, Amy will bring one clear but simple guide to the White House: When unions are strong, our country is strong. As President, she’ll stand up against attempts to weaken our unions. That means achieving real labor law reform, ensuring free and fair union elections, protecting collective bargaining rights, rolling back Right to Work laws, and making it easier — and not harder — for workers to join unions.
In June, Klobuchar did release a list of executive actions she would take in her first 100 days as president, which includes many that would make it easier for workers to join labor unions. For example:
She would require federal contractors to pay no less than $15 an hour to their employees
She would reinstate the Obama-era overtime rule, which would expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay.
Klobuchar will direct the FTC to develop rule that would bar companies from making low-wage workers sign non-compete clauses.
She would direct the Labor Department to stop fighting efforts to make businesses disclose detailed salary information, including employee pay for workers of different races and genders.
Klobuchar supports reinstating an Obama-era standard of the join-employer rule, which recognizes that employees may have more than one employer that is responsible for their working conditions.
Klobuchar will also restore an a rule rescinded by President Trump requiring companies to publicly disclose when they hire consultants to counter workers’ efforts to unionize.
Yang is enthusiastic about equal pay and paid time off but makes no mention of labor unions in his platform. Here are the highlights:
He wants to pay federal workers who are performing the same job the same salary.
He wants to work with states to implement salary disclosure laws.
He’ll require federal contractors to disclose salary information for their employees (they already do this) and will ban companies that don’t follow equal pay rules.
He wants to pilot studies to see if different policies result in more equitable hiring and pay in the federal workforce (however, the pay gap is actually more of a problem in the private sector than in the federal government).
He wants to require employers to offer at least six to nine months of paid family leave.
Yang plans to create a tax refund of up to $1,000 to help cover the cost of moving expenses for any Americans relocating for work.
He wants to reevaluate professional licenses and remove the requirement that federal contracts go to people with those licenses are deemed unnecessary.
Yang promises to work with state licensure boards to increase the mobility of professional licenses from state to state.
He wants to require employers to give full-time workers at least four weeks of paid time off, except for new companies less than nine years old and small companies with fewer than 50 employees.