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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill to strengthen the nation's labor unions that serves as the basis of his presidential campaign's new plan for workers. (Photo: @Teamsters/Twitter)

Sanders Unveils Workplace Democracy Plan to Expand Labor Rights and Double Union Membership

The presidential hopeful aims to end "right to work for less" and union-busting, and bar federal contracts for companies that exploit workers

Jessica Corbett

Ahead of an AFL-CIO event in Iowa Wednesday, Democratic presidential primary candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that, if elected, he would "make it easier, not harder, for workers to join unions by implementing the Workplace Democracy Plan and establishing a national goal to double union membership during his first term."

Pointing to research from the think tank Economic Policy Institute which shows that "since the 1970s, declining unionization has fueled rising inequality and stalled economic progress for the broad American middle class," Sanders aims to reverse that national trend with a new plan that builds on legislation the Independent senator from Vermont initially introduced in 1992.

"Corporate America and the billionaire class have been waging a 40-year war against the trade union movement in America that has caused devastating harm to the middle class in terms of lower wages, fewer benefits, and frozen pensions," Sanders said in a statement. "That war will come to an end when I am president. If we are serious about rebuilding the middle class in America, we have got to rebuild, strengthen, and expand the trade union movement in America."

Described by the Sanders campaign as a "pro-union" plan, the comprehensive proposal from the longtime labor rights advocate calls for enabling the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify a union if the majority of eligible employees have signed valid authorization cards.

The plan incorporates various policies Sanders has championed for years as a member of Congress. The campaign says he would sign the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and Keep Our Pension Promises Act, codify the Brown-Ferris joint-employer standard into law, and repeal Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which would end the power of states to enact so-called "right to work for less" laws that eliminate the ability of unions to collect dues from those who benefit from contracts.

"When Bernie is president he will work with the trade union movement to establish a sectoral collective bargaining system that will work to set wages, benefits, and hours across entire industries, not just employer-by-employer," the campaign explains. "In addition, under this plan all cities, counties, and other local jurisdictions would have the freedom to establish their own minimum wage laws and guarantee other minimum standards for workers."

Under the plan, employers would be required to start negotiations within 10 days of receiving new unions' requests; honor existing union contracts if they merge with or acquire other companies; and "disclose anti-union information they disseminate to workers and provide for equal time for organizing agents."

Companies would not be able to permanently replace striking workers, force workers to attend anti-union meetings, or "ruthlessly exploit workers by misclassifying them as independent contractors or deny them overtime by falsely calling them a 'supervisor.'"

Sanders would also work to establish federal protections so that employees cannot be fired for any reason other than "just cause" and give federal workers the right to strike.

As president, Sanders would issue an executive order barring federal contracts for any companies that "outsource jobs overseas, pay workers less than $15 an hour without benefits, refuse to remain neutral in union organizing efforts, pay executives over 150 times more than average workers, hire workers to replace striking workers, or close businesses after workers vote to unionize."

In a campaign newsletter Wednesday, speechwriter David Sirota highlighted some corporations that could lose government contracts under the plan: Amazon, Boeing, General Motors, Honeywell, McKesson, and United Technologies.

"Of course, there is one way for these companies to avoid losing their federal contracts under a Bernie Sanders administration: they could simply start paying their workers better, stop their union-busting, and stop offshoring jobs," wrote Sirota.

Responding to the proposal on Twitter Wednesday, Ben Spielberg, co-founder of the political blog 34justice, wrote that "it would be hard for unions to dream up a better friend in the White House than Bernie Sanders, who has tirelessly stood with the labor movement throughout his entire career."

Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, was among those who welcomed the plan, calling it "the latest sign 2020 candidates can't ignore millions of workers demanding leaders rewrite the rules so everyone can join a union, no matter where we work."

The new labor plan also ties in another of Sanders's signature proposals—replacing the country's for-profit healthcare system with Medicare for All. As part of that transition, companies with union-negotiated healthcare plans would be required to hold new negotiations overseen by the NLRB to ensure that corporate savings are put toward wage increases and other benefits for workers.

Sanders and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) introduced the most recent version of the Workplace Democracy Act in May 2018, during the last session of Congress. The bill, which would amend "the National Labor Relations Act and related labor laws to preserve workers' rights to join labor organizations and engage in collective bargaining," was co-sponsored by several other presidential hopefuls—Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

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