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Customers and cashiers at a Publix supermarket in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

People's Action Calls On Biden to Transform Labor Dept Into Agency That Protects Workers—Not Corporations

"While we at People's Action believe that Senator Bernie Sanders is an example of the type of person ready to transform the landscape for working people in solidarity with the movement, we're ready to welcome any labor secretary ready to do the same."

Julia Conley

Amid an unemployment crisis and a pandemic in which millions of grocery store and other essential workers have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, the national grassroots group People's Action on Thursday led a call for President-elect Biden to nominate a secretary of labor who will "transform" the department into an agency that supports and protects workers—not corporations.

Along with 24 of its state and local member groups, People's Action sent a letter (pdf) to two of Biden's top incoming advisers, Ron Klain and Mike Donilon. As Biden considers a potential labor secretary, the groups wrote, the incoming White House chief of staff and senior advisor should push for "the selection of someone that will be ready to usher in structural reform and have the ability to relate to and galvanize the movement to both define and open up political space for the type of change needed to address inequities in our society that have reached an unacceptable and unsustainable level."

"We need a secretary of labor ready to bring about structural reforms in concert with workers and movements. We need more than simply enforcement of laws on the books; we need labor law reform that will put more power in the hands of workers and, in turn, more money in their pockets."
—People's Action

According to recent news reports, Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) has been under consideration this month to be Biden's labor secretary. The congresswoman, a moderate who lost her reelection campaign in November, introduced a bill in May to help small businesses procure personal protective equipment for their workers.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a longtime advocate for workers' rights, has stated his desire to serve as labor secretary, and Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has also been named as a possible progressive contender.

"While we at People's Action believe that Senator Bernie Sanders is an example of the type of person ready to transform the landscape for working people in solidarity with the movement, we're ready to welcome any labor secretary ready to do the same," wrote the groups. "What we can't compromise on, however, is someone ready to advance bold, structural reform. The lives of working families and the future of our country depend on that."

To ensure that his Labor Department will "fight to end corporate greed and corporate monopolies with a focus on ending poverty," People's Action said, Biden must "take seriously the work that is ahead to truly address the economic and racial inequities that have grown in our economy."

"We need a secretary of labor ready to bring about structural reforms in concert with workers and movements," wrote the groups. "We need more than simply enforcement of laws on the books; we need labor law reform that will put more power in the hands of workers and, in turn, more money in their pockets."

The letter was released as a new Harvard study showed that nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, workers at some of the biggest retail and fast food chains in the U.S. are still not being afforded protective equipment and measures to keep them from contracting and spreading Covid-19. 

More than 40% of workers surveyed in the study said they are "sometimes, rarely, or never" able to socially distance while at work, and nearly 30% said the customers they serve are frequently not wearing face coverings. 

The disempowerment of frontline, low-wage workers during the pandemic follows decades of weakened labor protections and shrinking union membership, with just 11% of workers represented by unions and many retail, fast food, domestic, and other workers left out. 

"If unionization were made easier," People's Action and its member groups wrote, "we'd see growth of the most diverse and powerful labor movement in American history. These workers—elevated as essential during this pandemic, despite being the backbone of our society all along—are also more likely to be Black and Latinx."

"A bold agenda of encouraging unionization would help swing the pendulum of power towards workers and away from the 1%, and also rightfully bring more economic and political power to Black and Latinx individuals," the groups continued. "A strong secretary of labor—focused on workers' right to organize for better wages, benefits, and working conditions—could enact substantial policy reforms that could make a difference to millions of workers and to the balance of power in our country."

People's Action called for Biden to appoint a labor secretary who will bring about a new social contract—one that reaches farther than President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal did to guarantee well-paying jobs for all. 

The group pointed to five transformational policies that it recommended over a year ago, along with groups including the Center for Popular Democracy and Jobs With Justice, which it said should be used as guiding principles for how Biden's incoming labor secretary approaches the fight for American workers:

  • The Right to Collective Action at Scale: Sectoral Bargaining—By reinventing our labor law system so that workers are not forced to bargain company-by-company, but instead can negotiate fair work conditions across a whole sector and up supply chains, we can restore workers' bargaining power at scale. 
  • Freedom from Arbitrary Job Loss: "Just Cause" Employment—We can protect workers from being abruptly left with bills due and no paycheck by adopting "just cause" employment protections that require employers to give a good reason, fair notice, and severance pay before a worker can be left without a job.
  • The Human Right to a Decent Job: A Federal Job Guarantee—With a federal job guarantee we can end structural unemployment and ensure that every person in America has access to a decent job.
  • Democracy at Work: The Cooperative Advantage—We can democratize our economy and ensure workers receive a fair share of economic gains by promoting the growth of worker cooperatives that enable workers to be owners of their workplaces.
  • Universal Guarantees to Basic Needs: Medicare for All and Universal Family Care—We can free workers from inadequate employer-based benefits by creating new universal social support systems, beginning with health insurance through Medicare for All and Universal Family Care to meet their caregiving needs.

"Covid-19 has revealed and exacerbated the extreme inequality that has come to be the norm in our country," People's Action wrote. "That's not how it's always been; and that's not how it needs to be. There were times in our history when this extreme division wasn't the case. Our current stability as a country depends on us getting back to a more equitable society. Cabinet positions and other key personnel in federal agencies are critical for advancing the necessary agenda."


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