Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has frequently done his presidential campaigning on picket lines, unveiled a comprehensive set of proposals on Wednesday designed to revive and newly empower organized labor.
Sanders’ “Workplace Democracy Plan” includes a mix of legislation and promised executive orders, including one that would deny federal contracts to companies that pay their executives 150 times more than their employees or offer wages lower than $15 an hour. The Vermont independent would also push new legislation allowing all federal workers the right to strike and end so-called right-to-work laws.
Sanders has made his support for unions, striking workers and employees agitating for higher wages at major corporations a central theme of his presidential runs. Since entering the 2020 primary, he has confronted Walmart’s corporate leadership at its annual shareholders meeting to ask for an increase in its minimum wage, marched alongside McDonald’s workers demanding $15 an hour and a union, and joined health care workers protesting the planned closure of a historic Philadelphia hospital.
He has also attacked Amazon over the wages it pays workers and for not paying federal taxes in the last couple of years. When Amazon upped the minimum wages at the company to $15 an hour, he praised the move, but has still regularly criticized its zero federal tax bill.
“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.”
On Wednesday, Sanders – whose campaign says the plan would double union membership during his first term – and other presidential candidates will address the Iowa AFL-CIO at its convention in Des Moines.
Earlier this year, Sanders’ campaign became the first presidential campaign workforce to unionize. Management and the union struck a collective bargaining agreement in the spring, but were forced back to the negotiating table after an internal fight over wages spilled out into public. They reached an updated deal last month.
In Sanders’ new collection of proposals, the campaign cites a 2017 study from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, that ties increasing income and economic inequality to the decline of unions. A 2018 report from Princeton and Columbia academics went further, pulling data from as far back as 1936 to underscore the power of unions to combat the wealth gap.
Perhaps the most ambitious pitch offered by Sanders would allow for so-called “sectoral collective bargaining,” which would allow unions to negotiate rules and standards with entire industries – not just between employees and the individual companies within them.
“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 says in a new post on its website.
The plan also contains a new provision built in to grow support among unions for Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill. According to the release, a Sanders administration would mandate that companies currently with union-negotiated health plans go back to the table – under the oversight of the National Labor Relations Board – to enter new talks. Sanders has often argued that, with health care provided for, unions would be able to ask for more at the negotiating table. This requirement would test that theory.
Sanders also pledges to “protect and expand” pensions for public and private employees. His first step, according to the proposal, would be to use the president’s executive power to impose a moratorium on new pension cuts tied to the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014. The provision, signed as part of an omnibus spending deal, created a mechanism for reducing retirement benefits when plan trustees are able to prove financial distress. Sanders would also seek to restore plans already affected.
To address long-term concerns, the campaign highlighted legislation – called The Keep Our Pension Promises Act – first introduced by Sanders in 2015 that would create a “legacy fund” to backstop pension plans by closing a pair of tax loopholes. Fellow Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio were among the legislation’s 2017 co-sponsors.
Sanders’ plan also addresses the fate of workers caught between corporate mergers, pledging to require that companies honor existing union contracts even after major overhauls in management.
In March, Sanders publicly supported striking union workers in western Pennsylvania after the Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp. sought to reduce employee benefits following its merger with General Electric Transportation.
After the company and the union agreed to open new negotiations in March, Sanders’ Senate office posted a congratulatory statement – and a warning.
“This strike should send a message to corporate CEOs across the country,” Sanders said. “It is absolutely unacceptable for profitable corporations to provide obscene compensation packages to executives, while ripping off workers and their families.”