Elizabeth Warren Gets Her Norma Rae On. You Know, For A Change
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a blogger with a news hole to fill must be in want of a new Elizabeth Warren policy paper. And fortunately, they're a lot more welcome than most suitors in a Jane Austen novel. Like, take a gander at Warren's nigh-encyclopedic plan, released yesterday, to reform American labor law. Reading it, we were both impressed by the breadth of labor practices it addresses, and depressed by just how thoroughly big corporations and decades of right-leaning courts have eroded workers' rights since the relative glory days for organized labor, from the New Deal through Eisenhower.
It's a hell of a big plan, because there's a hell of a lot to fix. And it's not just a matter to be filed over in some boring slot labelled "labor policy," says Warren. Nope, it's nothing less than a matter of making America work the way it ought to, because earning your daily bread is right there at the base of what government is all about, although one party has insisted for 40 years that America is about shifting power to the already powerful.
We cannot have a truly democratic society with so little power in the hands of working people. We cannot have sustained and inclusive economic growth without a stronger labor movement. That's why returning power to working people will be the overarching goal of my presidency.
Hell, even our most pressing crisis, dealing with the climate mess, depends in part on reorienting the economy and the way we work toward energy that won't cause massive social and economic disruptions.
We won't attempt to summarize everything in Warren's plan, but it's of a piece with all her other policy proposals: America needs to work for all Americans, and that requires some fundamental shifts in political and economic power. And yet, no matter how the greedheads will insist this is a blueprint for communism, Warren isn't promoting a socialist revolution. Like FDR, she wants to save capitalism from its worst excesses and make sure the 99 percent of us have a stake, too, by empowering workers. As Vox notes, "The word 'power' is repeated more than a dozen times in Warren's proposal," and Warren lays out, throughout her proposals, the need to reform the system to unleash the potential of ordinary people. As we've said before, it's Barack Obama's "growth from the middle" -- on steroids.
To get there, Warren would use a variety of measures -- some executive actions, but mostly pushing Congress to pass laws that can't simply be reversed at a new president's whim -- to restore the bargaining power of unions. Warren doesn't say this, but it's no coincidence that the postwar period of America's lowest income inequality, from the late 1940s to the early '70s, coincided with the peak of union power, when labor was a central constituency not just in the economy, but in politics.
Several parts of Warren's labor platform have already been rolled out in one form or another. She endorses the bicameral "Protecting the Right to Organize" (PRO) Act, which would make forming unions easier, eliminate "right to work" laws, and ban companies from forcing workers to attend anti-union "information sessions" at work, but that's just a start. She would also revise the three biggest pillars of US labor law, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), to make sure they protect all workers, which they currently don't.
Some of the reason for that stems from the ugly realities of getting the New Deal and other labor laws passed: To win the support of segregationist southern Democrats, the early labor laws excluded fields largely filled by blacks and women (especially black women), like agriculture and domestic work. Warren would also extend the right to organize to people who have been cleverly excluded from even being considered "employees," and are instead treated as "independent contractors." Screw that, says Warren, if you work for Uber, you're a goddamned employee. And maybe if you're a hot young Marine working for an online escort service, too.
Similarly, Warren wants to get rid of features in employment contracts designed to depress wages and encourage exploitation of workers, like mandatory arbitration, which denies workers' right to sue and nearly always resolves disputes in the bosses' favor. Her plan would also get rid of "non-compete" clauses (like those barring low-wage employees from leaving a Jimmy John's to work at McDonald's, and "no poaching" clauses, which
prevent one franchisee from hiring away an employee from another franchisee. I believe these agreements violate antitrust laws and suppress wages. I will push to prohibit them.
And speaking of franchises, Warren would also get rid of the legal fiction that protects big chains from being held accountable for labor violations if they occur at a franchise operation, which has allowed big fast food companies to look the other way and escape liability when franchise owners stiff employees for back pay or overtime, or make them work in unsafe conditions. If that reform passes, the parent corporation will be held responsible for misbehavior by franchisees. She could call that the Sir, This Is a Wendy's Act.
One of her most innovative proposals, "sectoral bargaining," involves allowing unions to bargain not just with individual employers, but to seek a contract for all workers in a particular industry -- like all fast-food workers, or all janitors. We'll just crib this explanation from Vox:
[While] sectoral bargaining is common in Europe, it's never been tried on a large scale in the US. The point is to remove the incentive for employers to stop their employees from unionizing, based on the fear that non-union competitors will have a cost advantage. Instead, all workers in the same industry would simply have the same minimum standard of pay and benefits.
Sounds like one of those "level playing field" thingies we're always hearing about.
And then there's the proposal for literal worker empowerment that scared Fox Business jerk Stuart Varney so much: Warren's Accountable Capitalism Act would require corporations with over a billion dollars in annual revenue to reserve 40 percent of their corporate board seats for employees elected by the company's workforce. Yes, she has a news hook for that:
One of the companies that would be covered by this requirement is General Motors, where 46,000 workers represented by UAW went on strike because of the company's refusal to let workers get a fair share of the billions of dollars in profits the company has made. Letting GM workers elect 40% of the company's board would help ensure that workers get the wages and benefits they deserve.
And yes, the corporations would still make profits. This is hardly seizure of the means of production, it's representation, goddamn it.
Warren would also reserve a seat at the table for unions in planning how Medicare for All would work, because hell yes unions have demanded good medical benefits. But those gains have become more and more precarious at every contract negotiation, and we're pretty sure that union workers might be persuaded to replace their good benefits -- if they can make sure single-payer would be an even better deal.
It's impressive just how detailed Warren's plan gets, addressing issues that you might not expect to see in a national platform, such as calling for an end to appearance and grooming policies that discriminate against black hairstyles. Warren would pass federal rules based on a California law that banned such discriminatory policies. But the policy proposal never feels like a grab bag; it all works into a vision for making work fairer than it's ever been. We don't know if Warren has read our Wonkette Book Club book from earlier this year, Erik Loomis's A History of America in Ten Strikes,but her plan consistently reminded me of two of Loomis's main points: Unions can only achieve rights for workers when the government isn't in cahoots with the bosses, and the New Deal regime of labor rights has largely been co-opted by employers, who have exploited the existing rules to break the back of labor. Warren's plan aims squarely at bringing dignity -- and power -- to all workers. It's a pity that sounds radical.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.