A Better Third Way
Third, the right to organize and join a labor union should be reconceptualized as a civil right, so that employers are genuinely punished if they try to fire someone for organizing activity. One of the major explanations for America's weak labor movement is the relative ease with which employers may fire employees who are engaged in union organizing. Under existing labor law, it is technically illegal to fire employees for trying to organize, but the sanctions are mild (reinstatement and back pay, usually three to four years down the line). Many employers determine that it is considerably less expensive to pay sanctions for wrongfully terminating employees than to permit the organization of a labor union.
Old Liberals have put little emphasis on discrimination against workers engaged in union organizing, focusing primarily on race and gender discrimination. New Democrats and conservatives have often been at war with labor. The New Liberal approach would strengthen the protections against termination by transferring jurisdiction over such issues from labor law to employment discrimination law. Specifically, Congress could amend the termination provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which today in practice protect women, people of color, the elderly and the disabled) to extend protection to workers trying to form a union. Title VII remedies are considerably stronger than protections contained in labor law and now include the possibility of punitive as well as compensatory damages.
There is also an important political advantage to thinking about union organizing as a civil right. Labor unions are not particularly popular, and as long as the issue is framed as "labor law reform" it is unlikely to move people. But if the issue is reframed in terms of civil rights--and we get beyond the question of whether people are for labor unions or against--most Americans will support the notion that an employee shouldn't be fired for a reason completely unrelated to job performance.
By taking issues of class seriously, these New Liberal ideas fill a gap left by Old Liberals, who emphasize race and gender inequality, and by conservatives (including some New Democrats), who try to downplay issues of inequality of any kind. At the same time, these ideas address economic inequality in a very American, market-oriented way that accepts competitive labor markets and meritocracy--in contrast to many traditional leftists--but tries, at long last, to make them truly fair and just.
The 2000 campaign suggests such an approach can work. When Al Gore briefly experimented with economic populism in his Democratic convention speech, he eliminated George W. Bush's double-digit advantage and surged into the lead. Had Gore been bolder on issues like education, as New Liberals advocate, he could have prevented Bush from climbing back into the race by effectively blurring issue differences and shifting the political conversation to concerns such as trust, likability and the moral failings of the Clinton Administration. Indeed, if Gore had had a stronger advantage on the education issue, he'd probably be President today.
American politics is ready for something exciting. The Third Way, as it is narrowly defined by the New Democrats, doesn't fit the bill. Worse, it can't possibly develop a strong progressive majority, since it consistently ignores or downplays the interests of the working class and moderate income voters on whom such a majority would depend. A coalition of minorities, unions and socially liberal, economically conservative upper-middle-class voters just won't cut it--either as politics or in terms of making this country live up to its potential.
A New Liberal approach, one that marries the New Democrats' effort to honor American values on social issues with the Old Liberal commitment to economic equality and justice, would be a more impassioned and productive way to approach today's problems--and more likely to build a majority coalition for economic justice over the long haul. America needs "big ideas" like the ones we've described, not a Third Way whose only real virtue is what it isn't. We can do better--much better--than that.