Bernie Sanders’s greatest strength has always been his determination to push the boundaries of our politics. The fact that he is currently considering the idea of joining President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as secretary of labor is the latest example of his readiness to think outside the box.
The senator from Vermont’s interest in the position has been an open secret for weeks. He’s now said, “If I had a portfolio that allowed me to stand up and fight for working families, would I do it? Yes, I would.”
The prospect that he could take over the Department of Labor is just that: a prospect. The two-time presidential candidate put things in perspective when he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “What’s true is I want to do everything I can to protect the working families of this country who are under tremendous duress right now. Whether that’s in the Senate, whether that’s in the Biden administration, who knows.” As Sanders says, “Well, let’s see how that unfolds.”
There are sound arguments for Sanders to remain in the Senate, where he has used his platform to fight for everything from Medicare for All to net neutrality to a humane foreign policy. He has assembled an exceptional staff that has made his office a vital entry point for activists on economic and social and racial justice issues, as well as the climate crisis.
There is also the matter of the chamber’s delicate balance. Republicans could lose their Senate majority if Georgia voters choose Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock in January 5 runoff voting. With two more Democratic seats, the Senate would be split 50-50, allowing incoming Vice President Kamala Harris to tip the balance in favor of the new president’s party. The idea of removing a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus is understandably unsettling—even if the Republican governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, has signaled that he would fill a vacancy with an independent who would caucus with the Democrats.
Then there are deeper questions of whether Biden is really prepared to supercharge the Department of Labor and put a former rival at its head.
But let’s suppose boldness wins out. What could Sanders do as the most prominent member of Biden’s cabinet?
With Biden’s blessing and a portfolio that allowed him to act with authority and a reasonable measure of independence, Sanders could turn the Labor Department into a center of advocacy and service for American workers, which is what it needs to be in a moment so economically turbulent as the one on which the United States finds itself.
The Labor Department was founded in 1913 with a mission to “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.” At its best, as when Frances Perkins served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary from 1933 to 1945, the department has played a transformative role in the lives of working-class people. And it will need to be at its best if the Biden administration is serious about addressing the economic devastation that extends from the coronavirus pandemic.
Sanders has focused on the pandemic and worker concerns relating to it since the last days of his 2020 presidential bid, when he explained to me that in addition to the health crisis, “we’re looking at an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude.”
The Trump administration’s Labor Department has failed to protect frontline workers in particular, and workers in general, since the pandemic hit. Sanders recognizes the need for action that addresses the immediate crisis and the stark injustice it has revealed. “I think that what this crisis does is rip away the Band-Aid and say, ‘Hey, this is the reality.’ And the reality is today that there are people going to work in dangerous jobs where they could catch the virus because they have to go to work,” he told me in April. “They’re making $12 an hour, and they’re scared to death about working in that grocery store or the drugstore or wherever they’re working, but they have to do it. And while rich folks are heading out to their second or third homes, these people are putting their lives on the line in order to take care of their families.”
As the highest-profile labor secretary since Perkins, with a charge from the president to act decisively, Sanders would be uniquely positioned to meet the crisis head-on. No one suggests that the task would be easy. He’d have to wrestle not just with Republicans but also with cautious Democrats. But he’s got a track record of doing just that.
Sanders would have a bully pulpit from which to advocate for replacing the minimum wage with a living-wage formula to lift workers out of poverty. He could lambaste anti-union “right-to-work” laws. And he could push for labor-law reforms, like those outlined in his 2020 presidential campaign’s “Workplace Democracy” agenda, which proposed to double union membership in four years.
Were Biden politically savvy enough to give his formal rival the go-ahead, Sanders could leverage his prominence and his national network of supporters to make the Labor Department a venue for advancing a workers’ rights agenda every bit as ambitious as the one FDR and Perkins championed in the 1930s. He could use the vast resources of a department with 15,000 employees and a budget of $50 billion not merely to enforce existing laws to protect working-class Americans but to develop new legislative strategies, regulations, and programs to extend those protections. He could highlight the immediate struggles of workers, and ramp up research on the future of work, automation, and the gig economy.
We’re in a moment of great enthusiasm for advancing worker rights and labor rights, and Sanders would not have to do it all on his own. In the tradition of the New Deal era, when cabinet members such as Perkins and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace surrounded themselves with the country’s boldest thinkers and doers, Sanders could build a team to lead with him.
There are a number of impressive prospects for the Labor Secretary position in a Biden administration, several of whom Sanders has worked with over the years. Were the senator to get the nod from the president-elect, he could reach out to the best of these prospects. Imagine fully empowered assistant secretaries of labor such as Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson developing programs to give workers a real voice on the job and across their industries; California Labor Secretary Julie Su, a cofounder of Sweatshop Watch, focusing attention on workplace discrimination and safety issues; AFL-CIO chief economist and former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University, seizing “a teachable moment” to address statistical discrimination and to engage in deeper, smarter and more honest explorations of racial disparities in economic outcomes. Sanders might even consider Andrew Yang for a role framing the strategies that are needed to provide meaningful work and compensation in the next economy.
Joe Biden traveled just days before the 2020 election to Warm Springs, Ga., where he took on the mantle of FDR and promised a presidency that would enact an “economic plan that will finally reward work, not wealth in this country.” That’s a noble goal rooted in the ambitions of the New Deal. To realize it, Biden will need a Labor Department as visionary and bold as the one Frances Perkins ran in Roosevelt’s day. If Biden were to give him the go-ahead, Bernie Sanders and a team of visionary leaders could make the Labor Department a platform for launching a new New Deal.