Our economy is out of whack, and workers know it. Their wages are flat, CEO pay continues to skyrocket, and a pandemic has left tens of millions of workers unemployed and dramatically undermined job security. Income inequality—the gap between the haves and the have-nots—continues to grow, and workers lack the bargaining power to meaningfully address it.
There is broad recognition among experts that the decline in union density is a major contributor to the increase in income inequality. When unions were stronger, workers had the power to demand higher wages and better benefits. But as the percentage of workers covered by a union contract has declined—it’s now below 7 percent of the private-sector workforce—workers have less power, their wages have stagnated, and income inequality has worsened.
Why has union density fallen to this level? The biggest reason is that our labor law, adopted in 1935 and not significantly amended since 1959, is too weak, makes it too hard for workers to organize, and gives employers too much leeway to interfere in workers’ organizing campaigns, including by subjecting workers to mandatory meetings where the employer rails against the union. There are literally no penalties against employers for violating the law and interfering with workers’ rights. The decisions and actions of the Trump National Labor Relations Board have made matters far worse, but the truth is that our law is outdated and not up to the task at hand.
The failure of the law to protect and promote workers’ right to organize has led some worker advocates to call for a new labor law system in the United States called sectoral bargaining. Under one formulation of sectoral bargaining, unions and employers in a sector or industry meet and negotiate wage and benefit standards that cover all employers and employees in the sector or industry, regardless of whether workers of a particular employer have voted to unionize. Worksite unions, where workers choose to form them, continue to bargain over worksite-specific issues and represent workers when there are disputes at a particular workplace.
Sounds great, right? Why not have a system where workers are automatically covered by wage and benefit packages negotiated by unions and employers at the national level?
There are tough questions that would need to be addressed in designing a sectoral bargaining system. Who decides on defining the contours of the sectors or industries that are bargaining? Who decides which unions sit at the table to bargain for workers—and how do we prevent employers from setting up sham unions, or playing favorites with a weak union? What happens if the parties can’t reach agreement? How would the system work in an anti-worker administration? (Do we really want Gene Scalia in charge of a sectoral bargaining system?) How do we prevent the minimum floors being bargained at the national level from becoming the ceiling? And how do we resolve the tension between building a national, government-led system for setting wages and benefits and at the same time trying to generate and sustain interest among workers to form their own worker-driven unions at the local level?
Fortunately, we don’t actually need to resolve these issues. That’s because we can achieve a similar result—collective bargaining between unions and employers that sets wage and benefit standards for their industry—by strengthening and expanding the ability of workers to form unions at their workplaces. We can build a sectoral bargaining system—and strong, democratic, worker-driven unions—from the ground up.
If the law was changed so that workers truly had a free and fair choice to organize at their workplace without threats or interference from their employers, tens of millions of workers would form unions. Survey research shows that 48 percent of workers without a union would choose to join one if they could. That translates into 60 million workers.
Adding 60 million unionized workers would quintuple the number (16 million) currently in unions. If workers had those kinds of numbers—or even half of that—and were given the right to insist that their employers participate in multi-employer bargaining to set wage and benefit standards, our labor law system would begin to look more like sectoral or industry bargaining. We know from history, and even from current experience, that when unions are strong, they bargain broadly and set industry standards that cover all workers in the industry, not just at a particular firm. Look at the legendary Master Freight Agreement negotiated by the Teamsters union in the 1960s to cover trucking—an agreement that set standards for the industry and was then undermined by deregulation. Look at the success of SEIU Local 32BJ in organizing and setting wage and benefit standards for building-service workers up and down the East Coast, or the success of UNITE-HERE in setting standards in the hotel industry before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked such havoc on the industry. (Full disclosure: I co-authored a report on unions bargaining beyond the worksite for the Economic Policy Institute.)
And if we build this system from the ground up by building strong unions, we will at the same time be building a massive labor movement—a movement of workers who will organize and advocate and vote—who will elect representatives who care about working people’s issues and who will be held accountable by the workers who elect them. Research consistently demonstrates that union households are more engaged in issues and elections than the overall electorate.
A major piece of labor law legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—passed the House of Representatives earlier this year and is ready for Senate action. Joe Biden strongly supports it. Donald Trump says he would veto it. The PRO Act isn’t everything, but it’s a strong and comprehensive bill that would remove some of the major impediments to workers’ efforts to organize. It is teed up and ready to go, and its passage should be a top priority for the new Biden administration. That would be a big first step at building worker bargaining power from the ground up.