Something urgent needs to be done to give America’s workers more say in our politics so that their voices are not dwarfed by billionaires, writes Steve GreenhouseAmerica needs to rebuild worker power in politics. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/APCongress hasn’t raised the minimum wage in a decade, the longest stretch without such an increase since the federal minimum wage was first enacted in 1938. One state legislature after another has passed right-to-work laws to undermine unions. Donald Trump has taken numerous anti-worker actions: scrapping several worker safety rules, rolling back a regulation extending overtime pay to millions more workers, and killing a rule that required Wall Street firms to act in the best interests of workers when overseeing their 401(k) plans. Trump has even nominated as labor secretary a lawyer who has spent decades fighting on behalf of corporations to weaken worker protections.In my new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, I explain that there is a little-understood, but profound reason why all these anti-worker actions are happening: America’s unions and workers have less power in policymaking and the workplace than they have in decades. Indeed, the percentage of workers in unions is at its lowest level in over a century – down to 10.5% from a peak of 35%. All this helps explain why wages have stagnated for decades, income inequality has soared and corporations and billionaire donors have undue sway over our politics, policymaking and political appointments.In the 2015–16 election cycle, business outspent unions 16-to-1 –$3.4bn to $213m – according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Each year all of the nation’s unions spend about $48m on lobbying in Washington, while corporate America spends more than $2.5bn – more than 50 times as much. This has made many in Congress far more attentive to corporations than to workers, thus the rush to cut corporate taxes, but the failure to increase the minimum wage.> Each year, all of the nation's unions spend about $48m on lobbying in Washington, while corporate America spends more than $2.5bnSomething urgent needs to be done to give America’s workers more say in our politics so that their voices are not dwarfed by billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson. How to do this? We should greatly expand public financing in political campaigns to amplify the voice of workers and non-affluent Americans. Under a New York City measure approved in 2018, campaign donations up to $250 are matched 8-to-1 in mayoral and city council races. Seattle has an innovative program, called Democracy Vouchers, that enables even low-wage workers to donate to campaigns. Voters are given four vouchers of $25 each that they can contribute to city council and mayoral candidates. Good ideas like these should be extended to presidential, Senate, and House campaigns. Early this year the House of Representatives approved a smart proposal to offset wealthy donors’ inordinate influence in House campaigns. If candidates agree not to accept donations of more than $1,000, every donation they receive up to $200 would be matched 6-to-1 by public funds.As for giving workers more voice in the workplace, probably the quickest, most surefire way would be to let workers elect members to corporate boards – Elizabeth Warren has proposed having workers elect 40% of board members. Whether it comes to freezing wages or moving operations to China or Mexico, American corporations often pay little heed to what’s best for workers. The picture is very different in Germany. There workers elect nearly half the directors of corporations’ guiding supervisory boards. That’s a major reason German companies often embrace policies far friendlier to workers than do American companies: they invest far more in worker training and do far less offshoring than their American counterparts.Another important way to rebuild worker power would of course be to make it easier for workers to unionize. When America’s workers mount unionization drives, the playing field is usually tilted hugely in favor of corporations. Managers have access to workers 24/7 and often show antiunion videos in lunchrooms and break rooms. They often require employees to attend meetings where high-priced consultants tell workers that unions are corrupt and only want their dues money and that companies have shuttered workplaces like theirs after unionizing. Meanwhile, corporations, thanks to the supreme court’s Lechmere ruling, have the right to prohibit union organizers from setting foot on company property.Workers deserve a fairer shot. If an employer requires employees to attend hour-long meetings to hear anti-union consultants, union organizers should be given equal access, either to speak at such a meeting or have equal time with employees. Union organizers should also be allowed to distribute flyers and talk to workers in parking lots and lunchrooms. The corporate-friendly supreme court has ruled that employers’ property rights trump workers’ rights, but with things so skewed against unions and workers, Congress and the courts should adjust that balance.> The corporate-friendly supreme court has ruled that employers' rights trump workers' rights, Congress and the courts should adjust that balanceMany companies denounce card check, a practice in which companies grant union recognition once a majority of workers sign pro-union cards. With scant evidence, corporate lobbyists say “union thugs” bully workers into signing those cards, and they argue that granting union recognition based on a simple majority of cards signed should not be allowed because, they say, some of the signatures were undoubtedly coerced. To overcome these concerns, no matter how unsubstantiated, Congress should enact a law requiring employers to grant union recognition and bargain when 60% of workers sign pro-union cards.Researchers have found that nearly 20% of employees leading unionization drives are fired during those drives, a percentage that is so high because the punishment is so minuscule. Under the National Labor Relations Act, companies can’t even be fined for violating workers’ rights, and as a result, it’s almost foolhardy for anti-union companies not to fire the two or three workers leading an organizing effort. Such illegal firings often snuff out unionization campaigns – the National Labor Relations Board might order the lawbreaking company to pay $5,000 or $10,000 in back wages two or three years later, but that is often long after the union drive has fizzled.For a major company, such modest fines are hardly a slap on the wrist. To deter frequent anti-union lawbreaking by employers, the NLRA should be strengthened so it has real teeth. To deter unlawful firings for union activity, the NLRA should have fines that bite: $100,000 for a first firing, $200,000 for a second one, and increasing from there.If companies egregiously violate labor laws by firing the workers spearheading a union drive, then corporate executives should also face penalties with real bite, such as large personal fines. It shouldn’t be just the pro-union workers whose lives are turned upside down. There also needs to be swifter and surer means to reinstate union supporters who are improperly fired during organizing drives.For the past four decades, America’s corporations and conservative politicians have often worked hand in hand to hobble labor unions. The result has been clear: reduced bargaining power and political power for workers overall. Turning that around won’t be easy, but it is vital we do so if we as a nation hope to reduce income inequality and create a fairer more democratic nation.
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