Elizabeth Warren Wants to Give Workers Power Like Never Before

Photo: Ethan Miller (Getty)

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has rolled out her presidential campaign’s labor plan ahead of an appearance at an SEIU presidential forum in Los Angeles on Friday. She’s touting it as “the most progressive and comprehensive agenda for workers since the New Deal.”

Warren correctly identifies one of the key problems in both our economy and American democracy: “Workers don’t have enough power.” So to change that, Warren plans to pursue an agenda that “extends labor rights to all workers,” strengthens that tools workers need to form unions and negotiate, raises worker pay, gives workers a seat at the table, and expanding and enforcing workplace protections.

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Some of Warren’s key proposals over the past few years are in here, such as her Accountable Capitalism Act, which Vox touted as a “plan to save capitalism” when she rolled it out last year. That bill would require companies who pull in more than $1 billion in annual revenue to reserve at least 40 percent of the seats on corporate boards for workers, bringing American workers’ representation in the nation’s boardrooms all the way forward to somewhere between the immediate aftermath of postwar West Germany and Germany today.

Warren also pledges to push to repeal Section 8(c) of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, which “permits employer interference like compelling worker attendance at anti-union meetings and restricting reasonable union access to the workplace.” In a response to our labor questionnaire to presidential candidates earlier this year, Warren also said she’d push to repeal section 14(b) of the same law, which allows “right-to-work” to exist in the states, as well as provisions in the law that ban secondary strikes and allow presidents and the federal courts to enjoin strikes under the claim that they pose a threat to national security. (George W. Bush used this tool to end a longshoremen’s strike in 2002.)

But while some of what ails the labor movement requires significant overhauls of existing law, such as those which allow for the misclassification of workers and others that don’t extend labor protections to domestic and farm workers: Fellow candidate Julian Castro’s own labor plan noticeably focuses on raising conditions for these workers, as well as those in the gig economy.

Warren also plans to wield executive power to help workers. The senator is pledging to appoint only people who pledge to restore the right of graduate students to unionize to the National Relations Labor Board, and nominate for the Supreme Court only those who are “demonstrated advocate[s] for workers.” (The presidential candidate also promises that her administration will “reject mergers if they create labor market consolidation that will drive down wages.”)

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Warren’s comprehensive plan is, rather predictably, most comparable with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has endorsed Warren’s plan for worker representation on corporate boards, while also advocating for employees to have an actual ownership stake in companies. Sanders’ own Workplace Democracy Act forms the backbone of his plan, which notably proposes banning at-will employment and wants to require companies that merge to honor existing union contracts. (Warren promises to “increase antitrust scrutiny of consolidation that drives down wages,” and wants to create a private right of action “against employers who engage in unfair labor practices.”)

The Massachusetts senator, meanwhile, proposes to ban the scourge known as non-compete clauses and pass legislation requiring fair scheduling, neither of which show up in Sanders’ plan. She also places a larger emphasis on reforming the existing labor bureaucracy, which might not be as eye-popping but still has the potential to shift power to workers in labor disputes. For example, Warren says she wants “to upgrade the NLRB regional and sub-regional offices, which is where most disputes are resolved,” and talks about boosting funding for labor’s regulatory agencies, such as OSHA and the EEOC. Warren also says she plans to crack down on anti-union intimidation by state and local government officials. (The senator acknowledges this might be constitutionally dubious, but says her administration “will take every step possible to prevent federal resources from being used by state or local government to intimidate or coerce workers who are exercising their rights under federal law.”)

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To be clear, having either Warren or Sanders in the White House would be to have an advocate for workers the likes of which we’ve never seen. And when you consider the kind of opposition that the more radical legislative proposals are going to face from much of Congress—and the reality that not everything a president can do can be drilled down in a plan over a year out from the election—much of these differences seem like hair-splitting. But where Warren’s plan is strongest is where she promises to use the tools at her disposal to get her agenda enacted, with or without a Congress that would presumably be much less progressive than the president.

Notably, Warren also implicitly responds to some bad-faith attacks lobbed at both her and Sanders over Medicare for All from the right, which claim that single-payer would be bad for unions. Warren writes (emphasis mine):

Unions have fought long and hard to win compensation in the form of high-quality health insurance for members and their families. But in every contract negotiation that unions and employers pursue, the unchecked cost of health insurance threatens to consume the agenda and crowd out progress on other important issues like wage increases or enhanced retirement security. Medicare for All will break this pattern. In both the transition to Medicare for All and its implementation, my administration will work closely with unions and multiemployer health insurance funds to protect the gains they have made and to draw on their experience providing quality health care to working people.

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So far, Sanders has earned backing from the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, while Joe Biden won an early endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters. But Warren’s plan has already won accolades from at least one high-profile labor leader. “This plan addresses all of the issues that I hear about from flight attendants—from enforcement of safety and health on the job, to worker scheduling issues, and the ability to bargain directly with the people who really control the wages and conditions on the job,” AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson, whose furious speech and call for a general strike foreshadowed the end of this year’s government shutdown, told Splinter in a statement.

“This plan not only addresses all of the policy issues that keep workers from gaining the right to negotiate, but it puts real power back in the hands of workers to raise wages with the full right to strike in every sector,” Nelson, who has all but said she plans to run for the head of the AFL-CIO in 2021, added.

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Every Democratic presidential candidate, with varying degrees of sincerity, has made a promise to help workers. But only Warren and Sanders seem to grasp just how grotesquely stacked the odds are against workers at the moment. And for that reason, their respective plans to reshuffle the deck—and willingness to actually do so if elected, in the face of full-bore opposition from the entire conservative movement and the sort of anti-labor Democrats who strangled card check in the crib—are the only way the labor movement is going to find a true friend in the White House, and not just someone to stop the bleeding.

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