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By Chris Opfer
Two powerful labor unions are jostling over how to shape Democrats’ workplace policy agenda in the next race for the White House.
The Service Employees International Union is shopping legislation that would create industrywide collective bargaining and establish wage boards to set basic standards in traditionally low-paying jobs like those in fast food and retail, sources familiar with the situation tell Bloomberg Law.
A handful of Democrats said to be considering a presidential run in 2020—including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.)—are so far reluctant to get behind the proposal, in part because of concerns from the AFL-CIO, the sources said.
The 12.5-million-member umbrella labor organization and some of its members say the proposal would give too much control to whoever is in the Oval Office. That’s because it would authorize the labor secretary to impanel the boards and oversee the bargaining. They’re also worried that a separate provision, that would give cities and states more leeway to make their own labor-relations laws, could backfire.
“Our attitude is we need to think expansively about labor laws, but we have to be certain bills are drafted in a way to advance worker bargaining power,” Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO government affairs director, told Bloomberg Law. Samuel added that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has discussed the SEIU’s proposals with that union’s president, Mary Kay Henry, and that the two “have a good relationship.”
The SEIU has pitched the proposal as a bold new approach to labor policy that could help Democratic presidential candidates create a wedge with President Donald Trump and attract working class voters. In the meantime, it’s shaping discussions on Capitol Hill about how Democrats might approach labor policy if they win back one or both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections.
“SEIU is always ready to explore ways to both strengthen collective bargaining and the existing pathways for people to join together in unions, and new ways to give working people more power,” SEIU spokeswoman Sara Lonardo told Bloomberg Law via e-mail.
The labor groups have bristled at times in the 13 years since the SEIU and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters left the AFL-CIO.
Both unions endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in her failed 2016 bid for the White House. They also backed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in an unsuccessful run to lead the Democratic National Committee after Trump took office, a move that seemed to signal support for a more progressive agenda.
A Gillibrand spokeswoman said the senator’s staff “hasn’t seen the final bill.” Representatives for Warren, Booker, and Harris didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.
Wage boards and sectorwide bargaining have been getting increasing attention from left-leaning groups like the Center for American Progress and the SEIU. The union’s proposal would create panels of worker, business, and government representatives to set mandatory pay rates across the board in certain industries.
“We should give the United States secretary of labor—in another administration—the authority to issue workplace standards orders that would standardize minimum wages, benefits powers across industries or occupations,” Henry said at a March event in Washington, D.C.. “These workplace standards orders should be based on recommendations from panels that are made up of workers and employers and community partners.”
Supporters say the boards would increase pay in an era in which the job market is tightening but wages have stayed flat. The number of workers seeking weekly unemployment benefits recently sank to the lowest level in nearly five decades. Workers’ average hourly earnings declined slightly over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wage boards—similar to those in place for certain workers in New York and Seattle—would offer workers a seat at the table that many don’t currently have, thanks to slumping unionization rates in the private sector.
David Madland, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says higher labor costs for unionized businesses gives employers an incentive to fight worker organizing.
“In order to have any credibility in future elections, a candidate will need to have a real solution to the wage crisis,” Madland told Bloomberg Law. “There are other things you can do—promoting full employment, raising the minimum wage—but those don’t have the same impact as sectoral bargaining.”
AFL-CIO officials and others are concerned that the wage boards could do more harm than good during Republican administrations by lowering standards. They’re also not keen about involving the government in bargaining negotiations in auto and other manufacturing industries where unions and employers already have long-term relationships.
“We want to first do no harm and we don’t want to undermine workers’ existing rights,” Samuel said.
The SEIU has been actively seeking to organize workers in fast-food, home health-care and other low-paying industries where labor organizations have less of a foothold. That includes by supporting Fight for $15, an advocacy group pushing to raise pay rates for traditionally low-wage jobs.
Another SEIU proposal would amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow cities and states to enhance certain protections for workers. That would smooth the path for a controversial Seattle ordinance allowing Uber and Lyft drivers not covered by the NLRA to unionize. But skeptics in the labor community are concerned that it would give Republican statehouses the chance to restrict worker rights.
The AFL-CIO and SEIU are among a wide range of unions already backing another ambitious measure (H.R. 6080, S. 3064), introduced in June.
The legislation would expand workers’ right to strike, undo a U. S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory “fair share fees” from nonunion members in the public sector, and require a wide range of companies to bargain with workers in staffing, franchise, and other contractual relationships. It would also widen the pool of workers classified as “employees” covered by federal labor law and give those workers the right to sue businesses for labor violations instead of going through the National Labor Relations Board.
The measure, which has 67 Democratic sponsors in the House and 34 in the Senate, was effectively dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress. But it may be the basis of a liberal labor policy if Democrats win back control of one or both chambers in November, which union officials said is their primary immediate goal.
“There’s already a bold, far-reaching bill in Congress,” Samuel told Bloomberg Law.
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