The lead-up to 2020 has proven to be a political era of big, bold ideas, not least of which is a new proposal, Unions for All, recently released by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation’s second-largest union. The release of this plan follows in the footsteps of other universally oriented initiatives currently gaining public approval—such as Medicare, jobs, and free/affordable college for all. At a time when union approval has climbed to a near-fifty-year high, SEIU’s expansive vision fits right in. While the initial motivation behind the plan is to increase union membership, its larger ambition extends well beyond the workplace. As SEIU’s president Mary Kay Henry put it, “Unions for All will build the power to win all progressive policies.” The goal is to sustain union’s unique role of bringing together ordinary working people as a collective voice to advocate not only for improved workplace conditions, but also for a society built on the needs of everyday Americans

At the release event in Milwaukee, Henry talked about the many ways that precarity and economic insecurity have become the norm for working people: difficulty finding a stable job, needing to work multiple jobs to get by, and fears such as the inability to afford care after a major medical diagnosis. 

But she also talked about the many ways in which, recently, workers have stepped up to use collective action to demand a change. With the support of unions, she said, workers have joined together to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union, and in many cases, working people have won: dozens of cities and states across the country now have a $15 minimum wage written into law, and the House of Representatives this year passed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to the same level. Nearly half a million workers engaged in work stoppages in 2018, including historic grassroots teacher walkouts that unlocked major increases in school funding and teacher’s wages in states where they did not have the legal right to bargain. These workers did not wait for labor law to change before taking action, but rather took to the streets to remind America of the power of worker’s collective action as a force for change, setting the stage for this year’s bold set of labor policy proposals. 

The point that Henry is making—that workers can gain better wages and working conditions, but only if they fight for them—is not a new one. In the post World War II period, workers had power to bargain for fair working conditions and wage increases, and wages went up in lock step with productivity. And unions and progressive economist allies have long pointed out that workers in unions today still have better wages and benefits than nonunion workers. What’s changed is that, after a ten-year-long economic expansion failed to address growing inequality between the top 1 percent and the rest of working America, there’s a far more widespread recognition that it is the decline in workers’ power that is primarily to blame, rather than technology, globalization, or the lack of workers’ skills. And so, the SEIU Unions for All plan seeks not only to build union strength and membership, but also envisions a nation that puts workers into the center of economic policy. As articulated by Henry, the plan would do so through four primary components:

  1. A push for sectoral bargaining. Currently in the United States, each unionized workplace negotiates a contract setting provisions only for the workers in that individual location or company. Companies frequently launch anti-union misinformation campaigns and fire workers that want to unionize—a dynamic that has contributed to the steady erosion of union membership. Sectoral bargaining (which is the dominant system in Norway, Sweden, and many other countries) instead comprises a more universal system of bargaining. As the name implies, key labor provisions would be negotiated by sector, by convening workers, company representatives, and legislators to set industry-wide standards. Some of the push for sectoral bargaining has already begun. In New York, for example, after the fast food workers went on strike demanding $15 minimum wage and union, the governor convened a wage board, with workers, industry representatives, and public officials, to figure out how to ensure dignity for fast food workers in their state—resulting in a $15 minimum wage for workers in the fast food sector, well before it became the law of the state. Nationally, moving to sectoral bargaining would require the federal government to set up the equivalent of wage boards to determine wages and standards for each industry. While the SEIU has not yet outlined the mechanics of building sectoral bargaining, others, like Center for American Progress’s David Madland, have proposed that wage boards include employers, workers, and the public, and that they be organized for each industry by the Department of Labor, with an option for state-level boards to add on to federally determined standards.
  2. Making federal labor law a floor, not a ceiling. The SEIU believes that the NLRA is outdated, and is in many cases exclusionary, as it is often used not to enable workers, but rather to hold them workers back, especially in “right-to-work” states. “The very laws that were written to make it easier for workers to come together to join a union are so very broken,” Henry said. While Henry (and other labor allies) recognize the need to reform the parts of the NLRA that kneecap its effectiveness, there’s also a recognition of the need to go beyond its constraints to protect and support workers. Cities and states therefore should seek to innovate and create labor policies that are more comprehensive and wider-reaching than the federal law guarantees. One example would be for states to allow freelancers—technically self-employed and ineligible for union rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—to join together in unions under state law.
  3. Using every public dollar to support good union jobs. Government grants and tax subsidies comprise a sizable portion of federal government spending, but there are few guarantees that such spending supports good jobs with acceptable workplace conditions. The SEIU believes that federal government spending power should be used to ensure that all federally contracted workers have a $15 minimum wage and a union, and that any employer benefiting from taxpayer dollars should adhere to high labor standards. Henry envisions adding new job standards requirements into the contracts of those receiving federal funds. “When we fight to expand Medicare and Medicaid,” she said, “we need every [public] health care worker to have a good union job. Every budget proposal should be judged based on whether it builds power for working people.”
  4. Building worker power into all new progressive policy ideas. Henry took a bold step in declaring that good union jobs should be not only the focus of individual federal grants, but also a central provision of any new policy effort to fix the economy. Every progressive policy, she argued, should pursue the goals of Unions for All: the Green New Deal should include unions for all green workers; college for all should mean a union for all faculty; Medicare for all should mean a union for all healthcare workers. Beyond adding language in existing federal contracts, Henry calls on all presidential candidates to put SEIU’s Unions for All proposal at the heart of their platforms and major policies to come. In other words, the rebirth of unions can come from policy makers baking fairness and equity for all workers into all aspects of social policy making.  

SEIU’s Unions for All is not the only vision for a stronger future for unions. More ideas are similarly presented in the bold plan supported by the AFL-CIO and introduced in Congress as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). The proposal, which currently has over 190 House cosponsors, includes card check provisions that were the heart of the last push for labor law reform in 2009, but also a much broader set of actions, such as establishing the right to organize as a civil right (making punitive anti-union actions in the workplace akin to racial or sex discrimination), protecting the ability of workers to strike and enlist allies in targeting union busting employers, banning anti-union state “right to work” laws, while establishing new rules that would stop companies denying workers rights by misclassifying them as independent contractors. 

The level of ambition of today’s union movement has been well received. So far, two presidential candidates—Senator Bernie Sanders (with his own plan to double union membership), and Mayor Pete Buttigeig—have endorsed Unions for All. They and a number of other candidates have included elements of it to other presidential platforms as well. Beto O’Rourke’s labor plan endorsed the PRO Act, and also supported national wage boards, a key component of sectoral bargaining. Jay Inslee, who recently dropped out of the presidential race to campaign for re-election for governor of Washington State, put unions at the center of his Evergreen Economy Plan to boost clean energy. Senator Elizabeth Warren has, in the past, introduced legislation to ban anti-union “right to work” laws, and her fair trade plan recognizes the need for stronger global labor rights. Former Vice President Biden has deemed himself “a union man” when he announced his candidacy, but has yet to release a plan to support union workers. And Senator Kamala Harris is a lead sponsor on the comprehensive Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, which would provide rights, including the right to unionize, to workers typically excluded from federal and state labor law. 

Unions for All sets a gold standard for a policy vision to address workers’ rights, while conceiving of ways support for strong union jobs could be integrated into other popular policy platforms. Boosting union membership and building worker power has been on the agenda for progressives for a long time, and failing to deliver has had seismic consequences for our democracy and economy. Thinking creatively—and strategically—about how to create much needed change in workplace policy and law can go a long way to reverse this trend, and potentially amplify workers’ voices in support of other progressive policy ideas as well. As momentum builds, is it possible that 2020 will be the year of Unions for All?

cover photo: Union activists and supporters rally in New York City. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images