Sanders Introduces Legislation to End State 'Right-to-Work' Laws

Bill would strengthen the power of organized labor

Sen. Bernie Sanders / Getty
May 10, 2018

Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) filed legislation Wednesday that would significantly strengthen the power of organized labor.

Sanders, along with senators Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), among others, introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize and enter into contractual negotiations with employers.

The legislation comes at a time when the number of unionized workers in the American economy is at an all-time low. Fueled in part by the rise of globalization and technological advancement, labor membership has steadily declined from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent at the end of 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sanders's bill seeks to reverse the course by scrapping current procedures in place governing the establishment of a union. Presently, 30 percent of an organization's employees must sign a petition requesting the formal creation of a union. The National Labor Relations Board then administers an election of all eligible employees to ensure that there is significant support for unionization. An employer can also choose to recognize a union provided there is sufficient evidence, usually in the form of union authorization cards, showing a majority of employers want to be represented.

If the bill was to become law, the NLRB election would be phased out in favor of a system where if a majority of workers signed up to be represented by a union, the NLRB would certify and recognize its existence.

Other aspects of the legislation would require employers to commence negotiations with a new union within 10 days of receiving a request to form a "first contract." The bill would establish a 90-day negotiation deadline before the parties could request "compulsory mediation." If that proves unsuccessful after 30 days, the parties would "have a contract settlement through binding arbitration."

The bill would also expand the definition of "employer" and "employee" to include independent contractors.

The most controversial provision of the legislation is also the newest. Tucked away in the 12-page bill is language that would repeal a portion of the National Labor Relations Act allowing states to enact "right-to-work" laws. Such laws prevent unions from mandating membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment.

Since 1947, 28 states have opted to codify right-to-work provisions into law, arguing that compulsory unionization violates the constitutional right of freedom of association and limits economic competition.

Right-to-work laws have long drawn rebuke from liberals, who claim that allowing individual employees the choice of whether to join a union or not only serves to weaken the stance from which workers negotiate with management.

In a statement announcing the legislation, Sanders declared it was no longer tolerable for "CEOs and managers" to "intimidate" workers from joining or forming unions. Sanders also asserted that the only way to reduce income inequality in America was by ensuring the proliferation of more "union jobs."

"We must no longer tolerate CEOs and managers who intimidate, threaten, or fire pro-union workers, who threaten to move plants to China if their workers vote in favor of a union, and who refuse to negotiate a first contract with workers who have voted to join unions," Sanders said. "If we are serious about reducing income and wealth inequality and rebuilding the middle class, we have got to substantially increase the number of union jobs in this country."

Sanders has introduced similar legislation in the past, although never with the provision preempting states from passing their own right-to-work laws.

It is unclear why Sanders and his Democratic colleagues in Congress believe now is the correct time to repeal right-to-work laws. In April, the national unemployment rate fell below four percent, hitting a 19-year low. Furthermore, economic data has shown that wage growth is climbing at a faster rate than at any time since 2009.

The self-described Democratic socialist has long enjoyed strong backing from big labor. Between 1989 and 2018, organized labor has constituted nearly 70 percent of all political action committee contributions accepted by Sanders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Labor was also pivotal in underwriting Sanders's failed 2016 presidential campaign, providing the candidate with high-profile endorsements, volunteers, and monetary donations.

Sanders's office did not return requests for comment on this story.

Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, expressed that the legislation only served to emphasize how the objectives of organized labor differ from those of the average worker.

"This bill is a vivid reminder that the ultimate goal of Big Labor and its allies in Congress is an America where every worker must pay tribute to a union official in order to make a living," Semmens said. "The proposed legislation contains virtually every bad legislative idea union bosses have proposed in the past century."

Semmens also said that while Sanders and other proponents claim the legislation is about protecting worker interests, in reality, it only serves to strengthen the power of union bosses over "independent workers."

"Not only would it wipe out 28 state right-to-work laws that protect workers from being forced to fund a labor union they oppose, it also would replace the secret ballot vote for unionization elections with coercive card-check campaigns, where union organizers can harass and intimidate workers until they sign cards that are then counted as 'votes' for unionization," Semmens added. "The bill is simply about union boss power over independent workers and forcing those workers to subsidize Big Labor, which spent over $1.7 billion on politics and lobbying just during the last election cycle."