Clean Slate for Worker Power: How labor law should work
Michelle Rose | Guest writer
Hard-working Ohioans – and all Americans – deserve to stand on equal footing with their employers, to be paid a fair return on their work, and to be treated with dignity.
If you’re reading the Policy Matters Ohio blog, then you’re probably already aware that a small group of people hold more than their share of political and economic power. That group often uses their influence to profit by holding down working people’s wages and cutting corners on workplace safety. The consequences play out daily in the halls of power, in our communities, and our workplaces. Policymakers’ responses to COVID-19 have highlighted and exacerbated this imbalance. We are constantly learning new information about the disproportionate impacts of this virus on women and people of color.
The laws on the books don’t address the changing nature of work, leaving many people, especially so-called “essential workers” at risk. Union and non-union workers in health care, food supply, and public safety aren’t able to effectively leverage existing labor law to protect themselves. Too many employers pay people too little for work. Some politicians and the corporations that sponsor them have created a system of labor laws that encourages indignity, tolerates injustice and ignores criminality. That system needs an overhaul. Tinkering at the edges won’t cut it. As we face a pandemic, a recession, and a long-due reckoning with our nation’s history of racial injustice, we must come together to build a future in which everyone can thrive—no exceptions.
Labor activists, lawyers, academics, and policymakers have developed the Clean Slate for Worker Power framework, a wholesale redesign of federal labor law offered by the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program. The report includes concrete recommendations for bold, creative change, describing a clear path toward a more fair system. Recommendations include:
- Extended coverage of employment law and rights to people doing domestic and agricultural work, people who are undocumented or incarcerated, and people with disabilities.
- A modern definition of, and coverage for, independent contractors.
- Worker representation on corporate boards.
- Pathways to collective power strong enough to check corporate power.
- A universal system of representation in which every working person has a voice.
- A range of representational structures with graduated rights, starting with Workplace Monitors and Employee Committees/Works Councils.
- Sectoral / industry-wide bargaining.
- Organizing free from the interference of employers.
- Protection of, and support for, many forms of collective advocacy actions, including strikes.
- An expanded range of collective bargaining subjects.
The Clean Slate for Worker Power framework is a long-term vision for how labor law should work. It can also drive immediate action. For example, Cleveland can establish a desperately needed workers’ center. It’s actually stunning that we don’t already have one. Workers’ centers in many American cities are powerful tools for workers. They are a way and place for workers to gather, get legal assistance with workplace-related issues, and yes, organize. Creating one in Cleveland would help working people understand and exercise their rights. Even under current law, that would make a huge difference. The sooner we get started, the sooner Cleveland’s working people will have better job access, higher wages, safer workplaces and greater equity at work.
I am grateful to be involved in the efforts coordinated by Policy Matters Ohio, local labor unions, and activists in northeast Ohio to establish Cleveland’s first workers’ center. I am also grateful that the Clean Slate report includes ideas that would help dismantle systemic racial and gender oppression. Perhaps the only benefit of being so delayed in creating a workers’ center in greater Cleveland is that we can now build on the lessons learned from workers’ centers across the nation, and establish one designed to center equity and truly meet the needs of today’s working people. A fresh, clean slate, if you will, to create a modern resource for an ever-changing workforce.
Michelle Rose is a workforce and policy consultant, and an alumnus of the Obama Labor Department. She was born, raised, and educated in Ohio and is now an enthusiastic NEO boomeranger.
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