This Labor Day, fight for the rights of American workers

This Labor Day, fight for the rights of American workers
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For four decades, economic inequality has been on the rise. As productivity increases and the overall economy grows richer and richer, the wages of ordinary Americans have been stagnant.

Those economic gains have been captured by those at the top — particularly the top 1 percent of earners, who in 2015 brought home 26.3 times as much as the bottom 99 percent.

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This period of wage stagnation and rising inequality was not an accident. Since the 1970s, policymakers at every level have allowed crucial labor standards like the minimum wage and the overtime threshold to erode.

They have passed laws like so-called “right-to-work” that actively chipped away at workers’ ability to unionize and bargain for wage increases.

They have failed to counteract increasingly aggressive efforts by employers to fight union organizing and extract bargaining power from workers through practices like requiring workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements and noncompete agreements.

The result is that the rules governing work in this country are rigged against working people from their first day on the job.

The strongest bulwark against eroding labor standards and employers’ abuse of power is unionization. Strong unions improve the wages and working conditions of all working people ― union and non-union alike, as collective bargaining sets a standard that all employers must take into account when trying to attract the workers they need.

It’s no surprise then that a recent Gallup poll reports that support for labor unions is at a 15-year high, and that more people want union strength to grow rather than shrink. Nor should we be surprised that voters in Missouri overwhelming rejected a right-to-work law, which would have weakened unions and undercut workers’ wages.

However, as of 2017, only 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers were union members. This disconnect is the result of decades of fierce opposition to unions, with employers exploiting loopholes in outdated labor law to defeat workers’ organizing efforts while corporate lobbyists block attempts at reform.

It’s time for policymakers to stand up for working people, restoring the rights that have been chipped away at for the past four decades and instituting new ones to adapt to the changing nature of work.

To begin with, we must ensure that workers can join together to improve their wages and working conditions, free from employer intimidation or retaliation.

This means instituting meaningful penalties against employers who illegally interfere with workers forming a union and prohibiting union-busting practices like making workers attend meetings designed to persuade them against voting in favor of a union.

Given that employers often cause long delays ― sometimes years ― in the collective bargaining process when workers do overcome existing hurdles and successfully vote to form a union, mandatory mediation-and-arbitration processes should be put in place to ensure that when workers join a union they are able to successfully reach a contract.

The law should also prohibit companies from permanently replacing striking workers, and these protections should also be extended to include workers engaged in “secondary strikes” or other protest actions in solidarity with striking workers.

Importantly, we should ban states from enacting so-called right-to-work laws. These laws are designed to undermine the finances of private-sector unions by preventing them from being able to require that non-union bargaining-unit members — people who unions are required by law to represent — pay their fair share of the cost of that representation.

Workers who want a union must be able to effectively finance the organization so that they have a meaningful voice in the workplace.

At the same time, the law must be updated to reflect the changing tactics employers use to strip workers of their rights as a condition of employment. Mandatory arbitration agreements and class-action waivers are increasingly being used to deny working people their day in court.

More than half of private-sector workers are now subject to these agreements, and with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Epic Systems, there’s no question that number will rise.

Similarly, noncompete agreements severely restrict the most important power workers have: the ability to quit and go work somewhere else. Nearly one-in-five U.S. workers is bound by a noncompete agreement, including 14.3 percent of workers without a four-year college degree and 13.5 percent of workers earning less than $40,000 a year.

Congress should act to ban things like mandatory arbitration agreements, class-action waivers, noncompetes and other tactics that employers use to tilt the scales unfairly in their favor.

Inequality is the result of policy choices — either through commission or omission — that have taken bargaining power away from working people and rigged the rules of employment. The good news is that we can make different choices that unrig rules and tilt the scales back towards working people.

It’s time for policymakers to embrace bold labor and employment reforms that will halt and reverse the trends of declining union coverage and rising inequality and ensure fairness on the job from day one.

Heidi Shierholz is the director of policy and senior economist for the Economic Policy Institute. Shierholz served under the Obama administration as the chief economist for the Department of Labor.