A Surprising Solution to Save American Democracy | Opinion

Running throughout the Democratic presidential debates has been a consistent theme: We are living in an era of deep economic and political inequality, and these dual crises now threaten to undermine our democracy.

What does economic inequality look like today? Well, it would take an average Amazon worker 3.8 million years, working full time, to earn what CEO Jeff Bezos now possesses. And the country's wealthiest 20 people own more wealth than half of the nation combined—20 people with more wealth than 152 million others.

On the political front, the facts are just as stark. Political scientists increasingly believe that our government no longer responds to the views of anyone but the wealthy.

Of course, these forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing: As economic wealth gets more concentrated, the wealthy build greater and greater political power that they, in turn, translate into favorable policies that lead to even more profound concentrations of wealth. And on and on.

This campaign season, the focus has been on a set of competing policy responses to these crises—health care reform, tax reform and education reform. But we think that there's a more important solution. A better way to break the cycle of economic and political inequality. That solution is labor law. That's because labor law is what enables workers—also known as the vast majority of Americans—to build economic and political power that can countervail the power of the wealthy.

Indeed, we know from history that when workers come together and collectively build organizations that are capable of countervailing the power of the wealthy and the power of corporations, the outcomes are profound. A large part of the explanation for our current crisis of economic inequality is the decline of the labor movement. Unions redistribute wealth—from capital to labor, from rich to poor—and without unions, we have lacked for a check on economic concentration.

The decline of the labor movement also explains much of the current crisis of political inequality. When unions were strong, they helped ensure that the government was responsive to the needs and desires of the poor and middle class; without unions, these millions of lower-income Americans have lost their most effective voice in our democracy. As Dolores Huerta, leader of the farmworkers historic organizing effort, put it, "Organized labor is a necessary part of democracy, [because] organized labor is the only way to have fair distribution of wealth."

The question, however, is not how to restore the economy and the politics of the past. Nor is it how to restore the labor movement of its heyday. These cannot be the questions because although American democracy and the American economy were more responsive and more inclusive in the 1950s and 1960s, they were still profoundly exclusionary. Across our entire history, access to economic and political power has been unforgivably shaped by racial and gender discrimination, by discrimination based on immigration status, by sexual orientation and identity discrimination and by ableism.

What we need, then, is a new labor law that is capable of empowering all workers to demand a truly equitable American democracy and economy. That's why over the past 18 months academics, advocates, union leaders and activists have come together to produce recommendations for a comprehensive rewrite of American labor law. This effort, called "Clean Slate for Worker Power," has sought to answer the question: What would labor law look like if, starting from a clean slate, it was designed to empower working people to build an equitable economy and politics?

Our answer to this question comes in the form of a detailed set of policy recommendations that would transform how workers organize and exercise power. But the key to all of our recommendations is that the law must enable workers to countervail corporate power wherever corporate power impacts workers' lives.

This means a labor law that equips workers to build and exercise power not just at the level of the individual workplace, but also across enterprises and industries, in the corporate board room and in our political democracy. The pathways to building such power, moreover, must be universal so no workers are left behind, which means that labor law reform must start by reversing decades-old exclusions that have a disproportionate effect on women and workers of color.

The biggest change we propose would be for labor law to allow workers to build power and engage in collective bargaining across entire industries, not just with individual firms. This requires us to create a sectoral bargaining system where agreements cover all employers and all workers in a sector—for example, bargaining between unions and the fast-food industry rather than bargaining between a union and a single McDonald's franchise.

Through sectoral bargaining, labor law can take wages out of competition, relieving the downward pressure on pay that has so greatly contributed to the increase in income inequality. It would also reduce the incentives that firms now feel to fight unionization, and it would solve the puzzle—which plagues multiple industries and the gig economy—of who qualifies as an "employee." Since all workers would be covered by sectoral agreements, it would no longer matter very much who is an employee and who is not.

Labor protest rally
The labor union Unite Here holds a rally for American Airlines food caterers on November 26, 2019, at Terminal 8 at JFK Airport in the Queens borough of New York City. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty

Beyond sectoral bargaining, we also recommend giving workers multiple forms of workplace representation, including members-only unions and works councils. These structures, common in other advanced capitalist economies, facilitate both information sharing between workers and managers and can be a first step toward building the kind of strong unions required by a functioning sectoral bargaining system.

To ensure that workers are secure enough to take advantage of these new opportunities, moreover, we recommend that all workers in the United States be entitled to just-cause protection from discharge. And we argue that labor law needs to give workers a voice in the issues beyond wages and working conditions that are important to them and their communities, including employers' impact on the environment.

Fundamentally redesigning our labor laws, rather than pursuing incremental reforms to our current laws, would provide the foundation for building powerful organizations for working people. At a time when the foundations of our democracy are being questioned, the project of creating a widespread system of workplace democracy is urgent.

Sharon Block is the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Clean Slate for Worker Power project. Prior to coming to Harvard in 2016, she was the head of the Policy Office at the U.S. Department of Labor and senior counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

Benjamin Sachs is the Kestnbaum professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School and a leading expert in the field of labor law and labor relations. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2008, he was the Joseph Goldstein fellow at Yale Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.